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John King Books Is My Graceland

On Saturday, my sister and I took our first trip to John King Books in Detroit.

It was everything you want in a giant used bookstore housed in an old factory.

Full of charm and mystery.

And beautiful books.

I wanted to take all of these home with me. But I had given myself a budget. In a place like this, you kind of have to.

I brought home this book to read before, during, and after my upcoming trip to the Upper Peninsula.

I built my growing collection of fantastically lovely volumes of poetry printed in the 1800s.

I found Byron last year in a Lansing antique shop, and he is now joined by Burns and Longfellow.

I added yet another green-bound classic to my stacks (green, it seems, was the favorite color of these 1930s printings).

And I found a curiosity or two. This is a copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow written in shorthand.

I have a book that teaches you how to write shorthand from my grandmother’s library and this slim volume will go along with it (uh oh…I sense another collection coming into being).

The last book I found — the one that busted my budget and ended my shopping day — is something I’ll tell you about tomorrow…

 

Talkin’ Mothers & Welcome, Erin Bartels

You can find me talking about cherishing the season of writing you’re in right now over at Jody Herpin’s blog. Come join the conversation!

Jody Herpin

happy-mothers-dayWith Mother’s Day approaching, we spotlight our mothers whether they are still living or have passed on, and remember fondly how these women have impacted our lives. My mother who was a unique yet troubled woman, taught me life lessons I will never forget.  I, being a mother myself, can only hope that I’ve been able to fool my grown children into thinking I’ve passed on some of my positive qualities. (Fingers crossed)

But in my humble opinion, I honestly think most women represent motherhood. It doesn’t matter whether they’ve given birth or adopted a child or not.

One definition of motherhood is “the quality or the spirit of a mother.” Well, I firmly believe that we, as strong women, all have that spirit within us. I have to brag on my daughter here. She has not birthed an offspring so to speak, but she exceptionally defines the term motherhood. She is a teacher, which by the…

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On the Death of a Beloved Teacher

The first message, email, or notification I saw this morning was one telling me that one of my favorite high school teachers had died. The youngest of all of my teachers, I doubt he was even fifty years old. He left a family and many former students behind. I cannot picture him any other way than smiling because he was so rarely stern. He was excited about teaching, passionate about his subject, and always kind and patient with his students.

I was his teaching assistant for one semester my senior year and that afforded us more time to chat about things beyond school subjects. We talked about our experiences in the church — mine positive, his negative. He listened to the CDs I brought in because I was excited about the bands. We even talked a bit about how ridiculous high school could be. He was one of the men in my life (the other being my father) who told me that guys were intimidated by me (more about that here). He took every opportunity to pour his positive energy into me and every other willing student he found.

When I graduated from high school I didn’t want to have a standard graduation party. So many of my closest friends were older and had graduated a couple years before. There were so many other parties people had to go to. And I was not a big partier myself. But I did want to do something. Something different. So I asked several favorite teachers out to dinner at a nice restaurant (yep, I was that student). And he was among them. Later, I felt beyond honored to be invited to his intimate backyard wedding.

Back then there was no social networking. No Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. And when I went away to college, we lost touch. A few years ago I connected with his wife online, but he wasn’t in any of her pictures. I didn’t want to pry, but it was clear that over the years something had changed. I discovered he was no longer teaching and that he was dealing with some difficult personal problems.

In January I reached out to his wife, hoping perhaps he and I could meet for coffee sometime. I let her know I was praying for him. In the back of my mind I knew I was unlikely to get a call or text from him saying, Hey, next time you’re in town let’s chat. But I wasn’t ready to hear the news that he died only five months later.

Grief is always hard. And it’s hard in different ways. I can’t feel the intense grief that this man’s wife and children do. Or his closest friends. My grief is distant and regretful and feels small and futile and very personal. I told my husband and my sister the news this morning. They both had him as a teacher and loved him. He was a “cool” teacher, after all. But somehow I don’t think the news, though sad, brought them to tears as it did me. He is not the first of our teachers to die, and my husband took it much harder than I did when two of his favorite teachers died a few years ago, teachers that weren’t generally considered “cool” and that many people actively disliked.

Just last year I pulled out my senior yearbook when some friends were over so we could laugh over how intense and sincere and clever everyone was back in high school. Amid the joking, I was deeply touched when I ran across this teacher’s note to me.

It was probably not something I needed to hear back then, when I was also very impressed with myself. But it was something I dearly needed to hear nearly twenty years later, when I was questioning my performance in my chosen career path, which has reached a dead end, and my writing, which comes with a lot of rejection and waiting and wondering if I am fooling myself. People expected big things of me back then. And I didn’t feel I’d measured up to the standards I’d set for myself or those set for me by others.

This teacher could have written any number of clichés — Great to have you in class! Have a nice summer! Best of luck in college! Study hard! Instead he gave me a little flame of encouragement that would brighten my outlook twenty years later, even when things were dark in his own life. And maybe that’s what I grieve. Because I don’t feel like I gave that back to him. I wanted to. But it was too little, too late.

How much our teachers give, and how little they so often get in return, even from the students who adore them. If there is someone in your life — a teacher, a babysitter, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, a music teacher, a relative, a mentor — whom you have neglected to thank in a while, who poured into you when you were young and self-centered and too busy to notice, rebuild your connection with them starting today. Send a note to tell them how much you appreciated them. Because someday, you won’t be able to.

The Clock Ticks Ever On

If I’ve been lax at regular blog posts of late it’s probably because life is in a busy season. The end-of-school-year activities are picking up. The vigorous growth in the yard needs tending. We’re at the height of another catalog season at work. The articles for the WFWA newsletter need to be written and edited. And most of my spare time at the moment has been claimed by freelance editing and writing projects.

There’s a lot to prepare for in the coming weeks. Both my husband and my son have May birthdays.  I’ve been invited to speak to a large group of Nepali and Bhutanese women on Memorial Day as part of an event devoted to women and mothers in the church, so I need to start working on my message. Our summer travels are coming up fast, which means packing lists and playlists need to be created.

I’ve had little time for leisurely pursuits, like painting or taking photographs, though I am managing to read and wind down with a little Netflix now and then (Master of None at lunch, Better Call Saul or Brooklyn 99 in the evening). And I even watched a couple movies I’d had on my queue for months: The Imitation Game (amazing) and Sarajevo (quite good).

Life barrels forward. It seems with every new month I’m surprised that the last one is already ended. Were someone to find a way to slow it down to the pace of childhood, when every day was a lingering one and every summer hung on for eternity…Ah, but then we should complain that the future did not come fast enough.

Time is such a funny thing. Always a constant in reality, yet always slipping and shifting in our experience of it. And never enough of it, though it is infinite.

My World Blooms

It’s been marvelously, beautifully, gloriously spring around these parts.

Everything’s pushing up and out, drinking in the sun and rain.

It’s wave after wave of flowers.

Each week something else takes center stage.

Every leaf is fresh and new.

Every bud a gift that opens on its own.

April is the poem the earth writes in flowers.

The Very Best Thing

There were beautiful flowers, delicious dishes, and lots of stories and laughter with family.

But this is the best thing that happened today.

My husband baptized our son into the faith.

And God’s family got a little bigger.

***

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. ~ John 1:11-13

Coming Back to the Light

What a week. Enough flu for everyone.

Thankfully there have been flowers as well, both inside…

…and out.

The earliest blooms are out in the back yard gardens. The Lenten Rose (hellebores)…

…and the Siberian Squill (scilla)…

…and these tiny little guys, who have made themselves quite at home in one of my beds…

They’re a weed called Veronica Speedwell I’ve decided to let stay because I need groundcover in that spot anyway and have had limited success with the plants I actually planted in this very sunny, dry area. We’ll see what they do the rest of the year. If they behave nicely, I may keep them. They can be invasive, though, so I may regret it later.

At any rate, I’m still in no shape to deal with getting the garden cleaned up for spring. It’s on its own for a few more days at least as I recover fully from the flu. It’s a shame to have wasted some perfect gardening days sitting in a stupor inside, but there it is. Nothing can be done about it.

While recovering, I was lucid enough to enjoy two literary moments of significance. First, I got my latest manuscript back from the German translator who was helping me translate certain lines of dialogue into correct German, and also helping me with the elements of the plot which touch on translation issues between English and German. She had some very nice things to say about the manuscript and encouraged me to let her know when it found a publisher so she could tell her editors to be on the lookout for the translation rights. It was a wonderful boost of confidence for me as she is the first person who has actually read it in full.

The second moment came the next day, Sunday, when I received an email from one of the editors of The Lyric poetry magazine accepting one of my poems for a future issue. I don’t have any details yet, but I’ll be sure to share more when I know more.

And then Sunday night I felt normal enough to paint.

I based this painting on a photo I took years ago over a field in the Grand Ledge area before sunrise back when I was occasionally picking up a friend early in the morning to carpool to Grand Rapids. There was that glow in the sky that just precedes the sun, and a fine mist among the distant trees. One of those moments that is so fleeting and that you rarely get to experience when your house is smack dab in the city like ours.

So, I’m basically feeling normal now. I’m back to work (at home, as always) and though it is the beginning of Spring Break, the house is finally empty after our week of sickness. My husband has taken our son and the neighbor boy off on an adventure and my only companion is my canary, Alistair. I have a full inbox to deal with and some laundry that needs a kickstart. Time to brew a cup of coffee and see if I really am indeed back to normal — the worst part of the flu has been that my taste buds (we actually call them taste bites in this family) seem to be confused and coffee is the most dire casualty. Good, dark roast coffee has tasted like diner coffee with almost-turned cream. I’m hoping today might be the day everything gets back to normal…

From One Attitude to the Next

A rare Sunday skipping church, home with my boy who has the flu. My world is all Pedialyte,  Tamiflu, vomiting, and Phineas & Ferb.

Outside it looks like the flu too. Blank gray sky, wet brownish ground, still-bare trees. Winter’s leavings. But the goldfinches are starting to shine a sunny yellow and two days ago it topped 70 degrees. We soaked it up with windows down and radios blaring, knowing it wouldn’t last. Yesterday it was 45 and raining. Thirty degree shifts in 24 hours is par for the course in a Michigan spring. But it does seem to make us all a little sick.

As I write this, Sunday school is getting out and people are pouring their coffee and placing cookies on napkins in the library at my church. My husband will be walking between there and his office and the sanctuary, talking with his flock and getting things in place for worship. The kids (minus one) will be bouncing and running through the halls, slaloming past the old ladies with their walkers. Chatting and laughing will filter through the air until people find their way to the sanctuary and settle down as the first notes of the prelude emanate from the piano.

It’s a time of transition from one place to the next, one attitude to the next. Like March. Like Lent. We’re now in the second half of that liturgical season, a time when it is easy to forget about what we intended to do or not do. I have read three of my five books for Lent. Tomorrow I start Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther. I’m excited to begin my armchair pilgrimage, the story of going from one place to the next, one attitude to the next.

It is now fifteen minutes before the service begins. The microphones will be in place. The sound check done. The choir has finished running over their song and are now milling about with friends and grabbing a last cup of coffee or popping throat lozenges. I run upstairs at home to tell my son to take another sip of Pedialyte but he says his stomach doesn’t feel very good, so I decide to wait another fifteen minutes. I wonder when to try the Tamiflu. It’s been a few hours with no vomiting and I don’t want to get him started again, but I also know that if he can keep the nasty stuff down it will help shorten the whole ordeal.

So often we resist what is good for us because it seems unpleasant in the short run. And maybe it is unpleasant. March is unpleasant. The self-denial of Lent is sometimes unpleasant. Certainly contemplating one’s own sinfulness or mortality is unpleasant.

I understand that molting feathers is unpleasant as well. But without sloughing off the old drab colors of winter, the goldfinch will not find a mate, which is his purpose in life. He first needs to lose his old identity as an olive-gray bird before he can embrace his new identity as a drop of sunlight. He doesn’t do this himself. He doesn’t decide one day to molt his old feathers. That is something outside of his control. Just as my son cannot decide to be well and will the flu virus out of his body. Just as we do not simply decide to be holy and then do it in our own strength.

I hear those first notes of the prelude now. The worship service is beginning. So I need to stop my chatting. I need to make that transition from one attitude to the next. I can’t be among the saints and sinners at church this morning. I can’t join my voice to theirs in song. But I can commune with them and with our God in prayer. So that’s what I’ll do now.

Right after I check on my little boy.

Writing a Novel Longhand

Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oates. Neil Gaiman. Amy Tan. Jhumpa Lahiri. J. K. Rowling. Truman Capote. Vladimir Nabakov.

What do all of these people have in common? They write/wrote their works longhand, with paper and pen or pencil, before typing them up on either typewriter or computer.

There are several reasons to eschew the computer when writing a novel. There are no online distractions or rabbit trails. It is easier to write forward rather than getting stuck in an endless and premature editing cycle. You don’t have to make sure you’re seated by an outlet. Paper and pen are more portable and are not a pain in the TSA screening line. It’s far easier to write outside where the sun might completely obscure a laptop screen. And we know that looking at a screen all day is not good for our eyesight or our sleep cycles.

Recently I read an article about how taking notes longhand improves recall in students (this despite the push to get laptops in schools). I had a laptop in college and I never brought it to class. I didn’t need a study to tell me that physically writing notes on paper helped me remember what I was learning. If I don’t write it down, it’s gone, baby.

I enjoy writing on paper. I have been journaling for about a year and a half in an unlined notebook. I always write my poetry longhand, scratching out verses and changing words and drawing lines on the page before typing them up. But when it comes to fiction, I really haven’t tried it.

Some people can’t imagine writing a novel that way because they write scenes out of order and it is easier to manipulate the document on the screen than it would be on paper. I always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and writing straight through to the end, though I do sometimes go back while drafting and edit what I’ve already written. In revision, I often add entire new scenes earlier in the story, but that could easily be done in the first typewritten draft.

Anyway, this past weekend I got it in my head to try it with whatever I’m writing next. It will mean I won’t be watching word counts rack up (at least, not until I type the second draft) but I have to wonder if I might benefit from it.

Sunday evening I bought a pack of four .8 mm black uni-ball pens and a pack of three narrow-ruled moleskin journals, 120 pages each, for a total of 360 pages, pre-divided into a three act structure. The pens are pink on the outside, distinguishing them from all my other many pens, and will be used solely for writing in these notebooks.

Now, I do have terrible handwriting, especially when my mind is on a roll. And there may be times when my handwriting cannot keep up with my thoughts like my typing fingers would. But I imagine there will be fewer typos (fast typing means fumble fingers sometimes for me) and I won’t feel the need to go back and correct the ones that do occur because I know I will get them in the second, typed draft.

One benefit I can count on is this — because I won’t want to “mess up” these notebooks, I won’t actually start writing the next story until I’ve done a lot of preliminary work with character arcs and plotting and feel fairly confident that I know the story I’m telling before I put pen to paper.

I’ll be sure to let you know how the experiment pans out.