Monday, December 31, 2012

At the Cliff's Edge

I’m poised in a precarious position, here between 2012 and 2013.  I’m standing at the cliff’s edge, feeling the unease of the dizzying height and the pull of the abyss mix with the fervent wish that the release will be worth stepping off.  That is, stepping off the writing cliff. 
In January I set out on a journey to what I thought was a summit, one step at a time, following a deliberate trail with a self-made map for my writing year.  I wanted to write more, establish some discipline, continue my self-education, connect with a writing community and find a way to reach out of my comfort zone.  Daunting goals indeed.    
January 1st was the first step, with my first blog on My Writing Corner.  I completed 67 posts this year (including this one) and met a blog challenge of 28 posts in April.  In numbers, not as many as I’d hoped for, but at least two each month and I hit my self-imposed goal of 500 – 700 words per post.  Goal #1 & 2 met!
Trudging on, I learned the software to edit and update my website, Amy Writes, instead of having to ask my ever supportive husband, Steve, to do it for me (lucky for me he’s always in the wings, ready to lend a helping hand when my mind goes blank on how to do something or I’ve lost my notes!).   
There was sustenance along the way in an overwhelming smorgasbord of writers and blogs to follow on the internet.    After overfilling my plate for many months, I learned to appreciate smaller portions and honed it to a manageable half dozen sites or so.  Learning from and commenting on those blogs has provided a daily balanced meal of an online writing community that I’m very grateful for.  Goal #3 & 4 met! 
I sent a few scouts out in the form of submissions and although I didn’t get any of them published, it was a nice sense of accomplishment to set a submission goal and meet it by deadline and guidelines.  One submission from 2011 hit the bull’s-eye and took me completely by surprise.  Journey’s Beginning” got accepted and published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: finding my faith in October. 
That singular event, more than any other, propelled me to the cliff’s edge.  It was a spotlight I was not prepared for.  It lead to newspaper articles in print and online, recognition at the University I work at in my non-writing day job and had me doing a bit self-promotion (NOT something I am comfortable with).  It’s been a test in learning to accept compliments on my story and writing in general from the readers it’s brought to My Writing Corner.  Goal #5 met…..sort of…
Which brings me to my cliff.  I know in my heart, I may have met the goals, but I didn’t exceed.  I didn’t reach the summit wrung out and totally spent.  I’ve found in my real hiking with Steve, if I plod along at an even pace, and stop every now and then I can always reach the summit we set out for.  And although I feel accomplished to have made it here, to my writing summit, I didn’t have to stretch far.  If I really want those first four goals to reach beyond my wildest dreams, to be surprised at what I produce, I need to get out of my comfort zone.  I need to be willing to jump off the cliff.   
So…I jump into 2013 with a six week course that starts on January 7th with Lisa Romeo titled: “I Should Be Writing Boot Camp - Jan 2013”. I’ve also made a personal challenge to face head on, the “3 Quiet Fears That Stop Writers From Writing”, by delving into Janna Malamud Smith’s book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery.    I’m looking for these two pieces alone to be a catalyst to further my writing and an introduction to my non-comfort zone.   
Clenched in my hand are my goals for 2013.  More depth and honesty in my writing. Steadier and more targeted submissions.  Dedicated schedule for blog posts. Continued education in the craft. Become stronger in the writing and creative community, both online and in person.    With persistence, hard work and yes, a bit of luck, I’m hoping the accomplished goals will land at the bottom before me, a cushion to land on this time next year.    
It’s scary here at the edge.  But off I step, with the fervent wish that the release will be worth it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Magic and Belief

I pull the Christmas music box string very slowly and wooden figures of snowman, elf, angel and Mr. and Mrs. Claus peek at me through the windows and door openings of their little yellow house as they travel backward, winding up in Ferris wheel fashion.  The small nails that hold them to the rotating board are delicate, allowing them to sway back and forth as they make their rounds… 

I’ve pulled that string, watched the figurines peek out at me and listened to the slightly tin sound of Jingle Bells, for just over 45 years now.   

I was three when my brothers gave the music box to our mom for Christmas in ‘67.  Three years ago when my parents passed, my siblings granted my wish to have the music box.  Now as I hang it on my kitchen wall, I don’t see the age it carries or the areas where the glitter, meant to be sparkling snow on the eaves, has long since rubbed off in the packing and unpacking over the years.   What I see, what I feel, is a direct link to my childhood Christmas and all the magic it held.   

Twenty nine years ago this Christmas, about to celebrate my first Christmas married and in my own home, mom gave Steven and I a ceramic manger scene.  In two words, it’s big.  With 18 pieces and camels and wise men that stand eight inches tall, it could be overwhelming, but her artistic talent shines through in the incredible detailing of each piece, the deep, rich colors she used and in the delicate features conveying the wonder of the moment.  Amidst the often hectic holiday madness, it never fails to make me pause and renews the spiritual meaning of Christmas for me.

Our home is not large.  These two very different holiday pieces are physically about five steps from each other.  Yet they bridge the years for me between child and adult, between daughter and wife/mother seamlessly.  There’s no theme to my Christmas decorations.  The house is not done in ribbons of blue and silver, in red and gold balls in glass vases, nor in country chic.  It doesn’t look like any spread in the pages of a magazine.  It’s much like my mother’s was; warm and comforting; a blending of pieces that hold more meaning in the history or memory of receiving them than in the purchasing of them for a “look”.  What’s developed is a blend of my Christmas past with my Christmas present.   

I pull the string and listen to Jingle Bells.  My eyes travel from the figurines in the music box to the figurines in the manger scene.  A final gift from mom, a mixture of magic and the wonder of belief. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Winter Prep at Morgan Manor

1 of the 2 stacks to be split

Fireplace season has begun and the Advil bottle is running low this week at Morgan Manor.  Steven and I have enjoyed the beauty and peace of a couple fires as we commiserated about our aching muscles and sore backs. 

We just finished a project that started back in ’09.  That’s when we cut down the first tree in the backyard due to a stress fracture it developed after a particularly bad wind storm.  It was cut it down or wait for another storm to blow it down.  The next two came down in 2010 to make way for an attached two car garage.  The wood was stacked to season and in the blink of an eye, a couple years passed and splitting time was upon us!

1 of the 3 piles - still only 1/2 size!
I grew up with a fireplace and love that our home of the past 27 years has one.  During any given winter, we have about 5 fires a week, so we go through a lot of wood.  Most years we rent a splitter, however this year Steve found a beauty on Craig’s list.  We made the purchase, and were off ~ working some days alone, and some days as a team as work schedules and daylight hours permitted.

We split, and split, and split. 

We went through the large stack along our back fence and another stack just as big that ran along the side fence.  That first day or two of splitting felt great!  Then that pile of beautifully split wood, begging to make a roaring fire in the fireplace soon grew quickly past a nice fire or two.  Or a season’s worth or two.  By week’s end, we had three HUGE piles and the thrill of those romantic nights by the fire faded in my mind with the looming task ahead.    

We stacked, and stacked, and stacked.

We took a lot of Advil.

5 covered stacks in back
I can’t imagine splitting this batch by hand, like we did a LONG time ago when we were MUCH younger.  Barring a handful of seasons when we had a few cords delivered, we have always “laid in” our wood supply.  Seems every few years there was always a neighbor or friend who needed a tree cut down or removed from their property. 

1 covered stack by the garage

And still, even with the aching muscles and sore back, I admit I don’t recall any other project being quite as sensory or satisfying.  I love the contrast of the sharp crack of a log as it splits with the dull note it strikes as it lands on the wood pile ten feet away.  I develop a comfortable rhythm and time passes quickly as log after log gets transferred from pile to stack, each piece getting spaced according to size and shape.   And that earthy, rich smell that gets released with each split seeps into my gloves and clothes, wrapping around me, so when I go in the house at the end of the day, it stays with me. 

Silly maybe, but looking at the completed work, I feel a connection to a life long ago.  There’s a silent acknowledgement of the difference when searching out wood and preparing it for the long winter ahead meant survival and not just an enjoyable evening fire.  And those same fires, well, they bridge some of the most pleasurable memories of my childhood with my adult life. 

The fruits of our labor!
All told, we most likely have about 10 – 12 cords from this project.  That should give us about five years of lazy evening fires or ones started on a cold weekend morning that burn all day. And that’s good, because our muscles and our backs could use the break.  All that’s left now is to sit back and enjoy…and of course, list that log splitter back on Craig’s list!

Friday, November 16, 2012


Hijacked! Well, all right, not exactly….…. I love journeys that takes me directly from point A to point B.  My NaNoWriMo journey was simple.  Start Nov 1st (point A) and end Nov 30th (point B) with 50,000 words of a novel draft.  THAT is not happening. 

My journey got hijacked, sidetracked, and just plain ransacked.  And I not only accept full responsibility for it, but am thrilled about it.  Most of it happened due to not preparing as extensively in October as I’d planned, and then consequently losing myself in self-education and research.

Here’s a few of the places I veered off course: 

  • Novel Writing – I visited this site for days.  Found it through a small reference on the NaNoWriMo forum…what a GEM!

  • The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  Never again will I struggle to SHOW a character’s feelings. Seventy five emotions are covered and through body language, internal sensations, actions and more.  Again, a $4.99 purchase and it was a surprisingly addictive read!

  • I left my laptop, novel notes, research and outlines behind on Nov. 12th and traveled to SUNY Geneseo to listen to Erika Dreifus read from her novel, Quiet Americans.  I’ve been a follower since the early 90’s and she didn’t disappoint – it was an engaging read and a rare opportunity to share in the process of her writing and her connection to her stories.  A day well spent!

  • The Buffalo News Short Story Contest 2012 submission is due December 3rd.  After numerous false starts, I woke up a couple nights ago in the middle of the night with the plot in my head.  This is a RARE occurrence for me, but I LOVE when it happens…..

Amidst the detours, I’ve sketched a rough list of my writing goals for 2013, come up with some draft changes for my website and blog, researched a few markets to enter and done a good deal of background research for my NaNoWriMo novel, which I officially now refer to as a “work in progress”. 

Hijacked? Sidetracked? Ransacked?  Absolutely ~ but what a ride!!!!!!!  

And the journey continues…

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Good Day's Drive

The dawn comes gray and damp, the road slick under tires that carry me mile after mile.  The chill is dispelled by the heated seat beneath me and the travel mug of Constant Comment tea beside me, the subtle aroma of orange and spice a familiar balm. 
My brother Craig, in Harrisburg, PA., is the destination.  A day trip there and back to touch base on some health issues with him and to drop off his copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul, finding my faith which housed my piece, “Journey’s Beginning”.  The plan had been for Steve and me to both go, but a nasty cold for Steve sidelines that as we don’t want to tax Craig’s immune system.
As I head out, my thoughts stray to my NaNoWriMo novel for November.  When I decided in September to participate this year, I had grand ideas that through October I’d develop my outline, create my characters and work on my plotline.  And I did work on it. A little. Very little.  I thought about working on it and did a lot of reading on characterization, story structure and plot development.  There was a little mind mapping and a few notes jotted down and I bought my big white board and some snazzy 5 x 7 index cards in multiple colors….all really great distractions, but not much work.
So here I am, five days before November 1st, with a solitary 12 hours of driving ahead of me, with nothing to do but muse on my novel.  I’ve made this trip alone before and know the lazy distraction of random songs playing, my thoughts skipping from one thing to another.  So, I challenge myself to stay focused on nothing but my plot line and a few basic character sketches. 
Travel by car has always held a special appeal.  There’s a feeling of anonymity, escape maybe, that comes with each passing mile as it takes me further from my daily life.  My mind wanders, following the muse with heightened senses that trigger characters, settings, conflicts and resolutions.
This drive, I set Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Robert Vaughan to repeat from my iPod through the stereo.   15 minutes and 1 second long, it plays softly in the background for 6 non-stop hours, providing a comfortable cadence for my thoughts to follow.
When I arrive home, I’ve delivered the book, enjoyed the gift of three hours with my brother and have a basic outline for my novel as well as a few mini plots to support it and four basic characters that I have a genuine interest in.   All in all, a good day’s drive.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

On. The. Shelf.

That’s me right there. 
On the shelf.
In Barnes and Noble. 
My piece, “Journey’s Beginning”, one of the stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul, finding my faith.
Two days before the official release date of October 16th.

...let me catch my breath….

Okay, I’m good now.  My first thought?  I wish my parents were alive to see this.  Not counting marrying a man they came to adore and providing them with a grandson they loved beyond belief, I know this writing achievement would’ve been one of their proudest moments of me.  I know many will say “they know” or “they’re watching over you” and I appreciate that.  For this though, I’d love to see the smile in their eyes, get that big bear hug from dad, and get a card from mom, wishing me “heartiest congratulations.”

My second thought? Wow, that’s me!  Right there on the shelf at Barnes & Noble! 

I remember Steven being the first to point out a couple months ago that someday we’d be in a store and there, on a display, would be the book.  It was so wonderful to have him with me at B&N, sharing that moment; reminding me to walk slowly and take in the “ambiance” of where we were…that I had a published piece HERE. He is, without a doubt, my biggest supporter, most steadfast fan and diligent proofreader.

Writing for me is a solitary pursuit.  Sharing the publication process and being “in the limelight” has been anything but.  The first big share was with Paul Robinson, the pastor of Trinity Church at the time I wrote “Journey’s Beginning”.  Paul ran the membership class I wrote about that directed my faith journey.  I’ve been fortunate to call him a friend ever since and it was a great joy to give him an advance copy of the book the day they arrived on my doorstep.    

Messages of congratulations from friends and family have been nothing short of amazing and I’m so appreciative of their support and encouragement.  Not only has it been a learning experience, but it’s been both a pleasure and great fun to share the announcement of “Journey’s Beginning” being accepted, the arrival of the advance copies and now the sighting of it in a REAL BOOK STORE.  Whew!

I will NEVER toss that Simon & Schuster box!
The advance copies arrived about two weeks ago and I love what I’ve read so far.  I read a half dozen or so stories at a sitting.  It would have been easy to read the book in the first day or two, but I’m giving each story its due, just as I hope other readers will with mine.  Each one carries a very personal message from the author and when I finish the book, I plan to contact as many of the other contributors as I can, based on the bio information provided in the back of the book.  Yes, the stories were picked on their individual merit, but also with purpose to reflect a cohesive message of hope and renewal.

For as excited as I am, I do realize the book’s not mine.  It’s an anthology, made possible by 100 other contributors as well as authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, co-founders of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and Susan M. Heim, author and editor of numerous publications, many of them part of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. 

I’m honored to be a part of the book and to be in their company.  Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Coming Out Eve

Seven years ago tonight was “Coming Out Eve”.  October 11th celebrates National Coming Out Day.  Technically, it wasn’t MY Coming Out Day, it was my son, Abram’s but MY anxiety level was through the roof.  Abram had come out to us a year and half earlier, February 18, 2004, shortly after he’d turned 15. 
Over the next year and half he came out to close friends and some family.  But this was to be the PUBLIC day.   He decided his announcement would come in the form of wearing a t-shirt to school.  Pure white with bold black iron-on letters across the front that read “CELEBRATE NATIONAL COMING OUT DAY OCT 11” and on the back in funky colorful iron on letters it read “CLOSETS ARE FOR CLOTHES”.  His outfit was rounded out with a rainbow wrist sweatband, a rainbow rubber bracelet and a silver chain with an assortment of colorful rings.  It screamed “taste the rainbow”….
I was scared to death for him.  Until then, his coming out was uneventful.  He’d had favorable and loving responses. But this was SCHOOL.  The same high school school that Steven and I had gone to.  We expected some trouble.  Maybe a fight – maybe a black eye or hurtful things said.  This was to be his first solitary adult stand.  And I would be nowhere in sight. Left behind to wait while he faced this challenge, alone, head on.
That night, we finished the shirt and it hung on the hanger, all pressed and ready to go. I didn’t sleep a wink the whole night, envisioning his life changing within the next twenty four hours.   I drove him to school on the 11th and after dropping him off, had to pull over because I was crying so hard.  I was so scared for him I didn’t know what to do with myself.   
It was one of the longest days of my life.  The weeks prior I’d read many coming out stories.  I read news articles about how it was celebrated across the country from small local events to national movements.  But it was personal now.  It was Abram.     
Finally, it was time to go back and pick him up.  I arrived in the parking lot a half hour early.  He came out (no pun intended) surrounded by his group of friends.  (I later found out they had made sure he wasn’t alone all day and had walked him from class to class “just to be sure” he was okay). 
He was smiling. He waved at someone as they called out when he passed.  He looked taller – like a load had been lifted. 
I felt like I’d aged ten years.  Come to find out the day had been pretty spectacular.  His shirt was noticed, some asked if it was a joke, to which he answered no and got a shrug or a “that’s cool” in reply.  A few people acknowledged with their eyes and a smile or a handshake  – and in math class he got a round of applause.  Yes. A round of applause. 
There are a few days that stand out in my life and this is one of them.  I felt honored that he asked me to help make his shirt – the vehicle for him to come out.  I felt proud of his courage to come out not knowing what the response would be.  I feel humbled to ride his shirt tail through this experience.
I stop and remember those 24 hours every Oct 10th & 11th.  I remember his courage and the foundation it provided for me to be and “Out an Proud” parent, ally and friend.  Some days are just meant to be celebrated. 
Not everyone in the LGBTQ community celebrates Coming Out Day.  But…a lot of them do.  Take a moment on the 11th.  Celebrate their being out with them.  Acknowledge their courage.  Take a stand for their equal rights.  Lend support to someone who’s just come out or is wrestling with the issue of doing so.  Be there for them. There are hundreds of resources – the following are a good start that offer leads to more resources.  Taste the rainbow!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Striving for Velvet

Not the prettiest dish, but OH so good!

I made Coq Au Vin for dinner tomorrow night.  Yes, I made it the night before because just like another classic, Beef Borguignon, it’s a meal that tastes so much better the second day. 

A few years ago, when Steve gave me Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it was specifically to make Beef Bourguignon.  Truth be told, Coq au vin, has moved to the position of dead heat for first place in my mind.  I’ve no doubt it’s due to the mirrored process of flavor layering involved in each dish.  
Both meals take between 9 and 11 steps to develop.  Both begin with bacon lardons to prepare the pot and browning oil for the beef or poultry.  (Let’s be honest here – what’s NOT better with a bacon enhancement)?   Then it’s brown the star ingredient, add the liquor and broth (yes, in that order – broth is definitely second fiddle to the wine and cognac), prepare the mushrooms and onions separately to develop their full flavor, reduce the cooking liquid to pure flavor gold and then introduce all the separate entities to each other before serving and finish off with a sprig of parsley (yes- its own step in each recipe)!

As I took the final taste test this evening before allowing it to cool, the only word to describe the sauce that cradles all this goodness is simply “velvet”.  It flows over the tongue, awakening the nose and palate, demanding its moment of savory appreciation.  

The meal, as a whole and given the advantage of blending overnight, produces a flavor nirvana like no other. 
Absolutely, it takes a good deal of time and preparation.  But it’s recipes like this that fulfill a desire in me to create, equal to my desire to write.  I don’t follow the recipe exactly.  I incorporate a slight change here or there, based on my desire at the moment and the materials I have on hand.  But the fundamental core remains constant.  Writing, like cooking, demands layers that build.  Parts that stand on their own yet are better when brought together as a whole. 
What I strive for, as an artist, is to walk among the greats for a short period of time with something I’ve created.  Whether it’s Julia Child or Joyce Carol Oates I’m emulating, I attempt, for a moment, to share my offering of creativity. 

It’s just Steven and I at home now to share the Coq Au Vin.  Some might say it’s too much work for just two people.   I don’t see it that way.  Preparing a meal or writing a piece fulfills a need in me.  And part of that need is to share.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s one person or a hundred.  What is paramount is that whether it’s someone appreciating a meal or a reader taking a moment to read what I’ve written, that the experience to be worth their time.  I want them to enjoy not only the immediate moment, but to know their worth in the time it took for me to create that moment for them.  If it provides enjoyment, if it feeds their body or soul; if it feels like velvet…well then, I’ve succeeded. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My Autumn Joy

Around me the lush beauty of autumn flourishes. The evening drive home from work finds the sun beginning to set behind me, and the tips of the trees ahead catch the rays.  As the days pass, leaves shed their summer green to reveal shyly, first, a pale yellow, then boldly, deeper reds, and shades of brown that add the richness of age as they curl into themselves, finishing their summer jobs of home to wildlife, shade and nourishment.  

Often, deer graze an early evening meal at roadside.  Further along, families of wild turkeys strut, safe from the hunting season within the confines of Buckhorn Island State Park.  Large nests, home to birds and squirrels begin to show themselves through thinning forests, previously hidden by the lush density of summer.   

At home, the crockpot simmers a roast I put in before work.   Opening the door, the aroma welcomes…come in, relax…we have all evening.  October, November and beyond is the time for comfort food.  Casseroles, baking bread, and slow roasted meals fill the menu.  All day weekend preparations of Coq au Vin or a batch of homemade bagels fill the house with a good feeling.  They feed the body, heart and soul with slow, lazy purpose. 

Unpacked from the attic are coveted and favorite pieces of the wardrobe.  Turtlenecks (promised to co-workers to not make an appearance until after October 1st), sweaters, sweatshirts, flannel nightgowns and fluffy bathrobes fill dressers and closets.    Hand sewn quilts, flannel sheets and the “warm like butter” throw from the Pottery Barn aren’t long to follow for beds, couches and over the back of chairs.   

My men, hard at work!
When daylight savings time hits and the day loses the sun by 5 pm, it’s open season on coming home from work and immediately changing into pajamas for the evening.  After all, it’s dark early – a time to celebrate the long evening ahead, curled up with your favorite book … or lover.  Weekends offer crisp and shortened days, a heightened sense of urgency to get the work and play done in daylight hours. Leaves are raked, wood is split and stacked, hikes provide an opportunity to revel in the beauty of the season and an annual trip to the cider mill and pumpkin vendor send us home with brown bags full of goodies. 
At home, the fireplace beckons.  Crinkled paper, a layer of kindling, graduated wood pieces, small to large (cut on a crisp day earlier in the season and stacked, a thing of beauty in itself,) wait for the strike of a match.  The paper catches, spreads the flame that works its way to a full burn.  The flames dance, flickers that reach the corners of the room. It’s an old house – the chimney rises through the center of the upstairs and gives off heat enough to make the two rooms there quite comfortable on the chilliest of days.  On a weekend, when the fire has been going since noon, it warrants opening the upstairs windows just a crack, a cool whisper seeps in to offset the blazing heat inside. 

This is my autumn.  This is my joy. 
“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly 
about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”
- George Eliot