The retreat that pushed me forward

Attending my first in-person writing retreat after the pandemic was like a dream. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had been forced to hold virtual events for the past two years. This year we were back. A few weeks ago, twenty-five writers, editors, and agents met in the San Jacinto Mountains face to face.

We slept in tiny cabins at Tahquitz Pines Conference Center in Idyllwild, California. Our meetings were held at a lodge nestled in the tall trees. The weather was perfect for hiking, 70s in the daytime, 50s at night. Meals were served in a cafeteria. Staying there evoked memories of childhood summer camp.

During four magical days, I fellowshipped with other writers. Real people like me who sit in front of a computer and type out stories. A few still wore masks, a lingering reminder of the past two years. At first, it felt awkward sitting and talking to people, but as days passed, it seemed like COVID never happened.

The days leading up to the retreat, I was terrified. I was bringing a brand-new story to my critique sessions, raw in its first draft. During Zoom critiques, I could turn off my camera if I didn’t want anyone to see my reactions.  Now I sat at a round table under the gaze of six other writers and an editor. Nowhere to hide. Then I noticed everyone else seemed a little nervous, too. We were all eager to share our work yet afraid it was not enough.

Once we started, it grew easier. We became invested in each other’s characters. We celebrated beautiful imagery and clever dialogue. We discussed how the story could be improved.

Outside the four critique sessions, we had time to stretch our socialization legs. Some worked on revisions in the lodge. Others hiked the forest around us. A few rested in their cabins.

We ate together. We shared. We laughed.

We highlighted. We questioned. We encouraged.

And when our days were completed, I drove back down the mountain to my normal life. Not alone revising my story for the tenth time, but part of a supportive group that lifts me up above the silent negativity that slays books before they’re written.

That’s how a retreat can push you forward.

Perfect World

It was difficult for Lola to decide whether she wanted to be a dancer or a painter when she graduated from college.

“Why choose at all?” her guidance counselor said with a smile. “Take both the Dance and Art placement tests. You can double major at university and then apply for a split career. Young people do it all the time. Then when your superior talent emerges, you can go full time in your strength.”

Lola loved ballet. Most of her high school classes were either studying its history or experiencing the dance itself. Even her science classes involved kinesthetics and the physics involved in dance. But when sixth period came, she took off her ballet shoes and emersed herself in the joy of oil painting. She loved drawing and painting the human body. Her high school hired models (dressed in swimwear of course) so that students could draw from life. They studied anatomy along side color theory.

Their president was an artist too. Dr. Hansen was responsible for the laws making jobs for musicians, artists, writers, and dancers. When children were seven, they were tested for creativity. If they showed some talent, they were encouraged to take special classes. When they were seniors in high school, they took a test in their ability which would determine which university they would attend.

After completing their university degree, creatives could apply for important government positions. Since the government paid the performers, citizens could attend concerts and performances for free. Anyone could apply for a mural to be painted on the wall of their home or a portrait done of their family.

Lola’s mother was a children’s book writer, and her father was a saxophone player. But ever since she could walk, Lola danced her way through life. She should choose dance for college.

After hanging up her toe shoes on the rack, she looked down at her computer. Maybe she should video call Becky, her cousin, who still lived on Earth. Becky and her mom, Lola’s dad’s sister, came out to visit every year. She’d known Becky her whole life and chatted with her frequently.

Lola checked the clocks over her desk. The one on the left was Pacific Standard Earth time. It was only 9:00 pm there. Becky would still be awake.

“Hey, Lola! What’s up?” On Lola’s screen, Becky’s hair was rolled up in a cap to keep her waves, and she was in her pink unicorn pajamas.

“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” Lola said. It wasn’t even dinner time yet on Mars.

“No, I was still working on my algebra homework,” Becky squinched up her nose to show what she thought about advanced mathematics. “What are you up to?”

“I have to fill out my test application,” Lola said with a groan. “I can’t decide whether to choose dance or art. What do you think I should do?”

Becky chewed her lip. “Wow! I only wish I had that problem. You are so lucky to live on a planet that lets you pursue creativity. As you know, I love dance as much as you do, but Mom can’t afford dance lessons for me. As soon as I graduate, I’m off to work at her dad’s office. No more dancing for me!”

Lola sighed. Not for the first time, she wished Becky and her mom had signed up for the Mars colony. Creatives on Earth had to work boring service jobs to support themselves. What little time they had left after work and family was all they had for their creative pursuits.

“I’m so sorry, Becky. But which one should I choose?”

Her cousin tipped her head, narrowed her eyes, and then opened them wide. “Dance, silly! Dance is your first love!”

“Thanks, Becky. I’ll let you go. I hear Mom calling me.”

After dinner, Lola went to the testing website and filled out the application for the Dance Aptitude Test. Then she took her shower and went to bed. She put on some Mozart to help her relax and nestled under her blankets. She fell asleep dreaming about her future.

#

Lola’s alarm went off and she rolled over to hit the snooze button. Was it the weekend yet? She still hadn’t finished her Advanced Writing assignment, and it was due first period. She groaned and rolled out of bed. She’d have to write it before she left for school.

As she grabbed her sweater and backpack, she glanced over at her toe shoes hanging on a hook by her desk and frowned. She missed ballet. It had been her life for five wonderful years.

When her dad left them, her mom put her foot down and insisted Lola stop dancing. She needed to start focusing on her grades so she could get a college scholarship. A business degree was the only acceptable path since most corporations that offered benefits and pensions required their managers to have at least a bachelor’s degree in business.

What would it be like to live in a world where dancers could work as dancers instead of receptionists?

She made herself a smoothie and sat down with her laptop. The prompt was to write about what she thought would make a perfect world. In the back of her mind, she felt the tickle of an idea. Something she had been dreaming about last night. Her fingers flew over the keyboard.

“It was difficult for Lola to decide whether she wanted to be a dancer or a painter when she graduated from college.”

Christmas Cookie

Rain pounded on the roof. I measured out flour and salt into a metal bowl. My kitchen was ablaze with light as the storm stole all daylight. In a larger bowl, I mixed butter and sugar. The dogs whined as they needed to go outside but being California born, they didn’t trust going out in the rain. I sent them outside anyway. After I creamed the butter and sugar with my hand mixer, I added eggs and vanilla. Although wind rattled the windows, it was warm and cozy in our house. I hoped the heater would not break down this year. It was time to ease in the dry ingredients a little at a time. Outside my kitchen window, water streamed off our tin patio roof and into the eager flower beds. At least we wouldn’t need the sprinklers for a while. No need to waste water in a drought.

I spooned the dough into my cookie press, chose a shape disc, and replaced the end of the cylinder. Squeezing the dough through the tube created precise patterned cookies on the baking sheet. The rain beat down harder but for now the roof didn’t leak. I shook some colored sugar over the raw dough. It would be a miracle if my Amazon Christmas gifts were delivered in this storm. The baking sheets went into the oven, and I set the timer. When the time was right, I would pull out beautiful, delicious sugar cookies. After they cooled, I would wrap them up in tins and give them to my friends at Christmas.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been measured by others and whipped around by them. Squeezed through difficult times of my life. Sprinkled with sweet words when I felt raw. Trapped in fiery trials like in a hot oven. But when the time was right, I was brought out of the heat, beautifully shaped and full of sweetness. Ready to share.

Let your life be a Christmas cookie to someone.

What ever happened to thanksgiving?

When I was young, Halloween decorations came down November 1st, but Mom left up fall leaves and pumpkins. She added a cornucopia with gourds on the table. Before Santa Clauses set up their chairs in the local department stores, there was a holiday for sharing a feast with your extended family and being grateful for your many blessings.

This year, as soon as the tombstones, skeletons, and jack-o-lanterns were packed up, red and green lights appeared on the houses in my neighborhood. Did I miss something?

Now more than ever we need to be thankful. Over the past two Covid years, I have lost family and friends to the virus and other causes. Many of us have attended more funerals, some virtual, than we ever have in our lives.

A reason to be thankful. We are still here to gather with family and friends, eat turkey, watch football, and savor pumpkin pie with mounds of whipped crème.

We all have our own reasons to be thankful.

This is my first year as a full-time writer. Thanks to a generous retirement incentive from my school district, I was able to retire early in May. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t had to balance a paying job with my creative passion.

My youngest daughter had twins this year. I am so thankful to have time to spend with them. More time than I ever had when I was raising my own children, part of that time as a widow.

My husband and I have six children and nine grandchildren. We are both so thankful that none of our children lost their jobs during the pandemic shutdown. Our grandchildren are healthy.

When we quiet our hearts, we can find thankfulness. Being grateful gladdens our hearts and silences our complaints. Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I’ll have Christmas music blaring through the house after next Thursday. But before we rush out to buy those perfect gifts and unwrap the presents under the tree, shouldn’t we start first with grateful hearts?

The Reluctant Writer- a cautionary tale

Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

“I’ll write that book someday,” she said after sharing her story with friends over coffee.

“You really should,” they agreed.

Years went by. Her work was busy. The kids had sports. The laundry basket was overflowing.

“You should write a book about that,” her husband said when she shared her story over a glass of wine.

“I know, but this week we’ve got to get ready for camping.” She started writing her checklist for their trip.

Years went by. The kids graduated from high school. She thought there would be more time to write. Her husband got sick, so she spent her days taking him back and forth to the doctor.

I’ll write that book someday, she thought. Maybe when I retire.

Years went by. Her husband got better. The kids had their own kids. Both she and her husband retired. She thought there would be more time to write but her kids needed someone to babysit the grandkids.

I’ll write that book someday, she thought. Now I have all the time in the world.

Years went by. The grandkids went to school. Her husband passed away. Her eyes grew weak, and her hands hurt. It was hard to type on her laptop.

I will write this book, she thought. And even when it was hard to focus beyond her pain, she wrote and wrote and wrote.

Years went by. When she finally held the finished novel in her trembling hands, she couldn’t even read the words on the pages.

But she was full of joy because she finally wrote the book.

The Witch Who Was Afraid of Magic

     

No one ever visited the old crone who lived deep in the heart of the forest. The miller’s wife said she was a witch. The blacksmith’s wife told everyone she was mad. The local priest insisted that she was a wise woman with knowledge about herbal remedies, nothing magical.

The crone’s name was Circe, meaning “little bird,” which is how she lived, hidden under the trees. Upon her arrival she had claimed a tiny stone cottage, built and abandoned by unknown persons long ago. She made it hers as she swept the hearth, tucked straw into holes around the window, and planted wildflowers around it.

Circe wore her waist-length black hair twisted and braided around her head like a crown. Even though she could feel the wrinkles on her face, her hair’s glossy raven color never faded. It was an unconscious magic that she couldn’t control. If she had chosen to practice her magic, she would be able to hold on to more of her youth. But she hid away from magic as well as people.

They both brought pain.

The crone knew how to take care of herself. Her skill with bow and snare provided her meat, along with vegetables she grew in her garden. In exchange for herbs, the blacksmith’s daughter, Anna, brought Circe whatever else she lacked. Her innocent smile and sparkling eyes reminded the crone of herself when she was very young.

Every day the crone strolled through her forest home. The dark green canopy allowed only speckles of sunlight to dot the carpet of brown leaves. The trees were close together, so she had to wind her way around them. The branches whispered greetings to her as she passed. With a hand on the rough, gnarled bark, she whispered her thanks that the forest provided murderers with peaceful exile.

Many years ago, she had lived in the nearby village, before any of its current residents had drawn their first breath. In those days, she was recklessly beautiful and gave herself freely to any young man she pleased. This did not make her popular with the women in the village.

Thomas, one of the village elders, pleaded with her that she should settle down and marry. Circe smiled at his grave face and agreed. It was time to start a family of her own. Mother gave her books and seedlings to nurture her magic. Warned her to only use it for good.  

A raven’s cry brought Circe back to the present. That was good because she didn’t want to dwell on what happened next. The laughing young man she married became an angry jealous man who left marks on her. He told the men at the pub that he had married a witch, and the reason they had no babies was because his wife slept with demons. A ridiculous notion that may have been concocted to protect his tumorous pride.

One night her husband came home with murder in his eyes. As usual, she brought him his stew which he ate in front of the fire. He roared out insults and grabbed his walking stick. Before he could strike her, Circe quickly spoke words of power. Her husband cried out, fell to the ground, and turned into a rat. With a broom she swept him out of the cottage. Then she packed up a basket and left.

Circe wasn’t sure where to go. Her magic was tied to the land of her birth. She could not simply leave on a ship. If she traveled to the next village, someone would find her. She would be dragged back and hung on a tree. Although her husband had been an evil man, transforming him without his consent was against the covenant she and her mother signed. Why hadn’t she turned herself into a bird and flown away the first time he struck her? But what was done was done.

The forest called to her. She made it her home. For many long years, she lived as mundane, afraid to use her powers again.

When the crone arrived back at her cottage, Anna was waiting for her with red eyes. A wasting sickness had hit the village hard, and her older brother had been in bed for three weeks. Circe told her she could send some herbs, but she couldn’t go back to the village with her.

The disappointed young girl left with a full basket.  

That night, the crone woke to the sound of her name. When she sat up in bed, her mother’s shade stood at the end of the bed with her arms crossed. Mother had passed over when Circe had first married and had never appeared to her before. Although she could see the kitchen table faintly through Mother’s body, she didn’t want to underestimate her power. Even though the shade didn’t speak, the crone shivered as Mother’s words flashed with anger in her mind. Then the shade disappeared, and she knew what she must do.

Early the next morning, she tugged on her boots and fastened her cloak. She loaded up her basket and left the cottage before she could change her mind. Mother was always right, even when she was dead. Even though the crone was ancient in years, her steps were quick. She reached the middle of the village square by twilight.

 Anna was hauling water from the well, and almost dropped her bucket when she saw the crone. The girl led her to her family’s house behind the blacksmith shop. It was a fine house, two floors high and made of wood. She pushed open the heavy door and they walked in.

 Anna’s brother, Gregory, was upstairs in the first bedroom. His sweat-drenched face was covered in red dots, and his arms, once strong enough to pound iron, were only skin and bones. Circe asked the girl to bring her a pot of hot water and some clean cloths. What could she do for this young man? Her magic had lain dormant for over two hundred years. Would it listen to her now?

 When the water arrived, Circe mixed in some herbs, chanting under her breath. Anna watched her with great interest, for there were no longer any magic users left in their land. With the arrival of the priests, witches and wizards were driven away, to be replaced with prayer and medicine. But the village priest and the doctor from the neighboring village could do nothing to stop the terrible sickness.

Remembering what Mother had taught her, Circe used the cloth to cleanse Gregory’s face. As she wiped over the weeping sores, she spoke powerful words of healing and life. The sores disappeared, replaced by healthy skin. Anna ran out to find her mother in the market.

Gregory opened his eyes and frowned to see a strange old woman bathing him. Circe told him she was a witch and to lay still while she finished healing him. And yes, she’d seen a man’s nakedness before. She needed to cover all the sores with the healing water no matter where they were on his body.

 When the blacksmith’s wife, who asked her quickly to call her Kathy, saw her oldest son sitting up in bed and taking some soup, she almost crushed Circe with a hug. The blacksmith had died some years ago, and Gregory had taken well to smithing. His work supported their whole family. And of course, he was a good lad, with his good years ahead of him.

 The crone ended up staying for the night. The next day, word spread through the village, and she was busy going house to house healing those she could. Anna stayed at her side, her eager assistant. Circe ended up staying for two weeks until there was no more sickness in the village. Even the priest came by to thank her for her service.

Finally, it was time to go home. Anna had proved to be a diligent student and made Circe promise to make her an apprentice in the magical arts when she was old enough. The crone’s magical knowledge would not be lost at the end of her time.

 The sunset glowed behind the forest as Anna approached. Her arms and legs ached from doing more magic in recent weeks than she’d done her whole life. The branches rustled with approval and rabbits stood peering with curiosity to see a powerful witch. Her stone cottage with bright red and yellow flowers looked finer than any palace to her. She started a fire, put on a kettle, and shook some of her herbs into her mug. When the water boiled, she reached out to take it from its hook above the fire.

Suddenly, she felt eyes watching her. She almost dropped the kettle when she turned around to find Mother’s shade standing there, glowing in the firelight. This time Mother’s face was smiling and covered with tears. She gave her daughter a curtsey worthy of a queen. Then she pulled something out of a small pouch at her waist. Mother placed it in Circe’s hand. A real, solid object. Her breath caught as she realized what it was.  

A large black pearl broach. Mother’s favorite. It had been buried with her. With trembling fingers, she fastened it to the neckline of her dress.  

The wind kicked up outside and blew her door open. Without trumpet or tambourine, the forest celebrated her victory over fear. Then she poured the steaming water into her mug. She sat down in front of the fire, the mug warming her hands.

And she smiled.

Swiper No Swiping

When we bought our cute little border collie puppy, we didn’t expect to bring home a thief.

The first day Davidson hid under the furniture staring at us with suspicion. After our recent experience with Harley, our three-year-old beagle, we knew we would have to “puppy proof” the house. When Harley was a puppy, she trimmed all our backyard plants down to the roots and chewed through our internet cable.

So this time we thought we were smart puppy parents. We bought bags of chew toys and treats. We barricaded Davidson into approved areas of the house. We started crate training the moment we brought him home. He was potty trained by three months, and caught on to our house rules quickly.

What we didn’t know was our new puppy was a kleptomaniac. He stole shoes, towels, lip balm, coasters, and empty (thank goodness!) prescription bottles. He performed his first magic trick by removing the tablecloth from the table, leaving the items on the table. Well, most of the items. My phone crashed to the hardwood floor, case side down. There would have been no harm done except the salt and pepper shakers fell on my phone’s screen and cracked it.

Then my daughter brought her newborn twins over to our home. Davidson decided he liked pacifiers, and would steal them out of the car seats. He sat in the corner, next to one of his toys and chewed the nipple off them. If no pacifiers were within reach, he hijacked some of the baby clothes from a bag.

He’s a trickster. When you looked over at him, he would be sound asleep by the fireplace. While you turned your attention elsewhere, he would lope around the living room, swishing his tail, looking for what he could reach next. Forget taking off your shoes. Gone in five seconds. Don’t leave your snack on the coffee table if you want to eat it. We would correct him and give him alternative chew toys. Sometimes he got a time out. We get it.

Don’t get me wrong. Davidson’s a smart puppy that will grow up into a responsible dog member of our family. Until then, he’ll do time for his crimes and as we keep his klepto urges under control.