Last week I cleaned up my office. The uninitiated might walk into that room today and still say it looks like a mess. But if you had seen it two days ago, you’d know I made a dent in the piles of work/books/papers that stack up and accumulate over time.
One of the biggest jobs in cleaning my office is working on my bookshelf. When I got married, I had one bookshelf. It got full, and Bill bought two more. Now those are full, and over time, books start piling up sideways on the ledges of the shelves. When that gets full, the piles just start stacking up on the floor. Who needs to move the chair back from the desk, right?
Today, the piles are gone and you can see the floor! Luckily, I didn’t have to get rid of too many books, and the best part of cleaning up was I was re-introduced to quite a few books that I have waiting for me to read. Gifts from friends, books passed on from my mom and her many book club reads, and books I bought at the library’s Used Book Sale are now in a prominent place just waiting to be read. Now that I have some space on my book shelf, you know what that means — time for more books!
Books are a great Christmas tradition in my family. My mother is a genius at picking out books for me (even better than I am myself), which means I look forward every year to the stack of books I get when we have Christmas with the extended family. My aunt used to give me books for Christmas too, ones that had been her favorite that she wanted to with me.
Today, I’m carrying on that tradition. I always make time during the busy months of December to visit a bookstore and look for the perfect book for Caroline, Carter and my nieces and nephews. I’ve gotten classics, bestsellers, and graphic novels. My Christmas gift books are the time to give something that is meaningful in some way, and that I hope each child will treasure as they read it or we read it together. It’s a time to splurge and buy the hardcover editions of books like Little Women (Caroline), Shel Silverstein’s Falling Up (Craig), and pictures books that were read over and over like Jan Brett’s The Mitten (Carter).
With the holiday shopping season full-on upon us, I hope that all of you reading this blog will consider gifting books for Christmas this year. If you need any help picking out the perfect gift, here are a few good resources:
NPR’s Book Concierge. This is a pretty cool search tool, with filters you can use to see great picks.
Newberry books. Whether it’s the award winner or the honor books, these are great gems for the kids in your life.
Caldecott books. Same as above, winners and honor books are great ideas for the picture book crowd.
Of course, you can also wander into your local bookstore and check out their staff picks, or just ask the helpful people who work there. Tell them about the person you’re shopping for, and they’ll lead you to the perfect book.
My grandmother was known to have a saying for about any situation. One of the many I heard as a child was “The cobbler’s kids never have shoes.” Once I figured out what a cobbler was, that saying started to make sense to me. Maybe it was a painter working on Grandma’s dining room and talking about how his wife had wanted her own kitchen painted, or the carpenter fixing her steps and talking about the bookshelf he hoped to build for his kids.
When it comes to writing, I have turned into the cobbler. I love my work, and I love the fact that I get to spend my days learning so many new and different things. In this week alone I got to interview the owner of Atlanta Discount Music, write about an ice machine that wouldn’t make ice and research information about arthritis and Arthritis Awareness Month. But I’d also like to be working on writing personal essays, making an outline for the romance novel I’ve told myself I’d write, or researching for the novel idea I had years ago.
I’ve done all of the things we (as editors) tell writers to do. The way to get better at your writing is to practice your writing. I’ve set New Year’s resolutions, I’ve bought pretty journals to try to inspire me to practice free-writing, I’ve set goals for myself, and I’ve even tried setting aside time for my writing. The New Year’s resolutions get forgotten by February, the journals sit on my nightstand mostly empty, and the time I set aside to write gets swallowed up with projects from paying clients that have hard deadlines. Sure, I could probably make time to write somewhere in the day, but like that cobbler who comes home from work so tired of making shoes that he can’t find it in him to make shoes for his kids, I never seem to have any creative juices flowing after a long day at the laptop.
So this year I tried a new tactic. Realizing that having deadlines was what helped me get the paying jobs done, I made a deadline for my “creative” writing ventures. I entered the NYC Midnight short story contest. The allure to me was the deadline, once I paid I felt like I had to stick to it. But the other great part of this contest is every entrant is promised feedback. That’s even more impressive considering the number of entries this contest gets.
I was given three things to shape my short story:
Subject: Witnessing a Crime
Not only did it help to have a deadline, it helped to have a starting point. Then I got a little creative about finding time to write, taking my laptop with me and hiding out in the backseat pounding on the keyboard while Carter had scouts. I didn’t get selected to move on to the next round, which means this story won’t be published by NYC Midnight. But at the NCWN’s recent Spring Writer’s Conference, I overheard someone saying that publishing these days is as easy as posting something on the internet. So I decided to gather up my courage and publish this short story (linked below, Symptoms). I feel it’s a good example to other writers reading this blog that sharing your work is as important as writing it. Hopefully there will be more stories to keep this one company!
Symptoms, by Karen Alley, January 2019
Most of the time when I drive through the downtown business district of Elkin, I’m passing through on my way to somewhere else. I drive past the small businesses, the offices and the restaurants on my way to a meeting at the library, or to drop off a kid at guitar lessons, or just to get from my house to the movie theaters in the neighboring town of Jonesville.
Yesterday was different. Rather than hurrying to a specific location for a meeting or zooming through Main Street on my way somewhere else, I decided to go for a walk. Carter had guitar on one end of Main Street, and I had a package to mail at the post office which sits on the complete other end of Main Street. I figured walking to the post office was a good way to pass the time while Carter was at guitar. Besides, it was a beautiful March day, with bright blue skies and lots of sunshine that helped counteract the brisk temperatures.
Moving through town at that slower pace gave me a chance to really look at the buildings I passed. I saw boutiques with beautiful dresses in the window, an antique shop, a building that houses both yoga and cross-fit businesses, a barber shop that also provides a place for after-school programs for kids, an independent book store, a pharmacy, sewing and quilt stores, a newly renovated theater, and of course, restaurants. I knew all of that was down there, but there was something about walking by it all that made me realize just how vibrant our downtown is.
It’s great to see new business ventures making their home in these beautiful buildings. The architecture on the outside is as interesting as the products and services you find on the inside.
A lot has changed in our town since my family moved here 15 years ago. Downtown businesses have come and gone. Some buildings are vacant that once housed thriving stores. The bridge that used to connect the towns of Jonesville and Elkin is gone. I remember when that bridge was taken down, business owners in downtown Elkin felt despair that their traffic would plummet. And maybe it did, for a while. But people got used to new traffic patterns, new stores moved in to help attract even more business, and places along the way received a facelift.
Elkin isn’t much different than other small towns throughout the South. (Maybe even throughout the United States.) Supercenters and Interstates have changed the fabric of our towns. But it’s nice to see that all is not lost in the historic sections. With a little passion and care from the community, these small towns can help their historic downtowns remain a vibrant part of the economy.
I’m glad I took a walk yesterday. It’s a good reminder to slow down once in a while and take time to appreciate our surroundings. Maybe some might say I got a little too sentimental or reflective, but in the end, I became a little more proud of what our town has done and where it’s going, and had a little fun along the way.
Yesterday I went for a run. It was 60 degrees and sunny, and I decided not to let that beautiful day slip by without me getting out in it. This time of year, when it feels like the sun starts setting at 4:30, I love the fact that being a freelancer allows me to get out in the middle of the day, even if that means I’m proofreading after supper.
While jogging by the neighbor’s yard where their new cow was resting in the sun, I also reflected on how lucky I am to live in North Carolina. Here I was, outside in short sleeves the week of Thanksgiving. Granted, it was winter-like last week with sleet and freezing rain, but as we North Carolinians know, the weather here can change on a dime. There are times when you’re wearing shorts and flip flops in February and then there are times you have a foot of snow on the ground in March.
Don’t be impressed that I went for a run. I’m not an exercise fanatic. I don’t work out every day, I don’t run for miles, and even the couple of miles I do run I’m often seen taking a break to take a picture or change the song on my iPod. I run because it makes me feel better. It helps my attitude to be outside for a while. It refreshes my mind and helps me concentrate on work when I’ve been up and moving a little bit. And it just makes me a happier person overall when I’ve had a chance to work out a couple of times during the week.
That mental well-being that comes from exercise is one of the things Joe Boone emphasizes in his book, Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Healthy Life. A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to edit this book, which is now available for sale. The book provides a very in-depth, scientific look at what your body does with the foods you eat (all in laymen’s terms). He also talks about different types of exercise and goal setting. But the thing that I appreciated most is throughout the book, the emphasis is not on losing weight or bulking up. Instead, he focuses on giving you the tools to build a healthy lifestyle and maintain a healthy mental attitude. That’s exactly what exercise means to me. It’s not about whether I’m the fastest at the 5K or can lift the most at the gym. It’s about the fact that being outside makes me happy. Doing my Pilates workout helps melt away the stress of the day. Riding my bike by the cow pastures helps me think about the beauty of our creation and focus less on the disheartening news I see every day on TV. And even while running I get a chance to reflect and enjoy being outdoors.
Maybe it was the long walks with my brother Locke through woods, over creeks and along dirt roads when I was a kid, or maybe it was the emphasis Davidson put on making exercise a part of your daily life (and not a course you took for a grade), but whatever it that inspired me to make exercise part of my regular routine has paid off. Like I said, I might not be the most dedicated when it comes to my workouts, but I know it’s important to me, so I make time for it in my schedule. And that is one of many things I’m grateful for this Thanksgiving week. Blue skies, warm sun, and a long country road that invites me out for a run.
When Bill and I were newlyweds living in Greensboro, we were invited to supper at the home of a couple in our church who had been married quite a bit longer than we had been. I’m sure they had us over to help introduce us to people in the church, or to get to know us better since we were newcomers. I know we had a good time, because Mr. Hull was a great storyteller and always a lot of fun. But what I remember most about that evening is their yard had one of the most beautiful forsythia bushes I had ever seen. The forsythia bush at the Hulls’ house was not just one of the biggest I’d seen, it also had a beautiful shape to it. It sprayed out like fireworks, and looked like it grew there effortlessly, although I knew from my work as editor of Carolina Gardener magazine that beauty like that often came from some very skilled pruning.
I’ve always loved forsythia. Some people pooh-pooh the bush, because it only flowers for such a short time and is pretty non-descript when not in flower. But I love the little yellow flowers that to me mean springtime in the South. And I grew to love it even more when my roommate in college, Cynthia, said she always loved it because she used to think people were saying it was her flower — “For-Cynthia.” So of course I was drawn to that bush and it made an imprint on me. But even more than the fact that it was a forsythia, I remember thinking that night, “I hope someday that I live in a house long enough to have bushes that big and beautiful.”
That time has come. And not really because of any specific plan or goal. This is my view out the window of my office:
Every day for the past couple weeks, I’ve looked out at the blooms on this hydrangea, and marveled at the beauty of the lacy white set against the dark green of the woods. I’d love to take credit for the beautiful shape, but really I owe that to the deer. Yes, deer. Those animals that are one of the biggest garden pests have actually been a benefit to me. I’ve seen them, in the early spring when there’s not much green out in our woods, venture up to the edge of our yard and nibble the shoots coming out of my hydrangea. They’ve pruned the hydrangea so that it splays out like fireworks, just like that forsythia at the Hulls’ house.
There’s been a big gap in time from that night at dinner to now. And I have to admit, I didn’t consciously think to myself when we were landscaping this yard that I wanted to plant shrubs at the edge of our yard to grow big like the Hulls’. But for some reason this summer, when I looked out at the hydrangea, it brought back memories of that forsythia. And a satisfaction of sorts bubbled up inside me. I did it. I now have a bush in my yard like that forsythia. One that says to people, this family has invested time and love into their home, into building a life and a place for their family. And it all happened by accident.
I happen to live on a few acres of land, and while I try to keep a somewhat manicured lawn and garden up by the house, most of the rest of the property is left to its own devices. Trees fall down in the woods, blackberries grow along the right of way, and sometimes things like this pop up beside the driveway.
I saw it start to grow and was going to pull it up, but Bill said to just leave it and see what happened. As it grew, the thick, spiny stems splayed out in all directions.
I passed it every day as I walked to the end of the driveway to meet the kids’ school bus, and while I knew it was just a common thistle, I couldn’t help but start thinking it looked like some alien plant. Something that might grow on a planet were these guys are from, the Mon Calamari from Star Wars.
I must not be the only one who sees something a little strange looking and starts imagining life on other planets. Or alien species on our planet. A few days ago, a story popped up in the news that some scientists have proposed that octopuses are aliens from outer space. Well, technically they’re saying that the eggs of the original octopuses traveled to Earth on a comet. Granted, it is highly controversial research and denied by many scientists. But octopuses are such interesting looking creatures, I can see how someone might think they don’t necessarily fit in with the aquatic world and start imagining that they’re really a being from another planet. The thing is, that line of thinking usually falls in the realm of science fiction world, not scientific research.
Maybe we’re just looking at things from the wrong perspective. Instead of viewing a large thistle growing by the side of the driveway or in the middle of a cow pasture where they’re usually found, as something that doesn’t belong, instead we should just accept it as one of the beautiful, creative aspects of our natural world. A world that brings us such things as the platypus, the Venus flytrap, and countless other crazy-looking species that diversify life on this planet. Because without diversity, life would just be boring.
My favorite colors are red and orange. But there is a color that has crept into my life that I have to admit I sort of love, and it’s turned me into a hosta lover at the same time. That color is chartreuse, and my new favorite hosta is this one:
I have a confession to make. I have never really liked hostas. When we lived in Marietta, Georgia, hostas lined the back of our house, from the back door to the driveway. These plants that are known in the garden world as shade plants somehow survived in the full sun. And I don’t just mean sunlight for 8-12 hours straight. I mean sweltering hot, beating down, making the pavement too hot for bare feet sun. The thing is, even though those hostas survived, they didn’t do well. They were green through the summer, but they looked like they struggled, as we all did in the heat and humidity of Georgia summers. Those hostas put a bad taste in my mouth for the plant.
After that, I thought of hostas as a garden plant for people who couldn’t grow anything else. So when I started working at Carolina Gardener magazine, I was surprised to find out people actually liked hostas, and chose to put them in their gardens. In fact, there were gardeners with entire areas dedicated only to hostas. And there were so many varieties! Different sized leaves, different colors of green. But still, I wasn’t impressed.
When Bill and I moved into our first house, my mom brought a bunch of hostas in plastic grocery bags. Free plants dug up from the neighbors. I rolled my eyes and sighed, but I planted them in our yard. After all, these plants were free, and we needed something to spruce up the yard a little. Even then, I looked at hostas as a secondary plant. Something to fill up space, leaving the real show to my daylilies and irises.
So of course when I got the one in the picture, again for free, I planted it. But I didn’t expect to love it. I was just doing my duty, helping a free plant survive. Then something interesting happened. The next year, around the time the azaleas came into bloom but before anything else was blooming, the hosta poked its leaves out of the ground. And they weren’t the flat, kelly-green leaves I had always associated with hostas. They were slightly curled, with a dark green center and a chartreuse edging that really stood out among the other greens of the perennials growing around it. There’s something about that chartreuse that catches my attention every time I look at the garden. I can even see it as I drive up the driveway, providing a contrast among the perennials. And I find myself staring at the little hosta in awe, from the time it comes up in the spring all the way through fall, when its chartreuse leaves mix with the deep yellows and maroons of mums and asters.
Maybe there’s just something about chartreuse that makes the difference. This color seems to have personality all its own!
It’s hard to think of it as spring, as it seems almost this entire month of March has been filled with cold days, windy weather, dreary rain, and even snow! And not even the good snow that piles up and makes for great sledding for a day or two, but mushy, wet snow that melts away before you get a chance to play in it.
That’s what makes me all the more happy whenever I turn into our driveway and see my periwinkle in full bloom. I think this year it is blooming more than ever. And as much as I hate to admit it, it’s probably due in part to Bill. I planted some sprigs of periwinkle on that steep bank of red clay 9 years ago when we moved into our house, knowing that it would spread quickly and help control erosion while looking pretty year-round. Granted, the red clay wasn’t the most welcoming place to plant it, so the periwinkle didn’t spread as fast as I wanted it to. Which means that instead of choking out all other growth, there are grasses that have made their way into that area here and there.
For the past few years, Bill has mowed up the side of that bank at the end of the summer to cut back the tall grass, and every time I fuss at him for mowing down my periwinkle. Just when it seems to be bushing out a little, he cuts it back, and I worried that it would stunt its growth. But it has continued to spread, and has finally covered the whole bank.
So as much as I hate to admit it, I feel like Bill gets some of the credit for all these beautiful blooms. I know that cutting back perennials and shrubs will often encourage more blooms. That, along with the slow-release fertilizer I finally remembered to throw out last year, have made the periwinkle look better than ever.
Together, we have made a pretty little entry-way. And our unexpected teamwork in the garden seems very symbolic of the teamwork it takes for a healthy marriage. Sometimes it might not be obvious that what he or I are doing is helping each other out, but as long as we are working toward the same goals, our efforts aren’t wasted. Sure, it takes a gardener to see a symbol of marriage within a bloom of periwinkle. But isn’t spring a time for finding symbolism in nature? Here’s just one more to add to the fertile bunnies that led to Easter bunnies bringing treats and butterflies symbolizing new life through Christ.
This year, Carter came home at the first of the year with a journal. As a writer, I was very excited that he would be encouraged to write more through the year. It seems like after the intense focus on reading in third grade, they’re expanding a little in fourth grade to include writing as well. It’s such an important skill, no matter what career you end up pursuing.
I have to admit though, my excitement waned dramatically when I read the note with the journal. This wasn’t just a notebook meant for Carter to write his thoughts and feelings in once a week. It was for a parent too! That’s why it’s called a dialogue journal. The assignment is that once a week, one of us writes something, possibly ending with a question. Then it’s time for the other person to write, answering that question and expounding on it.
At first, I dreaded it. I write for a living. The last thing I want to do is have another writing assignment! It felt a little over-ambitious for teachers to ask parents, so busy with work, shuttling kids to activities, cleaning house, and making supper, to add one more thing to the to-do list.
But pretty quickly, my feelings on the journal changed.
For one thing, this parent journal, with its weekly deadline, has been a great way for me to actually keep up with a journal of my own. After all, I’ve made many New Year’s resolutions to start a journal. I’ve bought beautiful journals from Barnes & Noble or stationery stores to encourage me to write. And I’ll always excitedly start with a few entries. But then things get busy. I end up reading or watching TV. Laundry needs to be folded. And the journal ends up in the drawer of my nightstand full of empty pages. Sure, writing along with Carter means what I write about is different than if it were my personal journal. I might not be writing observations on the kids or my deepest feeling in this one, since Carter reads it, but it’s still a weekly writing practice. The practice is what’s important.
Another interesting thing about the journal is the dialogue aspect. When I first handed it to Carter and said, “I guess it’s time for you to write,” he was stuck. Absolute writer’s block. So I offered to go first, and ended with a question. That gave him something to write about, and it didn’t seem so hard. Immediately I saw why the teacher assigned this type of project. Writing is important for a fourth grader, but unless you happen to be a person who just loves keeping a diary, it’s hard to think of what to write when you’re staring at a blank page.
The dialogue aspect has been fun too, as Carter and I ask questions back and forth to each other. Simple things, like what is your favorite holiday, or what are you looking forward to about the Ash Wednesday service? Turns out, he likes the pancakes. Go figure!
Through the journal, and this is probably the teacher’s goal, I have been able to see his writing improve over the year. And the other benefit, maybe even greater than the weekly writing practice Carter and I are getting, is the actual journal we are creating together. I know that 10, 20, or even 40 years from now, Carter will be able to go back to and read this journal, and be filled with special memories of his childhood. You don’t get that from a science fair project!
This past weekend, I tackled a garden project that I’ve been putting off for years. I dug up all the irises in front of our house, and moved them to an entirely new area, which I’m hoping will now become “The Iris Bed.”
When we first moved into this house, I admit I went a little crazy with my flowers. I have always loved English cottage gardens, and I wanted a garden surrounding my house that was all flowers, full of blooms at all times of the year. I’ve been able to achieve that in a sort of modified way out the side door. But in our front, along the sidewalk, it just wasn’t working. For one thing, I only had a small space between the front porch and the sidewalk. For another, that part of the yard just doesn’t get much direct sunlight.
Rather than having a variety of blooming perennials and annuals, I had planted a lot of iris bulbs among the two boxwoods, and then pretty much ignored the area. After all, bulbs are supposed to be low maintenance, right?
But as I know from my years in garden writing, low maintenance doesn’t mean no maintenance. You might choose to turn some of your lawn into a natural area to cut down on the fertilizing, watering, and mowing. But you still have to mulch and weed that natural area. Or you plant perennials instead of annuals in your flower border, but perennials will need to be cut back in the fall and divided once in a while to really thrive.
That’s exactly what happened to my irises. They bloomed gangbusters for a few years. But two years ago, the blooms slowed down, and then last spring even the plants themselves seemed to be choked out. It was an overgrown mess, with dead leaves and weeds overtaking the beauty of the irises.
Once I finally took the time to pay attention to these bulbs, I was excited by the opportunities I found. Not only does the front walkway look a lot cleaner in its spruced up makeover, but I had over four grocery bags of iris bulbs to get creative with.
After a few afternoons in the garden, I felt the satisfaction of a job well done. It made me think of something my grandmother used to say, “Nothing in life worth having comes easy.”
Sure, we all long for the no-maintenance lifestyle. But that doesn’t exist, not in the garden, not in friendships, not in our spiritual life, you name it. Very little in our lives thrives on neglect. But luckily, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to revive or maintain what’s important in our lives. For the irises, all it took was splitting up the crowded bulbs. Nurturing a friendship can be as simple as a text can let a friend know you’re thinking of them. Taking a couple of hours out of my busy night-time routine of washing dishes and getting kids to bed to go to our women’s Bible study is all it takes to reinvigorate me spiritually.
It was easy to neglect my irises. After all, they were in the front of the house, out a door we rarely use, and no one really saw them. But once I made the effort to split them up, which is recommended every three to four years and I had gone seven, I saw just how much of a difference a little time and energy can make. Yet again, my garden is teaching me a lesson — to not let other areas of my life get neglected, crowded, and covered up with weeds. I want my life to be full of strong blooms, and while it might take a little work once in a while, it’s worth it.