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The Only Constant

field of daisy flowers

Not long ago I saw one of those posts that periodically make their way around social media, asking you to cite your favorite song, or TV show, or book. This one asked for a favorite quote.

Now, one of the things I like best about reading is the way you can suddenly come upon a sentence that makes you pause and say, “This. I feel exactly like this.” The books I own are rife with highlights, underlines, notes in the margins, and circled page numbers indicating I found a treasure there. So, I was ready to jump in. But I don’t actually have one favorite quotation. Instead I keep a collection of them on my laptop in a folder marked “I love this.”

When I looked through the file, I came across a quotation I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It’s from The French Lieutenant’s Woman. A character in the story is strolling through a meadow not far from the sea. His senses are awakened by the sight and scent of a colorful profusion of flowers, the melodious songs of birds, the blue sky above, and by the sunlight playing on the water in the distance. He feels a thrill at the lovely moment, but at the same time he also feels a wave of melancholy. The author describes the sensation this way:

“His statement to himself should have been ‘I possess this now, therefore I am happy,’ instead of what it so Victorianly was: ‘I cannot possess this forever, therefore I am sad.’ ” 

And that is me in a nutshell. I have lots of reasons to be happy, and I am, but that happiness is almost always tempered by the knowledge of and the resistance to the inevitable passing of the moment.

One of my sisters and I had a conversation about whether or not we would take a test that could definitively determine whether or not a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease, knowing that there is no cure at present.

My sister said yes without hesitation—that if she knew Alzheimer’s was inevitable, she’d spend all her money traveling and enjoying life before it was too late. I’d like to think that would be my response as well. But I’m pretty sure that instead of packing my bags, grabbing my passport, and heading for adventures unknown, I would be busy crushing the life out of any joyful experiences under the weight of my knowledge of what was to come. Sadly, I’m pretty much back in the meadow with the Victorian guy in the quote.

Still, I continue to strive to accept that the only constant in life is change. And that it’s not a bad thing, in fact, it’s a necessary thing. That’s why I chose this Chinese proverb as my favorite quote of the moment.

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills.” traditional Netherlands Holland dutch scenery with one typical windmill and tulips, Netherlands countryside

Bob’s your uncle

Silent Fighting

Silent Fighting

Probably all families have a store of catch phrases–familiar “in house” sayings that serve as shorthand for getting a point across, or calling up a common memory.  Some are universal, like “Don’t make me come up there,” or, “Do you want me to stop the car?

But others are particular to an individual family’s experience. My mother would often put an end to a litany of our desires for things that weren’t going to happen– I wish I was an only child; I wish I didn’t have to do the dishes; I wish I had my own room–with the proverb “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” And my siblings and I still say it, with a smile and a silent nod to Mom.

Recently my daughter mentioned that she’d wrapped up an explanation on how to complete a task with the words, “And Bob’s your uncle.” She was met with a puzzled stare. The phrase is old-fashioned British slang, meaning “you’re all set.” It caught my fancy years ago. The first time I said it to my young children, the words sent them into fits of giggles because of our dog, Bob. The thought of dog as uncle was quite hilarious to them (did I say they were quite young?). They  picked up the term and used it, until it became part of our store of particular, and perhaps peculiar, family expressions.

Other adages we use that others probably do not developed out of specific family situations. On an afternoon that had been filled with petty arguments and tears, I sternly told my children that I didn’t want to hear another fight that day. About half an hour later, my youngest daughter, Brenna, wailed in frustration, “Sara is silent fighting with me!”

She then proceeded to demonstrate the loophole her older sister had found in my edict. By mouthing words without sound, accompanied by fierce expressions and menacing hand gestures, Sara proved it was possible to tease and annoy without breaking silence. The phrase “silent fighting” thus came into general family use.

Another go-to family aphorism is the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” It comes from the Herman Melville story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” wherein the title character refuses all requests with that simple, but implacable, response. I had always liked the subtle insubordination of it, and used the decree both in jest and for real, depending on the circumstance. I didn’t realize Brenna had adopted it until at age 5, she answered a request from her teacher with the words, “I would prefer not to.” Which I correctly read as a harbinger of the quiet but steely force of will lurking beneath her blue-eyed, curly-haired angelic demeanor.

In the eighth grade, her older sister Sara made another contribution to the family lexicon, when she chose an ambitious topic for her first research paper, the Watergate scandal, which was akin to ancient history to her. The concluding line of her paper revealed both her boredom with the topic and her hope that an abrupt ending would be attributed to forces beyond her control. “Nobody knows what happened to the Watergate Seven.”

To which I had to answer, “Yes, Sara, yes they do. Quite a few people know exactly what happened to them, and I think you need to find out, too.” She completed her assignment, received a respectable grade, and added another axiom to our family. It’s still our go-to phrase for any half-formed effort or ill-conceived project that dies aborning, as in “Nobody knows what happened to … Susan’s 6 weeks to fitness challenge.”

The language of families is a strange and wonderful thing. Rejoice in yours.

bob2a

Bob, gone but not forgotten.

This post first appeared two years ago and is back because it popped up in my Facebook memories feed at just the moment when I’m battling an epic cold that turned into a respiratory infection. The drugs to combat it have left me a little fuzzy-headed and low on creative writing juice. 🤧A new one next time.

 

 

It’s not you, it’s me.

dog at computerIn my last post, I repeated what I’ve said many times before—I love hearing from readers—and I do. Most of the correspondence is fairly similar: questions about publication of the next book, or a plot twist, or whether they like or dislike certain characters. However, this past week, I had an email exchange with a twist that left me both surprised and amused. So much so, that I’m sharing it with you. The only thing I’ve changed in what follows is the name of my correspondent.

Hi
I started book 5 and Leah is not going to get with Gabe is she?
Is she ever going to get with Coop?
Thank you. Harvey

Clearly, Harvey liked to get right to the point. I answered promptly.

Hi Harvey,

I don’t know how far into Dangerous Flaws you are, but you’ll see that Leah and Gabe do get closer in the story … I think it’s quite possible that Coop and Leah will eventually find their way to each other, but it may be a pretty tangled journey. Of course, I could be wrong. Leah will have something to say about this, and she can be very unpredictable.–Susan

Harvey responded just as quickly.

Hi. I appreciate your reply and i understand where you are coming from. While I have enjoyed the books I usually pick one guy at the beginning and I do get emotionally involved with the characters ( which is on me ) and I don’t like it when it takes so long and they might not get together. Books are entertainment to me and when I might not get the ending that I am looking for I tend to move on and find something that will. I am not trying to be critical but this is the way I like things and at my age I want what I want. I have stopped [reading your book] for now but I will keep checking to see what happens. I apologize for this but I am what I am. I have learned this the hard way because I usually pick the wrong guy and I don’t like it when it is dragged out. Again I apologize. Thank you 

There it was. My first literary break-up. I’ve been dumped. Kicked to the curb. Cast adrift. Tossed aside. Left behind. Harvey even broke up with me using the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” line. I tried to maintain my dignity in the face of the inevitable.

Hey, Harvey–

No need to apologize. It’s one of the nicest things you can say to a writer—that you emotionally engage enough with her characters to want things to go right for them. I hate to lose you as a reader, but I’ll keep your email, and if things move definitively in one direction or the other in the next book, I’ll let you know. Provided, of course, that you swear yourself to secrecy, no spoilers allowed.–Susan

Actually, I do understand where he’s coming from. I still haven’t forgiven Louisa May Alcott for pairing my first favorite heroine, Jo March, with the middle-aged Professor Bhaer, instead of the much more appealing Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Louisa didn’t lose me as a reader, but she did teach me to be a bit more wary about where I give my literary heart.  Harvey has learned the hard lesson, too, and I respect the firm stance he’s taken against being the pawn of cavalier authors. Although I lost him as a reader, I have to thank him for an email exchange I truly treasure. 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Readers Want to Know

cat in glasses lying on sofa with bookOne of the things I like most about writing is hearing from readers. Quite often they say nice things, which is very pleasant. Sometimes they point out errors–a missing word or a typo–which is less pleasant, but still welcome, because I want the books to be as smooth to read as possible. Occasionally they ask questions about the characters and settings in the stories.

Recently a reader asked how I came up with the name of the town where the characters in my Leah Nash Mysteries live: Himmel, Wisconsin. The inspiration actually came from my immigrant grandmother, Susannah Andrews. She spoke English to my six siblings and me most of the time. But when we had driven her to distraction with our antics, she would shout in German “Mein Gott im Himmel!” [My God in Heaven]. It was the signal that we’d pushed just a little too far and repercussions were about to happen. So, the name of my fictional town, in one way, is a bit of an homage to my grandmother. But the choice of name was also intended to be a little more layered.

Himmel, with its shrinking population, abandoned stores and declining economic base, seems pretty far from heaven to Leah Nash, the main character in the series when she returns home. But the more she learns about herself and what matters most to her, the closer the name becomes to describing how she feels about her imperfect, struggling hometown and its inhabitants.

Another frequent question is whether or not Himmel is meant to be my own small town. It isn’t. For one thing, it’s a bit larger, for another, there’s a lot more homicide happening. I will admit though that I sometimes transplant landmarks or variations on them from my hometown to Leah’s.

Readers also ask if the characters in my books are drawn from people in my life. The answer is no, in the strictest sense of the disclaimer you sometimes see in the front pages of books: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

But that’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from people I’ve met or observed—or avoided. I try not to use the name of anyone that I know, to prevent having people in my own life try to match fictional characters with real life counterparts—an exercise I feel has the potential to end badly.

However, it’s inevitable that I’ll sometimes unintentionally create characters whose names belong to actual people. Not long ago, I received a very nice email about just that. The woman who wrote said she’d enjoyed one of my books, but jokingly added that she was a little dismayed because she and the murderer shared a first name.

My email conversation with her gave me the idea of offering readers a chance to be a minor character in the next book in the series. I’m finding it quite fun to weave the winners into the story, and from the response so far, it’s also fun for them to meet “themselves” in a fictional setting.

The contest is only open to members of the Leah Nash Mysteries mailing list. I’ll be inviting entries in March. Shortly thereafter, two names will be randomly selected to become part of Leah’s story.  If you’d like a chance to be a part of the next Leah Nash mystery, but if you’re not a member of the mailing list, you can sign up for the list here.

Note: This is an updated version of a post that first ran in 2016.  

Christmas Boxes

I’m looking forward to Christmas day. We’ll have a loud, laugh-filled gathering of relatives of varying ages at our house. The little kids, having already experienced the thrill of Santa’s largesse at their own homes, will dive excitedly into yet more gifts from indulgent extended family members at ours. And there are few things more fun to watch than an excited, gleeful, and unabashedly materialistic child tearing through the Christmas wrapping to get to the good stuff.

But amid the raucous hubbub, I know that my thoughts will drift away to other Christmases where the presents were less plentiful, but the enthusiasm ran just as high. 

Unlike the fortunate offspring in the youngest branches of our family tree today, Christmas gifts for us weren’t the icing on the cake of a well-provided for childhood. They were our once-a-year chance at getting something we really, really, wanted—a pair of ice skates, a doll, a walkie talkie, a paint set, a baseball glove, a robot dinosaur. Those singular “major” gifts were made possible through careful planning and judicious use of a store layaway plan.

The other presents in our small stacks–curated to ensure none of us perceived that one of us had received more than another–were things we really, really needed—typically underwear, socks, pajamas or slippers, all items prone to wearing out before they made it very far on the hand-me-down train. But even those were prized for their no-previous-owner provenance.

Christmas stockings were not an add-on or an after thought for us, as they were for some of our friends. They were part of the main event because our economically challenged but imaginative mother made them so. We each had a handmade stocking adorned with our names in glitter or sequins. Each one was filled with candy, nuts and oranges, but the real fun was in the small “prizes” Mom had hunted down to include.

Our eager fingers dug deep to pull out packs of playing cards, rubber balls, handheld number-slide puzzles, barrettes and ribbons, magnifying glasses, tiny notebooks and new pencils, little plastic snow globes. Anything that caught her fancy that she thought we might have fun with. We pulled each one out, examined it, sometimes stopped to play with it, sometimes held it aloft to show and then negotiate a trade. 

Our father enjoyed the show, but it was our mother who directed Christmas morning, and stretched a very small budget into a very big production. We all knew that there were kids who got less than we did, but it took a very long time for us to realize that there were those who got more. And looking back I realize that they really didn’t.  

My own children received a much larger and more expensive range of presents that I ever received. It was great fun to watch them shout with happiness when they received not just one, but many things on their wish lists. But I doubt any longed-for gift ever gave them the jolt of joy that shot through me when I opened my favorite childhood Christmas gift.

It wasn’t very promising to look at–a large, battered, cardboard box, not even wrapped. But I can still recall the thrill I felt when I opened the flaps and saw the treasure trove inside. A boxful of books!

I loved the local library, but I longed for books I didn’t have to give back. I had three or four of my own, but I wanted more. A big collection it would take weeks to read through, and to which I could return again and again. The Christmas  I was ten years old, my mother found a way to get me my wish. She rescued dozens of old children’s books from a woman who thought no one else would want them. Mom knew she was wrong. The bindings were worn, some pages were brittle and yellowed, and the assortment had a definite musty smell, but I hadn’t yet read any of them. And they were mine to keep.

I received other gifts from my parents over the years that were more “valuable,” but I don’t remember many of them. I’ve never forgotten that box of used books. I hope, you, too, have a special gift from childhood that still evokes happy memories.

Merry Christmas. 

How Many Shades of Gray?

We’re doing a bit of painting at our house and I have had a revelation. I am not color blind, but I am color obtuse. One of my brothers is a professional painter. One of my sisters is a high priestess of home decorating. I said I wanted gray for the living room. I pointed at a color in the paint sample fan deck that my sister provided. (No need to go to the paint store and pick up color cards, she has her own fan deck always at the ready). I thought that pretty much settled things. I soon learned that was not the case.

Though she worded her question politely, it was clear from the surprise in my sister’s voice that my choice was not quite on point.

“Well, that one has quite a bit of green in it. I’ll hold it next to the couch. See? Do you think that’s the color you want?”

“Umm, no?”

In truth, I couldn’t really see the green undertones in that choice, or the blue undertones in the other one, or the purple in another. Holding the sample up to the couch, or the fireplace, or the wall did not help me any either. Something that my sister and my brother could see so clearly was simply not apparent to me. They both patiently tried to educate me on the many shades of gray, but clearly were at a loss when my willingness to learn could not overcome the near complete lack of color sense with which I was born. After several more stabs at picking the color, and responses that gently indicated I was still missing the mark, I randomly hit on one that I liked which passed muster with regard to any ill-advised undertones.

The living room is painted now and looks quite nice. However, the process of picking out the right shade of gray started me thinking about how often we simply cannot see what is so clear to others. It’s not just color palettes to which we respond with the limitations of our particular perceptions.

I am prone to quick judgments and practical answers. Less inclined to nuance and philosophical rumination. “If a tree falls in the forest with no ears to hear does it make a sound?” Yes. Next question. But for some people that is an engrossing metaphysical query, one which they respond to with thoughtful consideration. I’m aware, but often need reminding, that there are different ways of looking at the world, shaped by our ability to perceive the layers that lie beneath the surface of a person, or a situation, or a set of facts.

Thanks to my siblings’ ability to see things that I cannot, I now have a color on the walls that—as they predicted—makes the white woodwork “pop” and picks up subtle hues in the fireplace tile. And I have a reminder that in life and in decorating, what lies beneath is as important as what’s on the surface—even if I can’t see it without help. Still, though, the question remains.  How can there possibly be so many shades of gray paint?

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