Saturday, December 27, 2008

Learning to Be Like Water

As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to take a personal inventory of what the year was like – what went well and what didn’t, where we succeeded and where we failed, what brought joy and what brought sorrow, and what we learned from it all. For me, this year was a tumultuous one, filled with highs and lows. The low points had to do with a lot of dental work; the highs revolved around work, writing, and relationships.

The constant joy in my life is my family, and that held true for 2008. My husband and my two children are a never-ending source of love, happiness, and inspiration. At the end of each year with them, I can’t help feeling truly blessed for their presence in my life.

As for my business, I also couldn’t be more blessed. I had the honor of working for some truly great clients this year and am looking forward to continuing my work with many of them – along with some new voices - in 2009.

My writing has also been a source of joy and learning. I am privileged to be part of a creative and talented weekly writing group, and this year I had the honor of meeting some truly amazing writers during an artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I discovered the joy of blogging, sold a few articles, and reached the halfway point on my second novel. While I may not have completed as much as I would have liked, the first ten pages won an Editor’s Choice Award at the 2008 SDSU Writers’ Conference, and the remaining pages are shaping up into a presentable first draft.

In 2008, I went back to community college teaching after a ten-year hiatus. Surprisingly, I discovered how much I missed it and was lucky to have a group of students who were a pleasure to work with and taught me more than they’ll ever know.

And on November 4th, I felt tremendous pride in the American people for the ground-breaking change they brought to pass with the election of our first African-American president.

In all, it was a solid year, filled with achievement and wonder.

And now it’s time to look forward to 2009. I’m not big on resolutions, but I do believe in setting goals, even if they’re more generally focused on attitude and direction. For the coming year, I’ve decided to take a lesson from the Tao Te Ching by paying more attention to what is present in my life and learning to practice simplicity, patience, and compassion.

As Lao Tze says in Chapter 8 of the Tao, the roadmap for contentment lies in being like water, which nourishes without trying and is “content with the low places that most people disdain.” Lao Tze also gives some wonderful basic guidelines for daily life:

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

Some wise words to live by in 2009.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beginnings and Endings

Some experts would argue that the most important part of a book is the first sentence. Without a good opening, or hook, as we call it, we authors risk losing our readers right off the bat. But how many books have any of us read where we actually remember the opening line? Or even how the story begins?

For myself, I love a book beginning. When I’m in a bookstore or at the library, I don’t waste time reading the jacket copy on the back of a book. Instead, I toss open the cover and go straight for the first line. If it grabs me, I’ll pick up the book to bring home. But if that first line doesn’t stop me dead in my tracks right there, the book doesn’t stand a chance.

Usually the first line is a precursor to what’s to come in a novel. There is a certain tone to the writing, or the main character speaks with a voice so unique and compelling that we have to turn the page. These are the books that become our favorites, the ones that stay with us through our lifetime as key markers along the paths of our personal development.

We all have a few favorite opening lines. One of mine is the beginning of Barbara Kingsolver’s haunting novel, The Poisonwood Bible, which tells the story of an American preacher, who leads his family to tragedy and death as he descends into madness in the jungles of Africa. The first sentence prophetically reads “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”

Another one of my favorites is the opening line to Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel Abundance, which tells the story of Marie Antoinette in the doomed queen’s own voice. “Like everyone, I am born naked,” she states. How can any of us put down a book that begins this way?

And who can forget “Call me Ishmael,” Herman Melville’s famous opening to Moby Dick? Or Humbert Humbert’s painfully obsessed beginning words in Nabokov’s Lolita: “Lolita, love of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Likewise, I am fascinated by the last lines of certain books, especially those that have kept me spellbound for hours and made me loathe to have them end. One of my favorite endings appears in the title piece of Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. After brutally murdering all but one member of a Southern family stranded on a country road, a psychopathic killer called The Misfit shoots the opinionated grandmother who, in a moment of redemption, has reached out and touched him after recognizing him as one of her own.

She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit says to his accomplice, Bobby Lee, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Some fun!” Bobby Lee replies.
Shut up,” The Misfit says, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Another favorite ending of mine (this one a bit more lyrical), lies in the final paragraphs of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. They read:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Gil Adamson’s marvelous debut novel, The Outlander. Everything about this book is wonderful, including the suspenseful plot and the unforgettable characters. Most memorable is Mary Boulton, the young widow at the heart of the story. But it’s the novel’s ending that nailed me to my chair (even though I suspected what was coming). Turn away now if you plan to read the book. If not, enjoy the delightful and chilling last words Mary leaves in a note for the lover she’s finally located after a desperate and eerie journey through the woods of Montana:

Find me.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008


When my friend, Pam, called to cancel on our movie date tonight, I was glad. Not because I didn’t want to go out with Pam – I relish our nights out, partly because I enjoy her company and partly because we share a love of indie films (something our husbands don’t have much interest in). But tonight I was glad we weren’t getting together because the unexpected block of time became an opportunity to bake holiday cookies with my son, Max.

Baking cookies may not seem like a big deal to some, but to me, it is. That’s because Max is sixteen years old now and between his interests - the homework, driving lessons, basketball and volleyball practices, and flag football games – and my own, there isn’t always a lot of time left for us to spend together.

We had made the dough last night, at Max’s urging. To be honest, with all I have going on with my publicity work and fiction writing, I could skip the whole Christmas-cookie-baking gig. I could skip the tree and the lights and the presents, too. But my kids, who are now fourteen and sixteen-years-old and straddling that gap between adulthood and childhood, won’t let that happen. So, with Max pestering me to pull out the New York Times Cookbook (we love the gingerbread recipe) and even reminding me to let the butter soften before he left for school in the morning (how many teenage boys do that?), the dough was ready to go.

After I hung up the phone with Pam, I called Max into the kitchen and said, “Let’s hit it.” My daughter, Sasha, and husband, Dan, made us promise that they could help decorate when they returned from softball practice, so Max and I were on our own to bake. We put some mood music on the CD player (A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of my all-time favorites), sprinkled the table with flour, pulled the cold dough out of the fridge, and selected Christmas and Hanukkah (for Dan, who is Jewish) cookie cutters from the drawer that only gets opened once every year in December. There were the old favorites – the rusty gingerbread man, the plastic Christmas tree, the rocking horse, the teddy bear, the holiday wreath, the Santa, the dreidel, and the six-pointed Star of David – along with some new ones: a Texas longhorn and a cactus shape that Dan had brought back from a business trip to Dallas this year.

And we baked. I rolled out the dough, and Max positioned the cutters and pressed them down, then peeled the excess dough away and transported the newly cut cookies (the longhorns gave us some trouble) to the new baking sheets the kids gave me for my birthday this year. Max and I shoved the filled trays into the oven and loaded up empty ones, working together in a rhythm based on years of doing the same sprinkling, rolling, and cutting Christmas ritual, on the same kitchen table, since he was a toddler.

We didn’t say much, Max and I, but as we worked together, gathering the loose scraps of dough to press into a ball and roll out again, I held my breath. I know that there won’t be too many more of these times. In two years, my son will be off to college, studying, working, falling in love and, some day, developing his own holiday traditions. But for now, I’ll treasure these stolen moments in the kitchen with flour on our hands, the scent of warm gingerbread in the air, and the fullness of this comforting winter ritual in our hearts.