The rocks at Schoolhouse Beach on Washington Island, Wisconsin, are so smooth they feel almost soft. The unique silky texture makes the rocks precious; you’d get a $200 fine for removing one! On a chilly day, visitors built rock stacks with these smooth, flat stones well-loved by the waves, instead of swimming. This stack was ours.
I worked hard in post to get separation of color in the individual rocks. Plus doesn’t that swirl of cloud at the top look a bit like an eye? Look out for the VFD.
Oak tree paths twist and turn above our heads, on a walk in Stoughton, Wisconsin.
My son and I got up a plan to walk the whole town, since we were doing a couple blocks every day with the dog, and we’d walked every block near our house so many times it was boring. I searched online for a detailed map, printed it on several pieces of paper, taped them together and posted them on my bulletin board. When we walk somewhere new, we mark it with a highlighter. My son especially likes the mapping part of it. This means we may need to drive to our starting point, whether a couple blocks or a mile, and then walk our dog together on a few new blocks. It’s still houses and sidewalks, woods and lawns and driveways, but there is novelty in it, and in a lockdown, your brain needs novelty to keep alert and break the unbearable sameness of the day-to-day.
We have not completed our goal of walking every street in our small city, which only covers about 4 square miles, because some days we just go around the block to get the dog (and us) quick exercise without fuss. But whenever we do, we discover something new. Stoughton has a great number of Victorian houses, for instance, and the architectural details never bore me. Plus we observe chicken coops and gardens and all sorts of unique choices. One block had no less than three large houses painted a very similar pink of the “dusty rose” variety. The vast canopy of an oak tree was one of those finds.
I haven’t been writing as much as I intended on this blog dedicated to finding magic and wonder when life is hard. I keep having ideas and then rejecting them as not inspired enough. Feels like everything on the internet must be Pinterest-worthy these days. I realized I’ve been thinking about it wrong. It’s not that I need the answer, to offer tasty tidbits that will teach readers how to live a magical life. I mean, sometimes, if I’m lucky and lightning strikes, yes. But I don’t want this blog to turn too sweet, too optimistic, poisonous positivity. It’s about the struggle, right?
Yesterday was a struggle. For one reason or another I was cranky. I was feeling mildly unwell, like you do in early March/late winter, when the sky is grey, the snow is grey, and the people are grey from lack of vitamin D and too much worry about the latest flu virus. Yesterday I was Neville who died from ennui.
My mental to-do list is always bigger than my time or energy, especially when I’m forced to do something unavoidable, like work or cook. That’s when the to-do list balloons, taking over the margins of my brain beside meeting notes or vegetables. And when work is done, the couch beckons, Gardenscapes or a word game on my phone rots my brain and then before I know it I’ve whittled away my afternoon, and my son is late for karate.
Obviously I’m a terrible mother. No other mother in the history of karate lessons has ever taken her son to a 30-minute class 10 minutes late. The shame. The horror. How will I ever make it up to him?!? This is my inner voice until every little thing my daughter did evoked a snarl while we sat for 20 whole minutes in the viewing chairs at the dojo.
I tried to reset, sitting there taking deep breaths among the chatting parents and the shouting uniformed child army. I wonder why it didn’t work?
I tried to reset at home, making dinner, moving about in tedious tidying, feeding one animal after another. I wonder why it didn’t work??
I’ve been reading my book (shameless plug) to my children at bedtime. This is a one-of-a-kind joy, something I can never do for the first time again, and it makes me want to write 10 more children’s books before they grow up, just so I could read them aloud to them. But lately, when they’re upstairs alone to get pajamas on, they’ve been playing together happily, sometimes for the first time all day.
So there was no time for stories before lights out.
I sat on my gray couch in my blue living room feeling sorry that I’d wasted my afternoon instead of writing, wondering how I could chase the clouds away while also staying relaxed enough as I wound down toward my own sleep. And that’s when I remembered sometimes it is a struggle. Sometimes you must seek out that spark of joy, not try to will the dark clouds away but run towards the sun. I looked through my library, where I’d recently fluffed my books, rearranging them, and grabbed a tall heavy tome on Michelangelo. I’d inherited this book and didn’t know it well. I was disappointed to see such an abundance of text, academic for sure (though I didn’t read it) and far too many sketches to my non-art-student eyes.
But then there he was, floating on a parchment-colored page: a man’s face in profile. Sketched in red pencil, the lines of his stroke are clearly visible. His face was so clear, so detailed, so specific. I would know this person if I passed him on the street. A weight lifted from my shoulders. A lightness entered me.
Sometimes when I look on great works, I feel I’ve wasted my life. Like Alexander Hamilton, I used to write like I’m running out of time, but job and kids and house and friends and TV and Facebook, and, you know, life, take all my creative energy, and I let them.
But this wasn’t that feeling. What I felt was pure awe.
This was no masterpiece looking down on me from a chapel ceiling, distant and untouchable in its perfection. It was just a sketch. A human brain conceived it, a human hand had drawn it. I could easily imagine Michelangelo scratching this at his kitchen table, planning a masterpiece (Did he even have a kitchen table? Guess I should try reading that book.), but even in that incomplete sketch, he had captured the essence of the real human in the drawing.
Artists can turn ink into blood, so their creations pulse with life.
My toes curled over the pier and gripped the underside of the platform. The wind rippled along my dorsal fin. This was it. If I retrieved the Pearl of Onakai from the Cave of Tears, I would be queen. Assuming I survived the Gauntlet of Terrors first. My knees wobbled. My fingers gripped my mother’s knife. My second stomach churned, but my brain whispered, “Dive in.”
I got my proof copies of my book, The Flight of The
Starling, in the mail yesterday. I don’t know why I ordered 5 of them, the max
Amazon allowed, when I can get author copies for the same price in a few days.
I was excited, I guess, to hold it in my hands, and I’m more likely to walk
into book stores with a real product to pitch than an ephemeral web link.
I keep picking the book up. Stroking the cover. Flipping it
over to confirm the presence of my photo on the back. Feeling its weight.
Opening to a random page and reading till something makes me laugh. There are
so many little jokes in it that I have forgotten.
I want to sleep with it under my pillow. I want to wear it
inside my shirt over my heart.
Every time I got through a new gate, over a new hurdle, in
this publishing journey, I would say to myself, “It’s starting to look like a
real book.” The cover. The pre-sale listing. The author web page. “It’s almost
like a real book.”
So today as I hold the book, I think, “Is it a real book
yet? When is the moment it becomes a real book? When I get the final print?
When I see it on a shelf in a store? When a stranger buys and reads it? Is
there one moment?”
I am Pinocchio. I am the Velveteen Rabbit. I am waiting to
be loved enough to become real.
It feels oddly similar to how I felt before giving birth. I remember being 5 or 6 months pregnant with my first child when I got my first gift of baby clothes. I held up the onesie, sized for a 7-pound newborn human. Tiny for clothes, but huge it seemed to me, with the baby still part of my body. I also had certain, specific expectations of how I would feel when giving birth, and was disappointed when the experience delivered something else. Something more complicated than those glossy narratives of new motherhood.
So I’m trying not to manage my expectations too much. I want
to feel however I feel about publishing my first book without telling myself a
story of how I should be feeling at this or that milestone. I don’t want to
create a story of what my experience will be, because I know now that can set
up its own kind of disappointment. I’ve loved this book a long time and it is
so scary to think of people possibly hating it. Not getting it. Thinking it
doesn’t work or isn’t worth the effort. If there is a point where it becomes a
“real” book, does that armor me against the opinions of people who don’t think
it should be?
I don’t know. I think it was a real book long ago. I’ve just
been waiting to finally put it into newborn clothes.
Snow on the ground this morning, the first of the season.
And not a little snow – 2 or 3 inches. An impressive amount for October in
I’d gone to bed in a foul mood after an up and down day. I
got the first proof copies of my book, The Flight of The Starling, in the mail,
which was thrilling, but I also spent half the day fighting with Microsoft Word
and Adobe Acrobat over an embedded fonts problem. A stupid technical glitch
that I have to fix in order to publish this book. So close and yet so far.
Plus the kids didn’t want to get out of bed, and for some reason, my son, who’s ten, decided that snow was the worst thing that could’ve happened to him. Oh what a hassle. We’ll have to find all our snow gear. (Nevermind that I did that while they ate breakfast.) Why oh why does the school make us put on snow pants to play outside? On and on. His grumpiness infected me. By the time I was driving them to school – late out the door, plus extra minutes scraping the car – I was as pissed at the October snow as he was.
When I got back home, I realized I needed to reset. First
snows are magical, and that is my quest: to seek out the magical aspects of
life, to acknowledge that awe can be found every day if only we look. More troubleshooting
is still ahead of me today, and I didn’t want to give in to the dark clouds so
early in the day. I decided I would try my best to appreciate the first snow,
to look with new eyes and see the wonder in it, dammit.
All it took was a walk around my block. The first thing I
noticed was the sounds, a shushing and a plopping as the trees threw snowballs
with their leaves. (Yes, I got hit, once. Yes, I shrieked.)
The neighbors’ potted plant, long leaves thickened with
snow, became a tentacled monster. Halloween decorations turned cartoonish,
plastic skeletons grinning at their foolishness in the extra bright light. A
huge rope spiderweb tied to porch rails sparkled with frost.
The trees dropped spontaneous snow-showers, flash flurries
that glittered in the morning sun, silver and gold. The orange and red leaves
on the sidewalk stood out more sharply, a last flame of fall before the black
and white of winter.
It wasn’t just the snow itself that seemed beautiful – it
was the autumn snow. The October snow. And of course, bare black trees outlined
in clinging white are pretty hard to growl at. My cheeks grew pleasantly
chilled in one block, and the warmth inside my front door was welcoming and
The hardest part of finding the
magic was deciding that I could.
I live in Wisconsin, in one of the many small towns that ring Madison by about ten miles. I figure it’s the distance a horse could ride in a day and that’s why all these towns sprung up, like a fairy ring of mushrooms. In my book, The Flight of The Starling, one of the two fairies is named Beloit. Beloit and his sister meet Princess Lily and convince her Prince Alexander is a horrible guy who likes to cut wings off fairies who annoy him, which makes the princess determined to rescue them.
Beloit, Wisconsin, is about an hour away from my house. I drive past it to visit my friends in Chicago. I’ve never spent any time there. I’ve never had any reason to.
So why is an important character in my novel named Beloit?
Simple: Frank Zappa. And my mother.
I grew up in the Midwest, and once on a road trip to Wisconsin, my mom recalled a funny quote when we passed Beloit. It wasn’t till years later that I learned it was something Zappa said in a concert in Wisconsin: “I can never hear the name ‘Beloit’ without thinking of the sound of a marble being dropped into a toilet bowl. Beloit!”
I’m probably butchering the quote, and I could not find an
official reference to it. But my brother and I were in grade school at the time
and we knew comedy gold when we heard it. A family running joke was born. We
could never hear of Beloit without saying this, and sometimes we would just
intone the word – low on the “bell” with a long L, a lilt and emphasis on the
“oi” – and bust out laughing.
I don’t know why my brain picked Beloit as the name for a fairy. Marzipan’s name came first – a light and crunchy confection somewhere between candy and cookie. She’s Beloit’s sister, the other fairy in the fairy tale, and she is distinctly more salty than sweet. But she means well and would never try to hurt anyone with her mischief. Beloit is less practical than Marzipan, more silly, but together they make a perfect pair of pixies, finishing each other’s sentences and schemes.
“Marzipan and Beloit” had a nice ring to it. I was definitely thinking of the marble in the toilet bowl when I named him. To me, Beloit will always be funny. The horse’s name, Milwaukee, was just a continuation of the joke. I don’t know why but I thought the random Wisconsin references got funnier the more I did it.
When I wrote The Flight of The Starling, I lived in Montana. I had no thought of moving closer to Beloit. Now that I am a Wisconsinite, I have to say, I think naming a fairy Beloit is even funnier than it was when I wrote it. I apologize to any Beloitites (Beloiters? Beloitians?) who don’t agree, or who think the splooshing onomatopoeia is an insult. What can I say, I was a child, and it stuck in my head. You’ll have to take it up with Frank Zappa.
What would you name a fairy and why? Leave me a comment.
All the best,
The Flight of The Starling, A Fairy Tale, is available for pre-order on Amazon and IngramSpark now, for release on November 1.
It was the snow that made the apples irresistible. The icy glaze obscured any hint of discoloring poison, and heightened the longing for the last sweets before true winter gripped the forest. Now a sprinkle of magic to make the crabapples grow. There. Three of them in an old woman’s basket. White as her skin, red as her lips indeed. The girl would never suspect a gift so perfect, so like her fable.