Natalie Goldberg, author of the famous book, Writing Down the Bones, recently favored us writers with a new book entitled The True Secret of Writing. She admits that this is a bold title, then continues on to mention that her small treatises throughout the book are a culmination of what she’s learned after decades of putting pen to paper. A bold move on her part. I’m okay with her claiming to have discovered the true secret of writing, and I’m sure each reader will come away with a different set of insights. I’ll share a few of mine with you.

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 Serving as caregiver to a family member who had surgery along with complication after complication, I’ve been away from my computer for nearly two months now. It’s not over, but I’m now able to maintain focus in more than one direction. Which reminds me, once again, how much routine means to my everyday 

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The Fall of a President

In August of this year, it will have been forty years since Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. I wrote this article for a boys' magazine several years back, but thought it might be okay to resurrect it for this anniversary.

Richard Nixon is the only President of the United States who resigned.  How did that happen?

Nixon fought the investigation, the press, everyone, with everything he had. He did not see himself as a quitter.

Nixon fought the investigation, the press, everyone, with everything he had. He did not see himself as a quitter.

When Nixon became president in 1968, the American people didn’t understand a war that was going on.  There were drugs, crime, and unrest in the cities.  People were uneasy when they wanted to feel safe. 

Nixon had lost a presidential election in 1960 and a governor election in 1962.  He knew about things going wrong. 

By 1972, almost all the soldiers were home from the Vietnam War, and foreign countries agreed to help stop drug traffic into the United States.  No more soldiers could be drafted into the army, and black and white students were peacefully integrating into schools in the South.  The Soviet Union and the United States agreed to explore space together and solve their problems with each other without using force.  Mr. Nixon was a busy president.  He knew how to get things done, and he loved his country.

Then something else happened.

Burglars were caught repairing a telephone “bug” that recorded conversations in a Watergate apartment that belonged to the Democratic National Committee.  Nixon was a Republican.  People wondered if Nixon knew anything about the break-in.   When they asked, he said, “No.”  They wanted to believe him.

But a Senate committee started asking a lot of questions.  One witness said that Nixon’s conversations in his Oval Office were tape-recorded.  The Committee thought getting the tapes would help them know if Nixon knew about the burglary.  He gave them some of the tapes.  They decided that Nixon knew about the Watergate Affair.  He should be impeached (removed from the Presidency), they said.

Nixon met with a few members of Congress.  When he asked if he had any choices left, nobody answered.  “Never mind,” he said.  “There will be no tears.”

President Nixon resigned, but that was the very last thing he wanted to do.  On the evening of August 8, 1974, Nixon told the American people, “I have never been a quitter.  To leave office before my term is completed is opposed to every instinct in my body.”

Nixon resigned. Vice-president Ford takes over. It's a tough time for the country.

Nixon resigned. Vice-president Ford takes over. It's a tough time for the country.

Richard Nixon got the war stopped.  He established new relations with China and the Soviet Union, and he got the voting age changed from 21 to 18.  He started the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect the country’s water, air, and park areas.  He expanded the Space Shuttle Program so space travel vehicles could be used over and over.  But he couldn’t straighten out Watergate.

Nobody knows if the people were so unhappy that they would not have liked any president, no matter who that was.  But they must have wished President Nixon’s job could have ended another way.  So did he.

Emma or Franklin

I wrote this story for children a few years back. Emma Edmonds’s courage still inspires me.

Women’s Rights in the 1860s

Emma Edmonds must have liked to play dressup when she was little. She was the youngest of five daughters. But her dad wanted a son. When she got older, she wanted to leave home. She found a way to play dressup and get away from Father.

                             Emma Edmonds as herself.

                             Emma Edmonds as herself.

Emma put on boys’ clothes and applied to be a soldier in the Civil War on April 25, 1861. She said her name was Franklin Thompson. She got into the Union Army as a pretend-man and worked in a tent hospital.

                                 Emma as Cuff, the slave.

                                 Emma as Cuff, the slave.

Soon Emma (or Franklin) wanted to play dressup again. She asked to be a spy. Her officers said Yes. She put on some old men’s clothes, a woolly black wig, painted her skin black, and called herself Cuss, the slave. She listened while the Confederate soldiers made plans to attack the Union soldiers. She wrote notes and took them back to her officers in the soles of her shoes. She was successful.

Another time she dressed up like a handsome young man named Mr. Mayberry. She went to dances and dinners to find Mr. Hall who was spying for the Confederate side. She was successful again.

                                  Emma as Mr. Mayberry. 

                                  Emma as Mr. Mayberry. 

Emma loved playing dressup as a spy. She finished eleven spy missions before she went back to work in the tent hospital. Then she got sick with malaria. She ran away to a regular hospital (not an Army hospital) where she could get treatment as a girl. When she got better, she wanted to return to the Union army. But her officers said she was a deserter. She could not go back without a thorough investigation. She feared they would find out she was not a man. She stayed at the regular hospital and worked as a nurse.

Emma was glad when the war was over, but she did not like to be known as a deserter. She asked the United States government to review her life as a soldier. Now the War Department knew she was a girl. They decided to honor her because of her good work as a soldier. Emma was done pretending.

The United States Congress gave her another honor. When she died September 5, 1884, her body was buried with other Civil War soldiers. She is the only female in the cemetery.

Home on the Range

Brewster Higley

Brewster Higley in the 1870s, Smith County, Kansas.

Brewster Higley in the 1870s, Smith County, Kansas.

­­­            Brewster Higley headed west to Kansas from Indiana in 1871 to find some peace and quiet. He wanted to build a home and write poetry. He was tired of doctoring, listening to people’s complaints, and not getting paid. His house didn’t even have a door; he climbed in and out through a window. Besides, his wife spent her time complaining about no money.

            Higley homesteaded a plot in Smith County, Kansas, on the banks of Beaver Creek, near current day Athol, Kansas. He loved the bright sky during the day and the stars overhead at night. During his first winter, he made a dugout on his newly claimed land. In 1872, he built a cabin with three limestone walls and a fourth of logs. He added a door with a latchstring lock and two small windows. Peacefully, he sat by a small iron stove in his cabin or on the bank of Beaver Creek and played his violin and wrote poetry. One of his poems, “My Western Home”, was published in the Smith County Pioneer newspaper with verses such as this one:

            How often at night, when the heavens are bright

            By the light of the glittering stars,

            Have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed

            If their beauty exceeds this of ours.

            A friend, Dan Kelley wrote a melody to accompany it, and the Harlan brothers, friends of Higley’s, performed it for the first time at a dance in their home. Most anyone who heard it started singing it and took it as his and her own.

            Cowboys especially liked it. Their homes typically were dusty trails, rocks for pillows, and burnt camp-fire corn bread. Settlers going west in their covered wagons liked to sing about having a home of their own, too, a way to believe that better days were ahead.

            Oh! Give me a land where the bright diamond sand

            Throws its light from the glittering streams,

            Where glideth along the graceful white swan,

            Like the maid in her heavenly dreams.

            As these cowboys moved to new locations, they took the song with them and added and subtracted words. They changed the song’s title to make it their own. For example, “My Western Home” became “Home on the Range” and later became “My Colorado Home” for some.

            President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided “Home on the Range” was his favorite song, too. In 1933, newspaper reporters stood on Roosevelt’s porch and sang it to him the night he was inaugurated. Roosevelt believed the song gave Americans hope after the Great Depression had left them poor and discouraged.

            Nobody knows for sure why Dr. Higley wrote the poem. He might have written it in memory of the Kansas prairie before homesteaders carved up the land into farms and towns after 1862. Buffalo herds had been slaughtered by the thousands and American Indians driven from their homes. A verse from “Home on the Range’ shows his sadness about the disappearance of Native Americans.

            The Red man was pressed from this part of the west,

            He’s likely no more to return,

            To the banks of the Red River

            Where seldom if ever

            Their flickering campfires burn.

            Dr. Higley’s cabin has lasted as long as the song. In the 1950s, a Smith County civic club replaced rotted logs, and in 1980, farmers in the area braced the stone walls. Today, artists and singers come to see the cabin, paint or photograph it and its setting, stand in the doorway and sing the famous song in its presence. Looking out the small windows, they might imagine a bob cat slinking by with its eye on a white tail deer or a covey of quail proudly marching along. And if they are there alone, they might close their eyes, take a deep breath, and understand the peace and quiet Dr. Higley found in the first place.

Brewster Higley's cabin near Athol, Kansas, near where he wrote "Home on the Range".

Brewster Higley's cabin near Athol, Kansas, near where he wrote "Home on the Range".

            As popular as “Home on the Range” became, Dr. Higley never knew how many people loved his writing. In fact, “Home on the Ranage” is still sung by cowboys, learned by school children, and loved by people around the world. But Dr. Higley moved on, first to Arkansas in 1886 and then to Oklahoma in 1892, where he died in 1911.

Inside Brewster Higley's cabin in Smith County, Kansas.

Inside Brewster Higley's cabin in Smith County, Kansas.

            The cabin, to date, has been completely restored and is open for visitors. Check the website for directions.

Camp Phillips in the Midwest

               Camp Phillips near Salina, Kansas, in 1943

               Camp Phillips near Salina, Kansas, in 1943

President Roosevelt, in 1941, took a look at the U.S.’s readiness for war following the surprise Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. “Dismal,” he might have said. “We must rally in a hurry.”

Within weeks, army training posts popped up across the nation. A 46,000-acre area southwest of Salina, Kansas, was one. Emory Frost remembers the hubbub. He was 15 years old, and his family’s farm, along with 106 other farms, was purchased by the government. They were ordered to be out in four weeks, along with all their livestock, machinery, and personal effects. No harvesting one of the best wheat crops in years. It was burned after the family moved out. Anything not removed would be confiscated and destroyed. “My mother was very sick,” Emory continued, “in the hospital. We had livestock to sell and with so many other farmers looking, the price for other land rose higher every day. It was a bad time for all of us, especially those whose land was homesteaded by their ancestors in the middle 1800s.”

Seven thousand construction workers overtook the small town of Smolan, population 100, following the “go-ahead” announcement in May 1943. By September 1943, more than 3,000 buildings were completed, awaiting the arrival of the first troops for training. A complete infrastructure to support a population of more than 10,000 greeted the first of three divisions to be trained there. One hundred fifty tons of native road-building material had been brought in from a rock quarry opened near the camp. More than 200 railroad cars loaded with construction material were unloaded into the area every 24 hours. Three months later, military personnel arrived and the show was on the road.

Hospitals, chapels, theaters, officers’ clubs, mess halls, barracks, recreation facilities, etc. filled the area and served more than 150,000 troops during its two-year existence. When the war was over August 1945, Camp Phillips disappeared nearly as fast as it came into being. Hundreds of the barracks were dismantled and shipped to college campuses, including more than 150 sent to Purdue University. Others were torn down and the lumber was sold.

A drive past the area now shows almost no evidence of Camp Phillips. The only remaining structure that draws attention is the water tower base, which was purchased by a family and converted into a five-story home. A few windows here and there invite a second look; otherwise, it doesn’t get much notice. Another story tells about one farm home that the government did not level. It is a large two-story home and was used by the camp’s commander for a personal residence. It still stands.

                     Camp Phillips barracks near Salina, Kansas

                     Camp Phillips barracks near Salina, Kansas

All of this plus many more factors and anecdotes calls for some story-writing. I’m putting together a piece for a regional magazine, and am thinking about something for children. Magazine article, picture book, longer historical fiction book.

Most everyone who hears about my endeavor has a new incident to share. That was 70 years ago, but the memories are as vivid as if it happened last month. Some chuckle at memories of meeting new people, being employed on the camp, and employing prisoners of war who resided there. Others tear up at the thought of the personal traumas of such a mammoth undertaking with little warning and a short life in the end. It was a significant and brief time in the history of the area. Did it really happen, their eyes communicate? Yes, it really did.

Veterans and Students

          We honor McPherson County, Kansas, Korean    War                         veterans with a book-writing project.

          We honor McPherson County, Kansas, Korean  War

                    veterans with a book-writing project.

The Korean Veterans Book-writing Project continues to unfold. Thirteen high school juniors, each partnered with a veteran, meet weekly. Veterans tell about their war experiences, students ask questions, and the stories grow. We’ll soon be formatting the narrative and photographs into a collaborative book for publication. A reception/celebration is scheduled for May 6.

What these students are discovering, mostly, is shapshots of their veteran-partner’s personal life during a time of war. What they ate. Where they slept. How they bathed. Ways they entertained themselves. How they dealt with homesickness, especially during holidays. What mail meant to them. How they handled a buddy’s death. What homecoming was like. How they coped with the ongoing politics of war after they returned. Comparisons with the teen partners’ lives are stark.

FOOD: Veterans often survived on C-rations and K-rations. They opened a tin and ate, no matter the taste. Our partnering teens mostly eat what they want and when they want. If they don’t like something, they know where to find replacements.

SLEEP: Veterans often slept in fox holes, under protective brush, in one or two-person tents, and in thin-walled unheated barracks, freezing or heat-smothering weather. One blanket per soldier. Teens are able to create their own sleep environments. Music, white noise, soft comforters, blankets and sheets bunched up and crunched to their liking.

BATHING: Veterans, especially on bivouac, took “baths” with as much cold water as their helmets would hold. Or perhaps they jumped into a nearby river or stream, whereas teens often have access to endless showers or bubbly jacuzzis in warm bathrooms.

HOMESICKNESS: Veterans, even years later, recall the pain of being thousands of miles from home and family, the helplessness of existing under the government’s thumb. Teens may recall twinges of homesickness when they attended summer camp or visited Grandma and Grandpa in another state, often short-lived, but not for years at a time.

Perhaps hardest for the teen-partners to grasp is the trauma of senseless deaths of  troop-buddies. One day the veteran and his companion are living a hard life side by side, sharing the discomforts of being so far from home, and the next day, one of them is dead. No wonder the veterans often hesitate to become part of this writing group. The pain has been put away for fifty years, and now we’re asking them to revisit it.

Teens sitting across the table from veterans makes the Korean War real as compared to reading about it in a history book, studying dates and statistics about casualties and damage. Teens see and hear actual experiences, with the awareness that the veterans were their age when the war began. The intergenerational benefits expand every week.

                 Reminder of why we are doing this project.

                 Reminder of why we are doing this project.

            Thank you, veterans and students (and their dedicated teacher) for your part in implementing a valuable, unique experience of learning about the price of war. I hope the memories of being in this group stay with you forever.

Why I Write

Edith Wharton's writing desk.

Edith Wharton's writing desk.

I’ve often said there’s not one thing about the writing life that doesn’t fit who I am. Let me qualify: I like to be inspired; I like variety; I like independence; and I like to be able to switch gears from serious to fun, from hurried to calm, from difficult research to lightweight spoof. The elasticity of a writing career allows me to do all of that and more. Other writers describing their lives to reflect who they are? Could be totally different. I think we’d find that each writer’s priorities mirror their individual quirks and strengths.

I began my writing trip by earning an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, finishing January 2004. I was older and wanted a jumpstart. The information I gained at VCFA did just that, especially what I learned about the writing industry in general. I soon enjoyed success by selling an illustrated biography and multiple articles in children’s magazines. I wrote some contract books and appreciated learning the self-discipline needed to meet the publishers' required specs. Soon after, I self-published a biography that continues to sell without much effort on my part. But after years of submitting book-length manuscripts to publishers, waiting a minimum of three months for replies, and only occasionally selling something, I became impatient and potentially discouraged. I have returned to writing magazine articles, which now includes works for adults as well as continuing to submit book-length manuscripts for young people. Once again, my need for moving around from one genre to another, learning new disciplines, and keeping the inspiration fired has led me in that direction.

Another piece of variety: For the past eight years, I have conducted book-writing projects in public schools. I work with participating classroom teachers to help students write fiction stories, nonfiction pieces, research essays, or poetry. We coordinate this approach with a company that provides book-writing kits and publishes a hardbound book for each student. This program is funded by local Arts and Humanities Departments, Arts Councils, and awarded grants here and there. I liked that these projects keep me around young people. I observe what interests them, what they are reading, and most of all, how they write.

I’ve also developed another project rationale. I become acquainted with a community, identify a group of senior citizens who have stories in common, and recruit them for a book-writing endeavor.  So far, I’ve done one group that wrote about some portion of their individual life stories, three groups of World War II veterans, and one group of Korean veterans. Each writer is matched with a high school student partner who does the technical work—key the story, prepare photographs for publication, etc. The relationships between the generations has become the greatest blessing of this approach.

I write because nothing else charges my internal batteries in the same way. I lose track of time. I become fascinated with the research process. I like the magic that happens when words roll off my fingers, and I wonder where they came from. When I have discretionary time, such as on the weekend, I usually end up on the lighted side of my computer if I’m not engrossed in reading a book. I love words, the way they sound, the impact they make, the multiple ways they go together, the risk of using an unfamiliar word for a new meaning, the sparkle they add to life as well as the gloom.

I spent many years looking for the answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I found writing, I knew that was it. I’ve not regretted the time, heartache, joy, and persistence it’s taken to get where I am now—a writing life fashioned just for who I am.

Jazz and the Soul

I have written a book called Jazz from the Inside out. Here is a synopsis I'm circulating among publishers. Thought I'd share it with you this week:

Jazz top left-02-25 at 9.38.13 AM.png

The gig is over.  Players put their instruments away.  The saxophone and trumpet end up in a box.  Piano and drums are left in place with a nod of thanks and a promise to return.

Some who came to listen solved the problems they brought with them.  Others who dropped by for the first time may have wished they had gone to a movie instead.  But it really doesn’t matter to the players.  They play for their own reasons.  The more in touch they were with their pain and pleasure, the more they had to share with the audience.

The players, like you, learn this language called jazz much as an infant learns to speak.  First they listen to the sounds made by musicians who played before them and learned how it was done.  They work to imitate some of these sounds and phrases played over and over.  When the sounds become routine, the players get personal.  Now it becomes conversation for them, with themselves and with others, just as it does for the small child.

One instrument began this gig by throwing a musical idea or phrase around to the others, loud and fast.  Someone answered with a louder, faster sound.  Then a sax played a well-known “lick” (perhaps created by a great player many years ago) and the piano player replied “I heard you,” with the same phrase two octaves higher.  While these conversations develop, the other players comment with their own sounds here and there.  They encourage the exchange to continue and wait for their turn to state an opinion, express disagreement, or ask a question about the subject. It is conversation at its musical best.

Just as the language of jazz originated with slaves needing a way to express their pain, the players in this book integrate jazz into their own ways of life.  Each of them has had times, ecstatic and painful, that for them, could not be worked out any other way but through music.

Dave uses jazz to measure how he is doing.  He listens to other players to learn about new ways to do a lick, a bridge, a tag.  He also uses jazz as an outlet for energy, natural and stress-produced.  He and jazz have been through a lot together.

Sharon Saulnier needs jazz as a way to get to her secret place.  She feels whole and brave when she is singing, unlike the rest of the time.

Jeff knows that jazz gives him courage to compare himself to others and want to do better.  He discovers that he can do better than he thought.

Dean is so caught up in jazz with his drums that he can’t imagine life without playing or teaching or writing or most of all studying.  Dean zeroes in on a rhythmic idea and becomes his own best student, letting the topic take him deep.

Amy uses jazz as a way to survive.  She knows that playing her cello keeps her balanced and in touch when her autism invites her to get off track.

Jim uses jazz to keep his wires from getting crossed.  He is an intense person (by his own definition) and he needs an outlet.  He pulls the plug when too much frustration builds by blowing his sax instead of his cool.

Rosetta uses jazz to keep her family close to her.  She never sings without pictures of Mom, Dad, sisters, and brothers flashing across her mind.  They live inside her and support and cheer her on.

Geri makes family for herself wherever she plays music.  She plays organ; her family/guests sing. Some get to be siblings who share her life, some become cousins with whom she plays games, and some are children who need her encouragement and training.

Rhonda knows that music is her way of making and keeping friends.  She communicates most fully with her saxophone, carefully selecting notes and tones that say what she wants heard.

Barney’s jazz is the reason he gets up every morning.  Each waking moment is a rehearsal for the next time he sits at a piano and listens to what his mind and heart have made up since the last time.

Because these twelve players share their stories, you the readers, can peek at something in your own experience that could be touched by jazz.  Perhaps a recording you find will put goose bumps on your heart.  And the more you listen, the more the notes and chords will get inside you and move things around.

Maybe you will choose an instrument and a teacher and mess around with sounds and techniques.  You might start your own band as many of these players did.

Jazz bottom right-02-25 at 9.37.13 AM.png

Reading about the artists and their stories could be inspiration enough. Jazz starts on the outside like that.  A sound here and there.  A little experiment on the horn.  But for anyone who stays with it long enough, jazz ends up on the inside spying and crying.  Bending and mending.  Healing old wounds.  Cooking up new ones.  People don’t know where jazz goes for them until they give it some breathing room in their soul.  It’s too up close, and it’s way too personal.

Eight Graders

Deadlines, headaches, finally a book.

Deadlines, headaches, finally a book.

I walk into the eighth grade language arts classes in Clay Center, Kansas. The students clutch their research papers, as if they were protecting them from pilfering and plagiarism. They breathe sighs of relief that the research and note-taking is over; works cited and publishing preparations yet to go.

I empty my big canvas bag. These are samples of the various ways books are published, I tell them. Contract books done to a publisher’s specs; commercial methods when I write the story and find a publisher to buy it; self-publishing when I do it all, including marketing and distribution. I show them one of each (contract book on lowriders, Gordon Parks illustrated biography, and Tex Winter’s story as an example of self-publishing). Hands go up, asking questions about time, money, and educational background. I tell them writing is more than a full-time job, that you don’t make much money, and that I’m a late, late blooming writer, since I was middle-aged when I went back to school and started writing seriously. I also tell them that many believe being a successful writer is 5% talent and 95% BIC (bottom in chair). Their eyebrows elevate into their hairlines.

We return to the topic at hand. They are ready to plan their text for printing. When do we get to print our pages? A pre-prepared publishing kit provides high-quality, glossy, pre-numbered pages, including a title page and a dedication page. They create a design on a designated page that forms the cover. This process is more than simply writing a book. It becomes a design challenge, done individually, but in a team setting. Everyone receives the same product; the playing field is leveled. It’s about intermediate goal accomplishments and deadlines. The learning is full circle.

Clay Center Arts Council sponsors this project. I tell them they will receive their individual published books in April, when they see their books for the first time at a rousing celebration with family and friends. I remind them that they are most fortunate to have Mrs. Lane as their teacher; she holds them accountable for excellent work, further refines the process each year, and supports them with information they need. She hands out nonstop caring and infuses the environment with a calm attitude and a wonderful sense of humor. This is the sixth year she and I have done the project for her eighth graders, and I’m grateful to be able to work with her.

I ask students about the topics they’ve chosen. Hands go up again. Samples of this year’s choices include medieval torture methods, King Arthur, the history of Case tractors, World War II tanks, cosmetology as a career, England’s Beatles, Kansas State University football, and Mustang cars, etc. I ask what surprised them in the research of their topic. Their eyes light up as they think about the information they uncovered. World War II tanks? How huge they were. Beatles? How hard they worked. Torture methods? A head crusher.

Writer-right-02-20 at 10.49.00 AM.png

Would you agree that these eighth graders are proving to themselves and to others that they can GO ANYWHERE, DO ANYTHING, and BE ANYBODY by reading and writing? It was a great day. Thanks, eighth graders, and thanks, Mrs. Lane, for the privilege.


Snow in Kansas

New snow and ever-colder temperatures greeted our little town each morning this week. And the forecast is for more of the same for the next several days. No two snowflakes are alike, so say the scientists. And I say people don’t react to snow the same way either.

Snow means new beginnings to me.

Snow means new beginnings to me.

After an overnight surprise of a twelve-inch snow, I gasped when I raised the blinds. There it was: an equalizer, renewing all that it covered with the same gentle touch, connecting all things together with its beautiful white color, and showing no preference or prejudice for large/small-beautiful/ugly-new/old. Snow, for me, represents a new start, a clean slate. It lights up my world and it calms my spirit just by being itself, withholding nothing.

My next thought was a memory. I’m belly-down on a sled, hanging onto a looped rope around the sled frame, and being pulled by Dad’s pickup. Around the corners, up and down the hills, over the bridges. Fun doesn’t get any better than that. I guide the sled by twisting the front rungs and swaying from one side of the road to another. Thinking about it now gives me chills. I’d ask for another mile and another mile until I had no feeling in my fingers and toes. Back in the house to warm up and go again

Could be Kansas deer checking out the snowman

Could be Kansas deer checking out the snowman

And then there’s driving in the snow—something that takes practice, nerve, and skill. I love the crunch crunch crunch of tires making the first tracks or following someone else’s pattern, even expanding it a little by guiding my vehicle just outside the first marks. It’s fun. Maybe I’m reliving the sledding described above, using a car instead of a sled.

Snow makes me smile, feel joy, and risk a sore back jumping into this week’s drifts, sometimes with a snow shovel and sometimes not. 

Happy Birthday, Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

            Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 258th birthday was Monday, January 27. Happy Birthday, Mozart! My husband, Jack, and I celebrated by retrieving the movie, Amadeus, from the back shelf and watching Wolfie’s hilarity bubble up in the fun and spunk of his music.

            Mozart was baptized Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, although we know him best by a much-shortened version, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A little research shows that he changed his name often throughout his lifetime.

Why did he do that? He says his various church affiliations and his being multilingual are causes for some of the alterations. But, in letters from his younger days, he spelled his name backward: Mozart Wolfgang in some letters and Trazom in others. He simply couldn’t hide or turn off his creativity, the same characteristic that led to his playing piano and violin in public at age six.

            Amadeus, which we automatically insert as his middle name, may have originated as a facetious application of his keen interest in the Latin language. At one point, he “latinized” his entire name—Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus—perhaps in jest only. Nevertheless, the Amadeus portion of that experiment stuck. Another time, he tried an Italian twist—Wolfgango Amadeo Mozart.

            Perhaps his preference was something like Wolfgang Amade, the name he used on his wedding contract when he married Constanze Weber August 3, 1782. But, on August 4, 1782, the parish register entry for his marriage to Constanze shows him as Herr Wolfgang Adam Mozart.

            Regardless of what he named himself, “Unique genius” only begins to describe Mozart. He conceived and perfected the grand forms of music that marked the classical period. His operas, particularly, show uncanny insight into the human psyche, not known to music at that time and yet continues to fascinate audiences around the world.

Constanze Mozart, Mozart's wife and mother of his children.

Constanze Mozart, Mozart's wife and mother of his children.

            As to the contention between himself and Salieri that provides a theme for the movie, Amadeus, historically there is little basis for such a troubled relationship. Yes, they vied for the same jobs and attention at points along the way, but they admired each other’s work and even collaborated on a cantata for voice and piano called “Per la recuperate salute di Ophelia”. After Mozart’s death, December 5, 1791, at age 35, Constanze arranged for their two boys (they had six children; two survived infancy) to study with Salieri. Mozart probably had multiple nicknames for his boys also—Karl Thomas and Franz Xaver. Was Stanze his preferred nickname for Constanze?

            With all his musical genius and the multitude of musical miracles he left the world to enjoy, he can call himself and his family what he wants. In fact, we might add to his list of compositions one more gifted creation called Variations on the Name “Wolfgang” Theme. Happy Birthday, Mozart, and thanks for your never-ending legacy of inimitable music.

Why We Write: Why We Read

Books and books, waiting to hand up their secrets.

Books and books, waiting to hand up their secrets.


            “If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison,” wrote David Baldacci in his contribution to the book Why We Write. “I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion. When the sentences and the story are flowing, writing is better than any drug. It doesn’t just make you feel good about yourself. It makes you feel good about everything.”

            After 24 novels since 1996 and being endorsed by both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he has shown us what an addiction to writing looks like.

            I write for many reasons, one of which is to marvel at the combinations of words that splat themselves on the page when I put fingers to keys. I often say, even out loud, “How did that happen?” In fact, writing is so much fun for me—whether it’s serious nonfiction or fun sentences for children—that I have to give myself permission to write. I’ll tend to take care of “work” items on my list before I let myself settle into writing. That’s a big handicap, almost as if I’ll be found out and punished for having so much fun while the undone work awaits.

            About reading and why we read? I’ve just finished a book that raised the question for me. It was Call the Midwife, and my conclusion was that it takes a whole lot of courage to read that book. It’s about midwifery, poverty, workhouses, etc. in East End London in the 1900s. Some of the true stories will make you shade your eyes and gasp while you travel on through the words because you dare not abandon the characters and leave them on their own. Yes, some books take courage to read.

            Some books are just plain fun to read. My husband retrieves from moth balls about every three years a book called Ball Four by Jim Bouton. I like to watch him get tickled, over and over. If you’re a baseball fan, this is a chuckler, finding out what goes on behind the scenes of our national pastime.

            Another fun book for me is Kelly Bingham’s picture book, named Z is for Moose. Genre-speaking, it’s an alphabet book for young children. Overall, it appeals to adults as well with Moose’s antics to represent the letter M. The illustrations are half the fun.

            Reading also provides wonderful escapes from reality—and not necessarily fantasy books only. If I want to take a reading trip for a weekend, I’ll check out a Jennifer Egan or Jody Picoult book and veg in my favorite chair with a never-ending cup of tea.

What does your list say about you?

What does your list say about you?

            In the end, reading and writing go hand in hand. One feeds the other, not to be separated. Reading gives writers new directions and models; writing gives readers a way to make choices about what they want to read next. Maybe the best we do for ourselves is to match our reading with our mood; match our writing with our inspiration at the moment. Happy reading and writing.




One More Gem from my Colleague

Looks a little too familiar to someone who has a "Hurry Up".

Looks a little too familiar to someone who has a "Hurry Up".

No New Year’s resolutions doesn’t mean not setting goals. In fact, without a goal, how do you or I know what to do next? This is one of my husband’s favorite questions when I tell him I’m considering something: “What’s Your Goal?” he says. Naming why I’m doing something works like magic. After declaring where I’m headed, the answer to what to do next flashes neon in my mind and in my line of vision. Which leads me to One More Gem from my psychologist friend.

 Again, after years and years of work with people, he has come to the definitive opinion that the human mind is capable of only one thought at a time. “Oh, yes,” he admitted, “I believed for years that I could and was multi-tasking. I thought I could talk on the phone, write a letter, and answer my wife’s questions with a nod of my head, one way or the other, all at the same time.”

Multi-tasking does not exist, he’s concluded. “Even though I was getting a lot done in a short amount of time, I was never thinking more than one thought at a time. Then I argued with myself some more. After all, I could drive and talk on my cell at the same time.”

Wrong again. Driving had become automatic for him. He didn’t form a thought for each action that took his car down the road. “Adjust the wheel to the right, now the left. Put foot on the brake. Now on the accelerator. Those were habitual actions. My one-thought-at-a-time was directed toward my phone conversation.”

Back to goal setting. Goal setting is applying the innate ability to entertain one thought at a time in a particular, chosen direction. That’s all. Just make a statement that encapsulates a goal and repeat it to yourself, followed by the steps needed to complete the goal, one thought at a time. Yessirreee, you can almost feel the brain cells racing to join each other in a collective mass to address and accomplish a stated goal, whether that takes one minute or one year. Same principle. One-Thought-at-a-Time.

Focused thought 4.21.15 PM.png

I like the idea of One-Thought-at-a-Time. I like it even better with capitalization. Right now, I’m using it daily to put myself back to sleep when I awaken during the night. When my Monkey Mind begins jumping from one negative thought to the next, I activate a predetermined One-Thought-at-a-Time word or phrase and talk myself into a sleep state. I have hopes that this technique will reduce itself to a habit also. One-Thought-at-a-Time for starting a story. One-Thought-at-a-Time for writing a grant. One-Thought-at-a-Time for grocery shopping. One-Thought-at-a-Time when moving from one room to another to retrieve a specific item, instead of getting to the room and forgetting what I wanted to find. 

This idea could be life-changing, or perhaps helpful in only small ways. Nevertheless, you are invited to consider how it might benefit you. Give it a thought, one at a time.

Christmas Tidbits

A precious image for today.

A precious image for today.

The decorated tree, for some, goes up on Black Friday. For others, putting it in place on December 24th is the sacred ritual. Some traditions demand clear lights; others colored. Tinsel or beads or popcorn. We have our ways.

Or this might be the first Christmas since the death of a relative who insisted on things being a certain way. It’s left the family with questions about whether to continue the habits or establish different ones. A new way is needed.

And then there’s the family get-togethers. Perhaps you’ve traveled a great distance to rekindle associations with long-lost siblings, and upon arrival, you are told a brother or sister refused to join the gathering because you were going to be there. Or vice versa. The crowd had multiplied overnight because of your presence. The way gets sticky.

It’s a fact that heart troubles double or triple during Christmas week. No wonder. The planning, the work, the anticipation or both joy and pain plays upon the heart like a violin string tuned too tightly, and the heart takes a beating, literally.

Just as many factors play into our Christmas experience, so do the ways to approach them. A single woman without immediate family begins wearing elf boots seven days before Christmas and takes great joy in the reactions and comments from those around her. She says this is her second pair. She bought her first twenty-five years ago, and they have disintegrated over the years. Her way is one of joy.

Another acquaintance of meager means starts a savings account in February of each year, adding to it monthly, and uses the proceeds to buy food for homeless shelters the week of Christmas. Akin is the gentleman who dons a Santa suit and hands out five-dollar bills to anyone who speaks to him. Or the Santa brigade at a housing development in my hometown. Fifteen Santas, in costume, form a line into their area and distribute bags of goodies to any who comes by on foot or by car. This was their fifteenth year on the street. A way that leads to many grins. The way of generosity.

Memories are made of this.

Memories are made of this.

The secretiveness and mystery of the season lend themselves to attitudes and behaviors not evident at other times of the year. Something breaks loose in the mind and the heart and flows out into the world. Like the end of the Scrooge story when he makes his turn from stinginess toward generosity. The way becomes clear and focused for a few days or hours. The gift of Christmas, whether spiritual, mental, or social awaits to be discovered over and over each year. The air feels different. The comments to and with strangers are different. So is the magic. Merry Christmas.


Christmas Carol Legacy

Charles Dickens at his writing desk, perhaps penning  A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens at his writing desk, perhaps penning A Christmas Carol.

Today, December 19, in 1843--170 years ago--the book, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, launched on its journey to popularity in England, and soon to the United States. The first run of 6,000 sold out by Christmas Eve. By May 1844, a seventh edition had sold out. In all, 24 editions ran in its original form. Moreover, it has never been out of print. What makes it eternal?


By the early 19th century, industrialization in England had encouraged a seriousness, even cultural somberness, and had resulted in a large population of poor people. Especially children. Dickens was a victim himself. His father was imprisoned when Dickens was a young child. At age 12, he pawned his precious collection of books, left school, and began working in a blacking factory. Even though his father was released soon thereafter, Charles was forced to stay on at the factory. He claimed to have never recovered his former happy life with his father, and the disturbing memories haunted him the rest of his life.

Scrooge in his story represents Dickens's father. Readers are brought images of the former joy and warmth Dickens knew and the unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, and sadness that plagued him later. Scrooge himself is the embodiment of this winter mind-set until his cold pinched heart is restored to the joy and light of a happier, more generous time, perhaps Spring. Through this autobiographical telling, Dickens, intentionally or not, transformed Christmas celebration rituals and introduced new customs, such as Christmas trees, greeting cards, family gatherings, and festive generosity.

As an adult, Dickens toured much of the country, only to find children working in appalling conditions, uncared-for illiterate street children, and a terribly inadequate education system, such as he had known as a child. He considered writing and distributing pamphlets and making speeches to raise public awareness and activate reform. But in the end, he decided the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population about the concerns he had seen was to write a story. It worked.

Just the image we see in our dreams about Scrooge!

Just the image we see in our dreams about Scrooge!

Charitable giving in Britain skyrocketed. Robert Louis Stevenson generously shared his wealth with the poor after reading the book. Thomas Carlyle staged two huge Christmas dinners; in America, a Mr. Fairbanks in Boston closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey. According to some historians, the current Christmas rituals are largely the result of the mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol. Certainly, we can thank Dickens for the model of sharing with our society's marginalized during the Christmas season.