Going Home!

I once told my husband–or so he claims–that I would never live above the Mason-Dixon line. After this winter, I think I know why I said that!

Today, however, I am going home to Georgia after five years of being away. I’ve always gone back every couple of years, but the Great Recession stopped my travel this time. Now, we are back on our feet, and although I’ll be taking this trip by myself, I am looking forward to it more than any other trip I’ve had in a long time. I can’t wait to see my sister when she picks me up. I know I’ll cry!

Although I haven’t lived in the South since 1987, I still consider Georgia to be home and always will. I can’t wait to feel the warm air on my skin and touch the red dirt. Georgia is the place that reminds me who I am and where I came from. It is where my ancestors made their home and where most of my relatives still do. My, how I’ve missed you!


No Complaints

This year for Lent I decided to challenge myself in a new way. Rather than giving up sweets, which I usually fail at miserably, I decided to give up complaining. Easy, right? Until I began this challenge on Ash Wednesday, I was unaware how many little annoyances I complained about. I didn’t shout or belabor any particular subject, but I found fault with a multitude of mundane things without even realizing what I was doing.

What I found when I caught myself in the act of complaining was that complaining had become a habit. For example, I’ve moaned about our heater for years. We have geothermal heat at our house, but this winter, in particular, the heat pump has not been able to keep up with the demand. We employed a man to fix the well, but our water pressure doesn’t remain constant if the heat is on and the shower is also on. I usually rush to get ready for work, so my showers are quick during the week. Just yesterday when I was showering, the water was falling in a weak stream–my husband and I joke about our well needing some Viagra. I didn’t have time for the extra minutes I needed to rinse the soap off and started my usual harangue of the heat pump. Then I realized I what I was doing.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and said a quick prayer. When I thought about all I have in my life, I felt ashamed of wanting a shower that rinses me off in seconds. How many people would love to have a hot shower, never mind one that rinses them quickly. How many people would love  a roof over their heads, especially with the winter we’ve all endured? How many people want the security and love of a family? I’m blessed with all these and more. How could I be so thoughtless?

Rarely do I see my life with such clarity as I did in the shower mid-complaint. When I decided to give up complaining, I did it on a whim. What I’ve found, however, is that my lack of complaining has opened my eyes to the wonders of my life. And I’m grateful. I go home to a warm house and a loving husband. I have two children I’m proud of and love more than I can say. I have a difficult but rewarding job when others are struggling to feed their families. I have nothing to complain about. The necessities of my life are taken care of.

Before giving up complaining for Lent, I would have complained when it snowed yet again two days ago or that my son will return to school in a day or that Bruce will be gone for the rest of the week, but I am choosing to see the what I have instead of what I lack. Travis has been home for nearly a week, Bruce will be home Friday night to take me to the airport before I leave to see family in Georgia I haven’t seen in a long time, and the snow that fell two days ago has already melted.

Although Spring officially arrived in Wisconsin today, we won’t feel the warm breezes or see the earth come alive for a while yet. The blanket of snow still remains but is melting each day. Dreaming of the flowers, green grass, birdsong, and blue skies that will follow makes me smile. Spring and the Lenten season is a renewal not only of the earth but also of the spirit, just what I’ve been contemplating lately. I am trying to change the habit of complaining into a habit of gratitude, each day a new beginning and a fresh perspective on the wonder of living. I have no complaints.

Writing: Stealing Time

Yesterday it snowed again, just a dusting, but enough to make the roads slick. Of course, I left home later than usual and was worried about the time. I listened to my CD of the Civil Wars to relax and to think about the revisions I’m making on my novel. Their music is haunting and lyrical and brings to mind the complexities of relationships which is what I’m working on at the moment. The song called “Dust to Dust,” fits the complicated nature of my hero’s and heroine’s relationship perfectly. As I listened, the sun brightened the sky. The world was white with snow: on the ground, on the roads, swirling in the air around my car. Several crows flew across the highway, pieces of night silhouetted against the snow, their flight loopy but swift, pure poetry.

The contrast of white and black brought to mind darkness and evil versus light and goodness. I turned the possibilities of this image over in my mind and wondered how I could use it in my writing. I know I will; I just don’t know when.

Earlier in the year I posted that I was getting up an hour early to write, but when the time changed over from daylight savings, it wrecked my schedule. I haven’t been able to get up early because I can’t fall asleep early. I have been stealing time from other areas of my day, just as I did this morning on the way to work. I write when I’m cooking dinner, when I’m running errands, and when I should be grading papers for school. Often my commute turns into a mental review of my writing “problems.” Sometimes I even make it to my desk, but often my writing takes the form of jottings that must later be transcribed to the page.

What I’ve found is I write all the time, not just when I sit at my desk with my loyal Stella by my side. I see the world with a writer’s eyes. That is the difference. I can set aside a time–and I do–but what is equally important is thinking like a writer, finding the time when it doesn’t exist, seeing black crows against a white sky, and not being too distracted to notice.

Evocative Words

When I got my haircut yesterday, Claudia, my stylist, told me about her trip to Florida, a place we all would like to go when the snow still flies here in the Midwest. When she was there, she went out onto her mother’s lanai and heard the crickets singing in the shadows. I don’t remember where she said her mother lives in Florida, but it doesn’t matter. That word lanai and the idea of crickets singing in the shadows took hold of my imagination and transported me to the place in my imagination where I settled onto a cushioned lounge chair beside a canal thick with boats and lined with manicured shrubs under which the crickets sang. Together Claudia and I shared our own daydream of summer where the word lanai had meaning. It is not a word I use in Wisconsin. My reverie was short but one I longed to repeat. The word lanai and the song of crickets made me think about how words evoke place and meaning, especially in our writing.

During revision of my historical novel, I have been mindful of the words and the cadence of speech of my characters. My book takes place in 1869 in Charleston, South Carolina, so when I inhabit my characters, I speak and hear the Southern drawl I grew up with, but even more than that I take a trip back in time to the Ashley River during Reconstruction. I use words like pluff mud, great hall, parlor, and live oaks. I envision a ruined landscape and a city and countryside rebuilding but still ravaged from war. Horses whinny and nicker, camellias bloom, and thunderstorms grumble in the distance. The scents of salt water, manure, pluff mud, and Carolina jessamine mingle in the heat and humidity, both of which are a presence, as are the mosquitoes.

When I inhabit the world of Charleston and Winterhaven Plantation, I describe trying to climb out of a well this way: “Sometimes I feel I’ve been thrown down a deep well. Like I’m trying to climb out, but I can’t gain purchase on the slick walls. I’m looking up at a little round spot of light, but no matter what I do, I can’t seem to reach it.”

The way my hero Josiah sees Faith, the heroine, is different from the way men look at women today. He’s not moved by her cleavage or her tight pants, not because he wouldn’t be, but that view is not available to him. Instead, he notices “her slender back” and “the twin cords of muscle on either side of her neck where wisps of hair had escaped her plaits.” And he longs to press his lips to the hollow there.

Objects matter too. Some important objects in my book are an the embroidered handkerchief Faith gave Belinda when she was a child which Belinda gives her as a gift when she leaves Winterhaven. Josiah’s mother left him some Repousee sterling silver, embossed with a garden of silver flowers.

The motifs we choose to evoke place communicate with our reader as well. My book is filled with flowers and gardens. Each one communicates something different. Noisette roses adorn the cemetery where Faith’s parents are buried, only white flowers bloom in the gardens at the mansion where Faith and Josiah attend a ball. Yellow jessamine grows in the pines at Winterhaven. Josiah leaves a gardenia on the pillow for Faith after they make love. The list goes on.

As writers we must think carefully about place and time when we choose our words. Like master painters we create worlds with our words, full of people, objects, and conflict. We provide the reader a private reverie that we can share, a bit like stepping out onto a lanai to enjoy a warm evening while being serenaded by crickets.

Why I Live in Wisconsin

This winter I’ve not had much good to say about the weather in Wisconsin. In fact, those of you who know me  know  I don’t care for winter, so as the saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. I was relatively quiet about my dislike until recently. I grew up in the South, land of balmy breezes and gentle rain, so after a winter of 49 days of below zero temperatures and as of yesterday, the second coldest winter in Wisconsin on the record books, I need to remind myself why this state is a good place to live. This winter has made me want to decamp permanently. I’ve even begun to peruse the real estate listings in Athens, Charleston, Greenville and many other southern cities dear to my heart.

Let me just put what has been happening here in Wisconsin into perspective. Back on January 6th when I woke up, the temperature was 15 below zero. When Bruce woke up half an hour later, it was 18 below. He started a fire in the fireplace to help our heater along. Academically, the cold was fascinating. The house made creaky, groaning noises that spooked our dog Stella, and the snow hit the house like pellets blown from many pellet guns at once. I didn’t have school that day or the day after, but not because of snow or ice on the roads. No.  School was cancelled because the temperatures were so low that if anyone spent more than about ten minutes outside, they could get frostbite on exposed skin. The cold was dangerous! Veterans of cold weather know the only defense against cold the sort I’m talking about is to stay indoors or to wear down and lots of it with a gaiter and a hat covered by the hood on your coat, mittens, snow boots and insulated snow pants. Here it is February 28th and the cold is as relentless as it was back in November when it began. This morning when I got up, the temperature was 17 below zero.

Even my husband, who loves winter, has had enough, this from the man who actually enjoys clearing the snow from the driveway. And I thought I was the only one going crazy! Cabin fever has set in officially at our house, and it has me thinking about why I still live here, especially when I once told my husband I would never live north of the Mason-Dixon line. Coming up with some of the reasons below took me a while, but you’ll notice that not one of them involves the season we are currently experiencing.

1. Summer–Summer in Wisconsin is a glorious three months of nearly perfect weather, long warm days and cool nights, simply heavenly. And flowers literally grow overnight they are so happy to see the sun. The trills and calls of songbirds fill the silence that blanketed the landscape like snow during winter.

2. Few bugs–Can any Southerner say this too many times? Wouldn’t everybody want to live where there are few bugs?

3. Clean, clear rivers and lakes— A river flows behind my house, and honestly, it is one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen. In fall the banks are lined with hardwoods in brilliant colors, in spring deer, foxes, bald eagles and the occasional bear and coyote join the new leaves on the trees and the greening grass to celebrate the warmer weather. In summer people and animals alike call the river home. Cedar waxwings and swallows drink from its waters and swoop and turn in the air above to catch flies and other bugs. The sounds of the river fill the evening air and float up to our open windows to lull me to sleep. Right now, deep in winter, it is frozen, but I promise it’s pretty in every other season!

4. Gardening–The older I get, the more I want to tend my garden only about four or five months of the year. If I had to tend it longer, I’d have to pay someone to help me keep up both the yard and the garden. Once the weather cools toward the end of August, school starts. Then my days are governed not by the natural world but the sound of a bell. I have an excuse to stop gardening and don’t feel guilty about allowing the weeds to spread.

5. My husband–I realized a while back that my husband probably couldn’t survive living in the south as easily as I could adapt to living up north, so I stay here with him. Of course, not long ago I told him one day I was moving back  where the winter is not something that threatens my very survival. I told him he could come with me if he wanted to, but that I was moving back to Georgia or somewhere else in the South. I am serious about that.

Five reasons is all I can come up with at the moment. I’m sure there are more, but my brain is too addled with cold to think straight right now. It is snowing yet again. Maybe when I thaw out some time in June, I’ll amend my list. In the meantime, if you know some good reasons to live in Wisconsin or anywhere else up here in this vast tundra of the Midwest, I’d love to hear from you. When I look at my thermometer and see -12F and the wind chill below zero, I need a few more reasons not to pack my bags right now. Help!