The Whirlwind

Our apartment is in a state of controlled chaos right now. Boxes everywhere: half filled; filled, taped, and labeled; empty. Piles all over the living room, each one representing something to be given away instead of packed, but no recipient yet. Gaping shelves on the bookcases, where the books have already been packed away (and isn’t THAT a challenge, as every book demands to be read instead of going into a box). Carl’s desk chair, gone, replaced temporarily by a dining room chair. My desk, emptied and waiting for a new home. School shelves, empty while I heroically resist the siren call of buying new supplies until we are in our new place.

I’ve thrown out six trash bags worth of stuff already. I cleaned out my sewing collection, holding onto only one or two unfinished projects. All the fabric and patterns–out the door. Cleaned out the kids’ arts and crafts supplies–no more junky paintbrushes and mostly-empty bottles of paint, no more craft supplies that “we might use, someday, maybe.” Cleaned out the movie collection, finally got rid of all our VHS tapes and many of our DVDs that we never, ever watch anymore.

I have an open box of books in the hallway right outside our apartment door, labeled “Free.” Several books have already been taken from it. Some are duplicates of books I am keeping–old editions of Dorothy Sayers that I’ve replaced with newer editions which will hold up to multiple re-readings, a newer edition of The Elfstones of Shannara which I replaced with the older edition for nostalgia’s sake. Some are books I bought because I wanted to read them and the library system didn’t have them, but I don’t love them enough to keep. Some I enjoyed previously but don’t care for as much now. One or two are books I bought thinking I would like but ended up severely disliking. After a few days I’ll take whatever books are left to the local public library and donate them.

In the midst of all this, I am planning out the American Lit homeschool class I’ll be teaching this year and editing the second Whitney & Davies book. Carl is putting the finishing touches on his thesis in preparation for the defense. He and the kids just got back from a weekend at his mom’s; we’ll be spending a week later this month visiting his family and mine.

Before we know it, September will be here. We’ll be in our new house–a house, it still boggles my mind–we’ll be unpacking and setting things up just as we like them, we’ll be going to Ikea to pick up household items, we’ll be buying schoolbooks and colored pencils and markers and blandly telling the children no, we don’t know where that half-finished craft project you were never going to get back to ended up, must have gotten lost in the move, oh well! Carl’s thesis will be done entirely, glory be. I’ll have started teaching my class. We’ll be feeling our way into a new normal.

We’re in the center of the storm now, but it won’t be forever.

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July Fly-By

Well. July has come and gone in a flash–even more so than most summer months. Traveling for eleven days had something to do with it. The breathtaking speed with which out life turned upside down and settled into a new pattern had something else, I am certain.

First: vacation. We managed to pull off our Epic Road Trip without leaving anyone behind at any gas stations, losing any cameras or phones, getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, or being attacked by alligators in Florida. How terribly boring.

In Florida, we did get to see a dolphin and a sea turtle swimming off the end of a pier, a submerged alligator in a state park (I confess, I was FREAKING OUT about alligators before we left, and it took all my courage to even walk through this park. I wasn’t going to be a coward for my kids, though, and I saw the alligator and even kept my breakfast down), pelicans flying and swimming along the water, and palm trees and spanish moss. I am more of a northern mountains girl at heart, but Florida was beautiful and fun and I’m glad to have gone.

After Florida, we visited family in Georgia, friends in Tennessee, the Bilmore Estate in North Carolina, and friends in Pennsylvania before wearily making our way back to Massachusetts, heartily tired of the car and the interstate and restaurant food and ready to sleep for a week.

It was a great time, though. Beyond wonderful to see our friends in Nashville and PA again, and the Biltmore Estate was even lovelier than it had been thirteen years ago when Carl and I went there on our honeymoon. I developed a nasty headache partway through the house–heat and dehydration, I figured out afterward–and was afraid I would spoil the day for all of us, but some rest, water, my straw hat, and pain relievers did the trick and I was able to wander through the gardens and grounds after all. Such a beautiful place.

As for the life-turned-upside-down bit … We had started to come to the conclusion that Cambridge was better off waiting a year even before we left for vacation. A whole host of reasons why, and a real sense that we needed a year of rest in between intense graduate school and intense doctoral work. So we started looking for houses to rent locally, or apartments, or shacks, or anything that would allow us to stay at our church and keep up community relationships we have built over the last four years. Nothing that even remotely close to a possibility was coming up. When we left for vacation, we told ourselves we weren’t going to think about it while we were gone, not even look for anything.

That worked up until one of my friends texted me to ask if we’d found a place yet, which innocuous question ended with us being able to rent her house for the next year. We came home Friday evening and visited the house Saturday morning, and what do you know, we have a place to live next year, and it’s here, not in Cambridge.

And we are really, really good with that. Honestly. With as excited as we’ve been for LIVING IN ENGLAND HURRAH, you’d think there would be at least a few disappointed twinges, but we all just feel relieved and so at peace with this. It’s obviously what we need.

Oh! The other exciting July occurrence is that I finally, finally learned to ride a bicycle. I’m still a little wobbly and pitch off more than I like to admit, but I can ride and each time I go out I get a little stronger and a little smoother. I confess to being grateful I have another year to work at it before I have to ride to get everywhere!

So, my friends, it will be another year before this blog is posting out of England, but the adventures, I am sure, will be no less for being in MA for twelve more months. There’s always magic around the corner, you just have to have the eyes to see it.

Dreams and Schemes and Wisdom

The older I get, the harder it is to keep dreaming.

Not daydreaming, that I’m sure I’ll be doing when I’m ninety … still fondly imagining myself soaring across the ice each night before going to sleep, still beguiling boring tasks by picturing myself off on a grand adventure through space and time, still wondering “what if” and sparking new stories each time.

But the, if I may call them this, practical dreams. The dreams that turn to schemes, dreams threaded through with the hope they may one day become reality. Those are getting harder.

When I was a teenager, it was easy to believe the world was laid at my feet and all I had to do was pick a dream and follow it for it to come true. These days … I’ve experienced enough to know that’s not always the case. In fact, it rarely is.

So when I came up with a new scheme for my writing career the other day, it was immediately tempered. I enjoyed it without letting myself think too deeply about it for only a few hours, not even a full day, because in the back of my mind I knew it would lose its shiny excitement and appeal as soon as I examined it more closely. And sure enough, it did. It turned from a dream into the reality that this new potential plan involves just as much work – as much slogging, as much sweat, as much time, and as much frustration – as anything.

That doesn’t mean I discarded it. I’m still mulling it over. I might even give it a go. I might not – there have been other career plans that I have concocted and discarded without even attempting in the past. This might join their ranks. Or it might end up in the pile of “things I tried that didn’t work.” Or maybe this one will fulfill its initial promise. At this point, there’s no way of knowing.

Because that’s the other thing about experience. Even though it’s harder work to dream these days, I know that the dreams that I do fight for, that I do pursue, that maybe don’t come true with glitter and pomp, but quietly, as the result of hard work and effort, are more worth the holding (publishing Magic Most Deadly, for example … there was no fantastic offer from a big publishing house, no six-figure deal, no huge sales skyrocketing me to fame and fortune … just a lot of hard work resulting in my longest-held dream coming quietly true and bringing me great joy in so doing).

So maybe I don’t grab recklessly at dreams anymore, but I do keep dreaming – and scheming, only with a tad more wisdom applied to the process. No matter how hard it gets, no matter how much cynicism tries to tell me to quit dreaming because it’ll never happen, no matter how discouragement tries to creep in when dream after dream fades to nothing, I won’t quit. I won’t settle. Maybe I’m not shooting for the stars at this point in my life … but I see no reason to stay in the valley when I can be climbing mountains.

Light and Love

Even if it does take more work to get there.

The Importance of Story

(Note: This is the first part of my presentation at the H-W Library, edited for this blog. The rest of the talk was on From the Shadows specifically, which may or may not make it into another post; we’ll see.)

I believe stories are immensely important—even essential—to us as human beings, because they convey truths we can’t get at in any other way. Which is a tricky point to attempt to elucidate, because as soon as you ask, “what sort of truths, Louise?” I say, “well, I can’t exactly explain them, that’s why we need stories,” and there we are. But I would like to try to delve at least a little bit into what I mean by that.

Truths we can’t get at in any other way: what does that mean, and how does it affect us? What sort of truths, and why do we need them? How can “mere” stories help us live fuller lives? We’d need far more than a blog post (or two) to fully cover this. But I think we can at least touch the edges of the concept.

There’s a moment in Tolkien’s Return of the King, toward the end, when Gandalf and the hobbits are nearing the Shire and realizing that there are problems there needing to be dealt with. Merry comments that they won’t have any difficulties there, because they have Gandalf with them. Gandalf’s reply is this: “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for.” All their epic adventures—the greater story they got caught up in, as Sam mentions more than once—was preparation for living an everyday life. The great journey, the destruction of the Ring and overthrow of Sauron, the establishing of the true King, as great and important as those things were in and of themselves, they weren’t the end goal. They were giving the hobbits the tools they needed to live more deeply and more completely. They have returned to their own world, but not the same as how they left. “You are grown up now,” Gandalf continues to them. “Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.” And of course he is right. They overcome the trouble in the Shire with wisdom and wit, mixing mercy and justice with a shrewd hand, and restoring to right all the ills that had been done there.

In mulling over this point, I realized I had come up with a catchphrase for my own writing: carrying the epic into the everyday.

Something that is epic is, by its very nature, larger than life. Gods, magic, and heroes, as in The Iliad or Beowulf, which are two of the first stories that come to my mind when I hear the word “epic.” Stories that are meant to inspire, to carry us out of ourselves and into greater realms where a hobbit can be a hero and a schoolboy become a king. But we cannot live in that exalted realm, after all. We are not gods or monsters; we are human, living in a world of school and work, families, paychecks and taxes. We live in the everyday; we need the epic to help us make it a glorious adventure in and of itself.

This is what stories do: they sink into our hearts and give us the tools we need to live more fully, more richly, in the everyday world around us. As the hobbits found their grand adventure—their story—was giving them truths and tools they could then carry back to their world and use to live a fuller life, so we find the wondrous epics of story make us more fit for living in our world. The very best stories do far more than entertain or even enlighten us; they transform us into more than what we are, into the better version of ourselves, so to speak. One comes away from the best stories saying, “Yes, I may not be able to put it into words or even understand it completely, but something about this story makes me see things a little more clearly, love more deeply, speak more truly.” They show us truth about this world, about ourselves, about all possible worlds, in ways we never could have seen on our own. They can raise us up or humble us—sometimes both at the same time—encourage and exhort us.

But they are not instruction manuals thinly disguised as entertainment! Perish the thought! If you set out, in writing a story, to point a moral or teach people something, you have failed before you’ve even begun. No, one starts with the story—whether it be the characters, the plot, even the setting, whatever seed it is that each writer’s story grows from—and it shows one its own truths as it grows. That is the only way it can reach the reader. Otherwise there is no joy in it, no life, and no truth. That’s the miracle of the best stories: they start as one simple thing and grow to become more than themselves—which is just exactly what they do for their reader, as well. We can feel, after reading Return of the King, as ready to face the small troubles in our world as the hobbits were for theirs, because we have journeyed right along with them, to Rohan and Gondor and Mount Doom, and have grown up right along with them. Or take Narnia—when the children are told, at the end of various books, that they have gotten too old for Narnia, it is not a punishment or a statement that Fairyland is only for children. The point is that they have gained what they needed from Narnia, and now they must apply that to their real world. Narnia was their training, so to speak, and now the training is complete and they are ready to put it to use. And in The Last Battle we see that even the real world had its ending for them, that they had learned and grown and gleaned all they could from that and were now ready to move to yet deeper and truer adventures. How lucky are we as readers, that we are able to return as often as we need, to remind and refresh ourselves of those lessons and those truths!

I could list so many books to illustrate my point—Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence; Lloyd Alexander’s—well, everything he ever wrote, really, there’s a reason he is my favorite author, but especially his Prydain Chronicles; Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Diana Wynne Jones’ books … all of them able to delight and entertain us, as well as strengthen us. They give us a little piece of epic to tuck in our hearts and carry with us to strengthen us for the everyday. Are there other mediums that can do that as well? Yes, of course. Art, music, dance—I am a passionate lover of figure skating, which also has the ability to move and transport its viewers. But a story works more directly, and, I believe, is more universal. But I admit to being biased. After all, I AM an author. In any case, it doesn’t have to be a competition—one can appreciate and respect the nature of story without in the slightest diminishing any other artistic mediums.

You may have noticed, when I rattled off the authors I find inspirational, that they were all writers of speculative fiction—speculative fiction, for any who are not familiar with the term, is the catch-all phrase covering fantasy and science fiction. I mention them specifically not because I don’t think you can convey profound truths through everyday, realistic stories. You can. I love LM Montgomery, Maud Hart Lovelace, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens … and don’t get me started on my love for mysteries, which is a post for another time! I have enormous respect for those who can convey truth and beauty powerfully through realistic fiction. But I think the kind of truths I’m speaking of here, that epic in the everyday, are most easily conveyed through speculative fiction. As Neil Gaiman puts it so succinctly in his paraphrase of GK Chesterton: Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. Speculative fiction allows us the best kind of symbolism, the kind that stands on its own at the same time it stands for something deeper. One can read Lord of the Rings as a fantastic adventure—because it is! But even reading it on the most surface level leaves one with a sense of satisfaction that evil can be beaten, that good can overcome due to the efforts of the smallest and most humble of all, and that everyone has a vital role to play in life, whether we can see it or not. And that’s only one level down beneath the obvious! One can go deeper, and deeper again—or, as Lewis puts it, “further up and further in.” There are always richer truths to be discovered behind the fantasy. I believe speculative fiction strikes chords within the human heart that other kinds of fiction cannot reach.

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Still round the corner there may wait A new road or a secret gate, And though we pass them by today, Tomorrow we may come this way And take the hidden paths that run Towards the Moon or to the Sun. -JRR Tolkien

Taking the Time

I’ve been reading through Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing, and while some of it strikes me as more than a little pretentious (what can I say, I come from good, practical, farmer stock), I do very much appreciate the reminder to be mindful, to be aware, to not be so overly focused on the result that one misses the beauty of the here and now.

With all that in mind, when we went out for a family walk yesterday afternoon, enjoying the late February sunshine even amid the biting wind, I took my big camera instead of just my phone, and enjoyed taking pictures for the sake of the photography, rather than in order to post them on Instagram (don’t get me wrong, I snapped one or two with my phone camera as well, and posted THOSE on Instagram, because Instagram is my happy place). And while they might not be the finest photos in all of creation, they made me satisfied. I’m glad I took the time to see things from a different angle, and take the photos even if it meant I didn’t get the instant rush of posting them online at once.

It’s the same feeling I get when I write anything by hand, especially something in my journal, using cursive. It takes more time, it won’t be seen by anyone else, there’s no practical value in it – and yet there is something about it that satisfies.

I have tendencies toward dawdling (those did not come from my practical farming forebears), so it is important for me to not get lost in my daydreams and never accomplish anything. On the other hand, it is also tremendously important to not be so wrapped up in the end goal and “getting things done” that I forget to savor the slower things in life, the things that aren’t necessarily tangible or goal-oriented. A tricky balancing act, and one I know I’ve blogged about before, but one of which I always need reminding, and at which I will always need to keep practicing.

DE Stevenson

“I am grateful for all my blessings; amongst them the Gift of Storytelling, which seems to please and amuse so many people all over the world.”

“It seems to me that this job of interpreting my own people to other people is the most important contribution I can make to the world and to peace.”

-D.E. Stevenson.

I discovered D.E. Stevenson thanks to Goodreads recommending her “Miss Buncle’s Book” to me based on my fondness for Miss Read. Curiously enough, the Miss Buncle series are among my least favorites of her work; I prefer her stand-alones, or the ones with two or three loosely-connected books. However, they were enough to get me intrigued, and now I’ve read everything of hers our library has, and am starting to expand through ILL to others in our network.

Like Miss Read, Stevenson writes stories about ordinary people, stories in which (generally) not a lot happens. Nice, friendly, meandering stories, that give you a glimpse into somebody else’s life and fit into their shoes for at least a few brief moments. Stories which, as a kid, bored me to tears, and now I love.

And along with enjoying her books, I appreciate her philosophy as well. Aren’t those quotes up above lovely? Sums up a lot of my feeling toward writing and storytelling.

So, if you enjoy “quiet” stories, give D.E. Stevenson a try! She wrote dozens of books; if you enjoy them, you won’t run out of reading material for a long, long time. Also? She was the cousin of the great Robert Louis Stevenson!

Comfort … Snacks?

I loved hearing about all the different comfort drinks that people crave – thanks so much to everyone who chimed in with an opinion! It’s always immensely fun for me to learn about the ways in which people are similar, and where they’re different. (Why no, I’m not a character-based writer at all, *coughcough* yes I totally am.)

Prompted by the variety of comfort drinks people have, I asked on Twitter about comfort foods, specifically snacks, and so of course now I want to expand that here on the blog as well. Dark chocolate is a common theme (count me in on that one), as well as various baked goods.

So, what’s your comfort food, more specifically your comfort snack? That which you eat alongside your comfort drink?

I love food, a lot, so it’s hard for me to narrow it down. Basically, if I can eat it easily in one hand while reading, and it goes well with a cup of tea, I’m going to enjoy it. But like I said above, dark chocolate is definitely toward the top of that list. Scones, also, or biscuits, or homemade bread … I’d better stop there, or I’ll make myself (and all of you) too hungry.

Have at it in the comments! I’m having a blast with these posts.