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So, I’ve Been Watching a Lot of Bob Ross Lately…

Reader, if you were watching PBS in the 1980s and early 1990s, you know doubt know of the phenomenon that is Bob Ross‘s The Joy of Painting. What you may not know is that there are seasons now available on Netflix. And further, that they are most excellent viewing material when you’re doing laundry or lying in bed at night, drifting off to sleep.

You also may not realize that watching The Joy of Painting nearly every day will make you want to paint some big ol’ mountains, happy trees, and happy clouds that live up there in the sky. Now, I’ve never painted with oils before, but Bob Ross says I can do it, and I don’t think you’ll find a more sincere and encouraging teacher. So I’m pretty sure that my Christmas list this year will include a number of items that will get me painting in oils come 2017.

In the meantime, it’s summer, and I have places to go and photos to take, which I hope to share with you soon.

 

Digging Up the Dead: When What You’re Writing Hits Too Close to Home

A couple days ago I got over the 40,000 word hump on my newest project. That’s a great feeling. If you’ve ever been involved in a big, multi-stage project, like designing a new garden or renovating a kitchen or building a suspension bridge, you know what it’s like to know what you need to do in the beginning, and know how you want things to turn out in the end, but be just a wee bit fuzzy on how the middle will work out. Well, maybe that’s not the best analogy, because probably most of you plan your big projects. Measure once, cut twice, etc. Wait…that’s not right.

But me? I’m not a big planner. Not when it comes to writing and not when it comes to projects. Sure, I’ll start sewing a dress with a pattern, but I usually buy fabric in various lengths without a solid idea of just what I’ll make with it. It always works out. And I’ll start a major garden rearrangement with one solid idea — that one plant will go here — but the rest is just keeping up with the dominoes as they fall. It always works out.

We’re thinking about redoing our sunroom and making it a more masculine room that will serve as a cigar lounge. That will take some doing. It will mean finally installing a railing on the roof, painting the girly wicker furniture with all-weather paint, moving all that up on the flat roof with an outdoor area rug and maybe some plants in the warm weather. It will involve redoing the flooring, painting the walls, installing a good ventilation system, getting new furniture, moving some books around, trading out my natural decorations for some that fit better with the manly, mid-century black leather look. It will be a big project. I can see the beginning and the end…but that middle bit is hazy. Knowing me, we’ll dive in with these vague plans, figure out the muddy middle, and it will all work out.

Writing a novel is more of a mental project than a physical one. Beyond the words and sentences and paragraphs stacking up in your Word document, writing a novel involves going deeper and deeper — into characters and conflicts, into settings and subplots. And into one’s own experience. Even if you’re writing about a world very different than your own, you will be writing about yourself, your thoughts, your struggles, your memories.

In the book I’m writing right now, I’m delving into some deeply confusing and sometimes painful experiences from my own childhood friendships and encounters, and using those things to propel the plot and affect the development of my characters. I’m dredging up the friendships that ended (why?) and the things that happen to us that we’re too young and inexperienced to process. I’m remembering the insecurities and the rugs being pulled out from underfoot. I’m remembering the things I got wrong and the things I didn’t even know were things.

By the middle of the book, with the tension and conflict ratcheting up, I’ve written myself into a place that I must go through, that I can’t put off any longer. I have several options for which way to take the story, to take the characters. There are cop-outs to avoid, there’s melodrama to avoid, there are wrong steps to avoid. Somewhere ahead is the right path for the story. And I know it runs right over a dead body.

Not literally, of course. I’m talking about those incidents you had long gotten over, had put to rest in your mind years ago, but now must dig back up because they were never wholly dead. You buried them alive, hoping, I suppose, that in doing so you’d smother them and all the questions they’d raise in your mind. And now, after 40,000 words, you have to dig them up, examine what’s left of the evidence, and come up with some answers.

It’s a tough place to be. It makes you start searching for people on the internet, looking for clues as to whether what they did or said to you all those years ago have had any effect on their lives. Often you come up with results that can feel incomprehensible but at least positive. Maybe you find that the girl who was so mean to you as a kid is now a sweet-faced fourth grade teacher. Maybe the kid who stole your bike is a now police officer.

Other results might be more troubling. Maybe your friend’s older brother who molested you is now married with two little girls and you wonder, had you said something way back when, if his life would have gone a completely different way. Maybe the friend you unceremoniously dropped when cooler kids came around ODed or committed suicide. And you find yourself wondering if her troubles started with her losing her close friend.

All those little childhood incidents — could they have had lifelong consequences? The little cruelties that were convenient at the time…what unknown repercussions might have been echoing for the past twenty-five years?

The lovely thing about writing fiction is that you can make things more or less consequential as your story demands. You draw upon those experiences, mold them, and let them propel you toward your conclusion. Yes, the writing of a novel in which you draw deeply from your own experience can be emotionally taxing. You might dig up that half-dead body only to find you still cannot understand it any more than you did when you first buried it.

But maybe you’ll finally be able to put it out of its misery and put it back in the ground for good.

And now, I must get back to writing. A hard scene is staring me in the face, daring me to write it. And that’s my only way forward.

A 90-Degree Walk in the Marshlands

Not far from downtown Bay City, Michigan, is the body of water from which it derives its name: the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron.

A low, marshy area, it has a strip of sandy beach that in many places is only reachable by boardwalk.

On the horizon lies the power plant that supplies the area with electricity.

There’s something about this sight that feels quintessentially Bay City, but I’m not sure I can articulate why.

Perhaps it’s because so much of the natural environment was so fundamentally changed when white people finally settled here. When the area was first surveyed it was determined unfit for human habitation. Nothing but swamps and unbearable swarms of mosquitoes.

The story goes that much of lower Michigan was settled only after East Coasters were essentially tricked by unscrupulous land agents into buying land they hadn’t seen in person when what they were actually buying was swamp.

You can’t build or farm on a swamp, of course. So you drain it. And you start a mosquito control program.

And the land becomes something it was never meant to be. It becomes farms and shipyards and sawmills and factories.

But it still wants to be a swamp.

It wants to be a place where water is slowly filtered through a network of soils and plants and microscopic creatures.

It wants to feels the wriggling tadpoles in the warm shallows and the sliding fish in the deep places.

It wants to feed the roots of poplars and birches and the cottonwoods that were sending their confetti down all around me as I strolled along the margins of the marsh.

It wants frogs and toads, red-eared sliders and snapping turtles.

It wants to sustain little forests of lily pads that, as the mother of an eight-year-old son, I can’t help but see as a colony of green Pac-Mans.

Even during this incredibly hot day, the breeze from the bay tickled the leaves on the trees and bid them send their shade upon Earth’s weary creatures.

Between horizons on either side, I could believe that I was in a very wild place.

But a glance to the left revealed dozens of waterfront houses. And a glance to the right…

That power plant that I never knew I’d depended on when I lived in the Essexville/Bay City area as a child.

Still, if I looked in the right place…

I could see something beautiful and quiet and wild.

And that’s what I’m always looking for.

There’s No Such Thing as Too Many Books

You’ll find books on every floor of our house, and in nearly every room (bathrooms and laundry room excluded — reading on the john is anathema in our household). You’ll even find books in the hallway and on the landing.

Were I asked to estimate how many books the three of us own, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a number (especially since when you add in Zach’s books that are housed at his office in the church, the number likely doubles!). I can say that when we moved from Grand Rapids to Lansing more than ten years ago, the estimator for the moving company did not take seriously our warnings about the literal wall of boxes in our apartment when he was blithely counting them up to add them to his sheet.

“Those are all books, so they’re going to add a lot of weight.”

“Yeah, got it.”

No, guy, you didn’t. And when we moved, the movers had to check in the weight of the truck before they left…and had to get another truck…which they wanted us to pay for despite their mistake.

I digress.

In the decade since our move to Michigan’s capital city, we’ve accumulated more books. A lot more.

Now, I tend to be a person who likes to get rid of things that are not being used or haven’t been used in the past few years. I don’t like clutter and I (along with the two little pack rats I live with) am prone to it, so it’s a constant battle to keep my environment under control. I revel in throwing away expired food and giving away unloved clothes and even abandoning those “projects” I kept meaning to get to but never did. Get it all out of the house! Give me some breathing room.

But I have no problem with books. Books we mean to read someday, books we haven’t read for years, and everything in between. They are all welcome to stay. They just need an inch or less on a shelf somewhere.

“Why not just use a Kindle? Then you don’t have to store all those books.”

We do. Both of us. And we can read on our phones. And we also keep buying printed books. Because printed books are (I’m just going to say it) better for so many reasons. One being, hey, now we don’t have to figure out what to put on that wall for decoration; the answer is always bookshelves.

Books are not only wonderful for what lay between the covers, they’re also lovely as objects in and of themselves.

Especially old books, because back when books were not oozing out of every pore of the Internet, they were made differently.

They were sewn rather than just glued. They were bound in leather or fabric. They were gilded and embossed.

Those things still happen today, of course, and there are many beautiful books. But there is something about the old ones that is especially enchanting. Even when they’re a little worse for wear.

Maybe especially then.

Kicking and Screaming My Way into the 21st Century

My husband and I have been longtime holdouts in the cell phone world, dragging our heels and hanging onto phones that do little more than call or text. We’ve had good reasons — the cost seems ridiculous, we’re Luddites at heart, they can become a colossal time-suck in people’s lives. But mainly it’s been that we don’t want to become pointless-amusement-obsessed zombies who can’t even be fully in a conversation with another person without itching to check (or actually checking) our phones. Is anything more frustrating that being in a room of people who are pretty much ignoring you as they work on developing their “iPhone chins” by constantly checking Facebook or playing Words with Friends on their phones? (Probably there’s lots of more frustrating situations, but for the sake of this post, these are the most insufferable people in the world, and I don’t want to become one.)

I am definitely a late adopter in most cases of technology development (though for some reason I got on Facebook relatively early). But there have always been several features about smartphones I’ve been keenly interested in using. MyFitnessPal, instantly posting photos to Facebook, easily finding restaurants near you in an unfamiliar town, instantly finding out what awesome song was playing on the speakers at the coffee shop and being able to buy that song right then and there…. And Instagram. Not necessarily to send photos of my food out into the world (though if it looks amazing, why not?) but to get beautiful photos fed to me and to share the occasional beautiful photo myself. Plus there’s just a really fun kind of Polaroid vibe on Instagram I’ve kind of felt left out of.

Zach (who still proudly uses a c. 2003 Palm Pilot daily, mind you) had to get out of his old but beloved phone’s grip (cost benefit ratio did not add up) and found a very inexpensive Android phone that wouldn’t cost a ridiculous amount of money each month (thus satisfying his cheap Dutchman’s heart) but would also interact with his Palm platform, thus not rendering his Palm obsolete, the specter of which I’m sure kept him up nights. And every time he told me something else very practical he could now do, I coveted that new phone. So, now we have his and hers.

And now I’m on Instagram, just in time for gorgeous summer travel Up North and another trip to the Southwest come September. If you want to follow me there, you can by clicking here. At the moment my photo stream is sparse and lacking in variety (hey, I haven’t left the house since I started it — give a girl a break) but I’m hoping to remedy that in the coming weeks. I’d love to see you over there.:)