Monday, December 31, 2012

Where I Have Been: 2012

The last day of the year is as good a time as any to take stock of where I've been. The past year brought challenges--loss of our spiritual community, an over-demanding day job, adjustment to life without the presence of people we loved--as well as rewards, including healthy and happy children, a beautiful home and garden, good friends, weddings and other celebrations, and adventures with family and friends. The year also brought a bit more (and much-needed) diversity to my life.

Hitting the half-centennial mark this year brought several realizations: time on the planet is short; there is no need to rush; small items carry more weight than large. I've tried to take a slower approach to most facets of my life, including writing. My yoga practice has helped in this regard, helping me become more mindful of the instant, and of those around me. But those of you who know me know I have a difficult time staying put, not pushing on to the next 'to-do'; learning to linger is my continuing challenge.

The year in review:

Family: My children are finding their niches, and I am thrilled they find themselves creators: of art, of music, of small bits of beauty. They became more resourceful this year, and independent. My husband also found time to garden, to explore new religious and spiritual practices, to think outside the box. We saw grandmothers, nearly every aunt and uncle, cousins--some several times over. We visited alpaca farms, bowling alleys, home-made ice cream stores, beaches, flea markets and yard sales, and much, much more. We are blessed.

Friends: When my husband lost his church, we lost our built-in community. It has taken some time to rebuild, to find new ways to connect with those I knew in the church context, as well as to develop new friendships outside of a spiritual home. A small group meets monthly to w(h)ine; other friends come from my writing spheres and work. And of course, there are my cyber friends, some of whom I met in person. For all of you, I am grateful.

Work: I am fortunate to work with an amazing team of students, post-doctoral fellows, and staff on two projects with clinical and policy importance: antipsychotic use in nursing home residents, and reporting state-wide use and consequences of alcohol and drugs. But in 2012, work remained the one area that overtook my time; like kudzu, it is difficult to trim back. While grateful for my job, a goal for the upcoming year will be to better manage the expectations of work with the rest of my life. 

Writing: I'd like to think this year focused on quality over quantity. Being a part-time MA student ate into my available writing time, even though the classes themselves produced a lot of knowledge and a lot of words. To quantify: 2 blogs; 265 blog posts; ~60,000 words on THE MINISTER'S WIFE; 39 poems; one proper short story; a dozen micro-fictions; countless revisions of older stories. 

This past year, 16 stories or poems were published (5 in print), netting me $75 and a Pushcart nomination (for COCHINOS, found in the summer issue of MiCrow). I thank the editors of Smokelong Quarterly, Pure Slush, Right Hand Pointing, Microw, Scissors and Spackle, Blue Five Notebook, A Baker's Dozen, The River Poet's Journal, Metro Fiction, and Press 53 for finding merit in my words. Also, thanks to Robert Brewer for selecting a poem for the 2013 Poet's Market, out this past September. Two stories found their way into books: LUCKY in Gorge, a novel in linked stories (Pure Slush Press), and WHITE in the Best of Friday Flash II anthology.

Every morning I try to remember what a gift it is to do just that: wake up. Every breath is a blessing.

And you? Where did you go this past year?


Monday, December 24, 2012

The Loneliest Tree

Once upon a time, high on a golden hill, lived the smallest fir tree. His older brothers and sisters often sent him special gifts: a spider trailing on a silken thread, milkweed spores drifting on a summer breeze, soft pollen that painted him yellow. These presents made the littlest fir tree tremble with joy. But when the spider lifted away, the downy milkweed fluttered to the field, and the wind dusted off the pollen, the littlest fir tree was lonelier than ever.

One Spring day, a wren chose to nest in the smallest fir tree. Mornings, the baby birds chortled as their mother searched for grubs and worms. One afternoon, as the littlest fir tree and the baby wrens drowsed in the wan sun, the wren squawked loudly, rousting her family from the tree. A man and a boy, both clad in overalls, walked through the orchard, throwing fertilizer around the firs.

"There, there.” The boy tossed pellets under the littlest fir tree’s boughs. “Grow strong and healthy and green.”

He squinted up at the nest perched in the littlest tree, his Red Sox cap on backwards. His fingers stroked the needles and the tree shivered.

"So soft, papa,” the boy said. “Like a kitten’s tail.”

"Yup,” said the man. “He’s the youngun here – just like you.”

That summer, the wind smelled of sweet hay. Buzzing bees filled the air with song. The farmer and his son came to the hill almost every day, watering the trees when the sun withered their needles. The boy panted and groaned as he hauled the full pails up the hill, but he always watered the littlest fir tree. Afterwards, he collapsed in the cool shade cast by the littlest fir tree and told stories about the puffy cloud creatures scudding across the sky.

One morning, the farmer came with a machine that whirred and twirled. The smallest fir tree watched the farmer trim his brothers and sisters into triangle shapes. The other trees danced in the breeze, happy with their new look, but the buzzing tool scared the smallest fir tree.

“This won’t hurt,” the boy said.

And it didn’t, the tool tickled. The fir tree shivered with delight.

The leaves of the forest Maples flamed red. Shadows stretched long across the meadow. The man came to the orchard, but always alone; the littlest fir tree missed the boy’s visits. On the first hard frost, the hill sparkled with diamonds. The man walked the orchard, still alone, pulling long red and white and yellow ribbons from a leather bag slung over his shoulder. He tied a ribbon on each tree and soon, the ribbons fluttered like flags in the brisk autumnal air. The littlest fir tree wondered what color ribbon the farmer would tie on him. But when the man reached the hilltop, he paused before the littlest tree and sighed a deep sigh, then walked back down the hill.

The sun dropped behind the forest ridge. The fir tree shivered, sending needles to the ground.

The ground rumbled. Cars and trucks filled the bottom field. Shouts of children filled the air.

“There! This tree!”

“No, this one!”

The children swarmed around the small fir tree, sometimes even saying “This one!”

But the fathers said, “This tree is too puny. Besides, it has no ribbon,” and strode past, saws and axes thrown over their shoulders. The littlest fir tree trembled as his brothers and sisters groaned and fell to the ground.

Snow dusted the stump-stubbled hill. Without the protection of his brothers and sisters, the northeast gusted hard and cold, coating the trembling fir tree in ice. The mockingbird trilled as the wagon, pulled by the man, bumped and creaked up the hill. When the man reached the top, he pulled off his wool hat and wiped his sweat-shined forehead. In the wagon, the bundle of blankets moved; the small boy, pale and drawn, poked out his head. He smiled at the littlest tree, but the smile seemed as big an effort as lugging pails of water.

"This one?” the man asked the boy. “You’re sure?”

The little boy nodded and closed his eyes. The man gazed at the boy for a long moment, then turned away, a tear frozen on his cheek.

The fir tree looked down the hill at the stumps of his family one last time. Then he pulled his limbs tight and waited for the axe’s blow. But the man plunged a shovel into the frozen earth. He chipped a circle, deeper and deeper, around the tree, loosening the dirt around the fir tree’s roots.

The man pulled the tree tight to his chest; more than anything, the littlest tree wanted to stay in his embrace. But the man tugged hard, yanking the tree from the cold ground. The boy clapped his hands, his laugh sounded like birdsong.

“Your little tree will grow strong in the front yard,” the man said. “There, we can see him from the kitchen.”

"And I can visit him in the spring?” the boy whispered.

"Yes.” The man wiped at his shiny cheek. “Yes, you can.”

The man wrapped the trembling tree in burlap and nestled him in the wagon beside the boy. The boy snuggled into the littlest fir tree all the way down the hill and across the bumpy field. When the wagon stopped, the farmer unfurled the littlest fir tree from the cloth and propped him in a large hole. Shovels of dirt and snow covered his roots. The boy clambered from the wagon, falling twice in the deep snow. When he hugged the littlest fir tree, icicles tinkled to the ground.


May your winter nights be full of talk, of laughter, warmth and love. May you never be lonely.

Merry Christmas.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Last Minute Stocking Stuffers: #bestreads2012

Christmas is coming, and it's coming fast. My top 5 book recommendations to fill your favorite reader's--or writer's--stocking.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Jonathan Evison): One of my favorite books of the year, when a stay-at-home dad loses his reason to stay at home, he finds work taking care of a disabled young man. A road story, a love story, a coming-of-age story, Revised Fundamentals hits every emotional peak, and then some. I covered Evison's recent visit to Baltimore's Book Festival HERE.

City of Thieves (David Benioff): A love story of sorts between two unlikely young men who become best of friends. Leningrad is under seige by the Germans, and a Russian soldier AWOL and a literary kid caught stealing from a dead German are tasked with procuring a dozen eggs for a high-ranking officer's daughter's wedding--or face execution.

Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann): I read this book every year and always find more to marvel at McCann's mastery. The thread of a tightrope walker balancing between the World Trade Towers in the 1970s makes the present that much palpable and poignant.

The Meadow (James Galvin): A poetic transport to the meadows and mountains of the American West. Non-fiction that reads like the finest fiction.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Ben Loory): A fabulous short story collection with Carver-esque prose and unpredictable plots. For writers wanting to study the opening line 'hook', read no farther.

And a couple of other short but not necessarily sweet offerings:

Conversations with S.Teri O'Type (Christopher Allen): Goofy, high-camp, and amazingly good fun from one of the most promising emerging writers.

Shortly Thereafter (Colin D. Halloran): Heart-stopping poems about war written by a soldier-poet stationed in Afghanistan.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

April Poem-A-Day Challenge

So happy to place in this year's April Poem-a-Day Challenge. Hosted by Robert Brewer over at Writer's Digest, the April PAD brings poets from all over the world together as they craft a daily poem in response to a prompt. It's a crazy month, but one of my happiest--what better way to celebrate spring than to dedicate a day in one month to crafting a poem?

My poem let's drive north can be found in the comments on Robert's blog. Take time to enjoy the others as well. Peace...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Working the Shop

Now that class is over, I can finally write.

You would think that a semester-long class focused on writing and critiquing original fiction by students would serve as a catalyst to writing.

Think again.

You hear horror stories of workshops which end up in complete disaster: of writers' egos bruised to shiny purple; of over-bearing professors; of the one student who manages to be the professor's darling; of the workshop hog; of workshops run amok.

This class contained elements of these horrors. At least I have a thick skin. At least I have workshopped before and have a barometer of my writing strengths--and weaknesses.

So now, I am free. I can get down to the real business of writing, of writing unencumbered with doubt. Now I can polish my stories and shop my work.


Sunday, December 09, 2012

Open Letter to Duotrope

My dearest Duie,

Why? Why, after all these years of a mutually engaging affair, are you leaving me? Why, oh why, are you requiring payment, and $50 at that? I've given you gifts, parted with my precious bling.

Fifty big ones is a lot of dough, Duie. Especially for us writers. This past year alone my writing income included $25 for a flash piece and $50 for a poem. And this was a good year.

Sure, you are the dope! You provide us with lots of good stuff on paying and non-paying markets, ideas for similar markets. You let us track our submissions. But what is sexiest about you, Duie, are your stats. You know, the journal's percent of acceptances and rejections, wait times, all those glorious numbers which feed my day job heart.

Duie, I love your stats. I would happily contribute the $50 required to see your stats if I felt assured the rest of your clients will. But I sense a lot of writers aren't going to belly up on January 1, 2013 when your new rate goes into effect, including a lot of us faithful who have provided for your upkeep over the years. And what use will those stats be then?

Yeah, there's other joints to hang out, like New Pages. And I've gotten handy with excel for my submissions. But it won't be the same.

I'm gonna miss you, Duie. At least I've been faithful all this time, tossing you a twenty or more every year. It sure does suck the leeches made it all come to this. But before you go, thanks for the good times. Thanks for championing my successes, consoling me when rejected, providing new havens for my words. Like i said, I'm gonna miss you.

But I can't afford you anymore.


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

What's In a Name?

I think often of my father these days, the grantor of my maiden name, more so than the year after he died. The space and time, I think, have allowed me to remember him as he lived rather than how he died. Inside of me, there’s been a thrumming, a restlessness, to return to what cannot be returned, so I look for him in science and images and words, as well as in those left behind.

As I proceed through the hump of midlife, I ache to know and understand my ancestors. I find myself crawling the internet for clues. Growing up, my last name was a rarity, a funny assemblage of letters few could pronounce. As a family we traveled a lot, and I remember never seeing our surname in phone books. Besides my small New England family comprised of a great-grandmother (Mumu), grandparents, and aunts, uncles, and cousins, we were alone, at least in the United States. 

Near the upper reaches before the Arctic circle, we were more, our name in its Finnish form in phone books. Then, the internet expanded the world, and I find us taking up space in google: a film maker in Canada; a Lieutenant Colonel in California; a physician scientist; and many others. Recently, while in San Diego, I remembered there are people who may--or may not--be related to me by blood who lived in that part of the world. In a way, knowing this made the sprawling city feel smaller. We aren't so numerous as, say, Smiths or Taylors or Changs, but we aren't quite so rare, either. 

This brings me some comfort today. 

William Bruce Wastila
April 6, 1938 -- December 4, 2009

I miss you, Dad.