Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

I’ve just done something very exciting. I’ve decided to revisit a past love.

Okay, not a living, breathing human being kind of past love. This heartthrob is one who lived only between the pages of a book I read when I was…maybe 16? But frankly I’m as nervous about meeting this guy again as I possibly could be about meeting the real boyfriend I had that year. Maybe more so. What will I think of this man now? What will re-reading his story tell me about my 16-year-old self? What will my new, middle-age reaction tell me about what I’ve gained through the years–and what I’ve lost?

Back then, I was a big fan of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. One day I woke up and discovered I’d read all the Heyer books. So I went hunting, and I ran across a book that promised me it was “IN THE TRADITION OF GEORGETTE HEYER”!

The book was Barbara Cartland’s Desire of the Heart. I know today that Barbara Cartland was a romance machine, and her dozens of books make “real” writers and readers smirk behind their hands. But I didn’t know it then. This was my first, and last, Barbara Cartland novel. I had no preconceived ideas, except that she might provide a temporary Heyer fix.

Somehow, that book was perfect for me. It starred Cornelia, a plain, unglamorous Irish girl sacrificed in marriage to the dark and dashing Duke of Roehampton. The Duke was already having an affair with a sophisticated older beauty, and he wasn’t at all interested in his boring new wife. So Cornelia ran away and created an exciting new identity for herself as an exotic mystery lady named Desiree. And of course Desiree’s first conquest is…the Duke!

For decades, I thought about the book off and on, wondering if it could have been as magical as I remembered it. Why would an insensitive, adulterous husband, however handsome, be appealing in any way? Why would I love a book whose message pretty much was…get glam, or your brute of a husband won’t love you? Through the years, I forgot the title, forgot character names, forgot everything but the broadest outlines of the plot.

When Google came around, I casually searched databases of Cartland titles, wondering if I could find the one that had meant so much to me. But my details were too sketchy, and her library is too large. I never found anything I recognized.

Until last week…Last week I stumbled onto a site that provided plot outlines, and I was able to narrow it down to one title. Desire of the Heart. I went to eBay and found a used copy just cheap enough to seem worth the risk. Today the book arrived at my door. I’m neck deep in other commitments, so I can’t take time to read it now. And I’m almost relieved.

As I look at the cover, so many memories from that year come back that it’s almost overwhelming. The summer I turned sixteen–I’d forgotten how tumultuous that year was. Our family moved to a new neighborhood, the first move I’d ever made. I started a new school, very tough for a shy girl. And for the first time in my life, I fell in love. Or at least…let’s say that I got a serious crush on a boy, the first one who actually seemed more important to me than Paul McCartney.

I was such a kid, really, but I could see adulthood from there, and it was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. I had so much to learn. Somehow I feel as if this might have been the last book I ever read with a totally romantic heart, if that makes sense.

What do you think? Will I be disappointed? Will I be annoyed with that silly girl who still thought bad boy Dukes were romantic?

Should I even read it?

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Hi, everyone! I just got back from the frozen North…and while I’m thrilled to be home I’m missing the winter wonderland I left behind.

I am getting my MFA in writing from Seton Hill University, a gorgeous Hogwarts-like school in Greensburg, PA. Most of my work is done via the computer, but twice a year I attend a week-long residency up there. The winter residency is a dream come true for this Florida gal!

I felt as if I’d stepped into one of my own books. Now that I think about it, I’ve written three books that feature glorious winters–“Mistletoe Man,” “Winter Baby” and “We Need A Little Christmas.” It was amazing to learn that real winter is just as romantic and magical as I imagined.

I just blogged about my love affair with the snow, in fact, over at Tote Bags ‘n’ Blogs Stop by if you can, and see more of the beauty of Greensburg in January!

Now, before you decide I’m truly insane, remember I was born in Florida, and I have lived in Florida all my life. I once spent a few winter days in Innsbruck, Austria, where I saw plenty of picturesque snow, but I was working and didn’t have any real time for play.

Other than that, I’ve had to settle for a few flakes here and there, and a glimpse or two from a train window. But while I’m in Greensburg, I can frolic like a fool. And boy, did I! I caught snowflakes on my tongue. I made my first snow angel. I pummeled my friends with snowballs. In every way, I allowed myself to be swept into fantasy by the beauty of the hilly landscape.

So as I get back to real life, to work on my new book (a spin-off from “For the Love of Family”), carrying the frosty sparkles in my heart, I wanted to share a little of it with you. Here’s a very short video my daughter captured with her iIPhone. She knew I’d want to have a memento of this magical moment. I hope you enjoy it, too!

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Edna Nichols

A scientist named William Osler apparently once said, “No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”

I’ve been lucky enough to have several teachers like that.  One was Edna Nichols, who taught English and creative writing at my high school.  She also was the advisor (inspiration, fearless leader, drill sergeant) for the little literary magazine we published.  She may not have realized it, but she was terrifically important to me.

In some ways, my memory is probably suspect.  My time with her was long, long ago, that infamously self-absorbed age—the hormonal teenage years.  I was young, diffident, easily embarrassed, terrified of being conspicuous.  I’d been newly transplanted to this high school, having just left the part of town where I’d been born, and where all my friends still lived.  I had just adopted a new nickname, in the hopes of sounding confident and breezy instead of the prissy former convent-school girl I really was.

I was, I think, a bit lost.

She wasn’t.  She owned her classroom, and, for that hour, she owned us, too.  She was middle-aged and she looked tired, but wiry.  She wore her curly hair short, and it was the color of a night with lots of clouds.  Her eyes watched you with the sharp, restless attention of a bird.  A hawk, not a sparrow.  A hawk with lasers.  She saw everything, and one look into those eyes made it clear that trying to fool her was a waste of time.

She wanted your best, and it irritated her when you didn’t give it.  When she was irritated, the eyes sharpened, and she made a wry comment that didn’t quite sting…but almost did.  Like a warning shot, into the wall beside your head.  Close enough to change your attitude without hardening your heart.

The year she taught me, she was recovering from surgery, and she needed to lie down.  She brought her patio chair into the classroom and taught from a reclining position.  Looking back now, I can’t believe she held control of a room full of seniors that way.  But somehow—perhaps with those eyes alone–she did.

I teach now, too, though just part-time, and never with her brilliance.  But when I recently broke my foot and had to teach from a ridiculous knee-scooter for seven long, embarrassing weeks, I remembered Mrs. Nichols and the elan with which she carried off her “chaise lounge.”  I knew it could be done.

I wish I remembered more of her magic.  I wish I knew how she maintained such strict discipline without blighting the confidence and enthusiasm necessary for reading poetry or writing from your soul.  Many, many times I’ve wished I could go back to my high school, and sit like a ghost in one of the empty chairs, watching Mrs. Nichols teach.  I could learn things now, I’m sure, that I was too young to understand back then.

How did she convince me that my silly, self-indulgent poems were good enough to publish for the rest of the school?  How did she inspire me to take the infinitesimal seed of talent and grow it into a lifetime career?  How did she blow the bubble of writing joy into my life, a bubble that still floats through every day?

Perhaps it was that, in the end, she liked us.  She believed in us.  And she kept her message simple.  She had one writing rule, stressed over and over until we finally got it.  “Begin in media res,” she’d say.  Begin in the middle of things.  Begin where it matters.

And she had one life rule, too.  She signed my yearbook with this Jonathan Swift quote, and I’ll bet I could find that same message in a hundred other yearbooks, too.  “May you live every day of your life.”

I just learned that Mrs. Nichols has been struggling with some health problems.  I hate that.  I hate that she’s not still standing in a classroom, aiming a wry joke just beyond the ears of some teenagers who need to settle down, so that she can teach them the joys of books and poetry…and life.

But I know the bubbles she created in all these years still survive.  And I want to thank her for mine.  Be well, Mrs. Nichols!  Thank you.

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Today at lunch, one of my best writing buddies and I were talking about joy. Specifically, how to get more of it into lives that have become so busy, budgets that have become so tight, and families that have grown and changed and sometimes separated.

We talked about the little pleasures from the past, the moments when we’ve felt most at ease with our worlds and with ourselves. We mentioned floating on a raft in the Gulf of Mexico. Long walks with something corny on the iPod. Cooking up something wicked in the kitchen (this was my friend, not me…lol). Making silly things we aren’t even very good at, like Christmas ornaments, posters, ceramics, macrame.

And then I mentioned poetry.

She’s polite, but her eyes got wide. Poetry? I’m sorry. I know it sounds impossible. Isn’t poetry something you slave over in school? But I can’t help it. I’m a geek that way. My parents were both writers, and they both created beautiful poetry. They shared their favorite poems with my sister and me even before we could read. They quoted the greats when they wanted to give advice. “Ah, love, let us be true to one another…” “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…”

And we got hooked. I still find wisdom, beauty and consolation in the poems I love. They give me much the same feeling I get from a really good romance. Here’s what Percy Shelley said about poetry: “It strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty…”

Isn’t that what we want from a book? Don’t we want a writer who can help us see our worlds through fresh eyes? Don’t we want to awake anew to the beauty that is a part of everything, but we’ve begun to take it for granted? Don’t we want to remember what that first rush of falling love feels like…that first coming together in wondrous intimacy?

Of course, I also want to make silly things and play with paints, like a preschooler. The picture at the beginning of this post is my beloved collection of hand-painted mugs–hand-painted by me, a woman who has absolutely zero artistic talent, at one of those do-it-yourself pottery places. I’ve made five so far, the first back in 2004. Each one has one of my favorite quotes on it. So far, I’ve got

“Margaret, are you grieving?” from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant “Spring and Fall”
“I’ll come to thee by moonlight,” from Alfred Noyes’ tragic ballad, “The Highwayman”
“I am half sick of shadows,” from Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott”
“Yet we will make him run,” from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”
“The seven stars go squawking, like geese about the sky,” from Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

They look like a pre-schooler’s work, and yet I cherish every one. I remember the fun I had making them, with my friends, my sister, my daughter… And I remember each poem, and the joy it has brought me through the years. In fact, I think it’s time to make another, because every set of coffee mugs should have at least six, don’t you think?

Any suggestions for the next quote? Anyone out there a poetry geek, too? If you don’t have any poetry to share, I’d still love to hear where in this hectic world you still can find nuggets of joy. I just heard from my friend while I was writing this post, and she reports that she’s out in the pool, floating on a raft and refusing to let anything get her down. That makes me happy. Or, as Shakespeare would say, “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, all losses are restored, and sorrows end.”

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Once, on a hot summer afternoon a couple of years ago, His Highness found me in the back yard, weeding out an old flower bed I’d ignored for ages. “What on earth made you decide to—” Then he stopped. “Oh. You’re starting a new book.”

We’ve been married a long time, so he knows. It’s always like that. The anxiety, the nerves, the sheer mind-breaking work involved in creating a new story are so awful that I’ll do anything, anything rather than sit at my desk. I reorganize my closet, create a card catalog for my books, paint my office, polish the silver. Bed out forgotten gardens. It’s all easier than trying to spin the straw of my chaotic thoughts into the gold of a finished book.

I’m working on a new story now, which of course means I’ve been working on the yard. This weekend was especially grueling, as we raked up the last of four million oak leaves and discovered more weeds than grass underneath.

As I reached down, perspiring and muttering, to uproot the nearest interloper, a sprinkling of deep green leaves and lavender blossoms, I flashed back to my childhood.

My best friend and I played outside for hours, and we made houses in the garden for our toys. We hunted for those small stray flowers in the grass, yellow or purple, or (my very favorite) one with a little navy blue center surrounded by white lace. When we found them, we always built our houses there, where obviously the fairies had sprinkled diamond and sapphire and topaz in the night.

Later, when my own daughter was a little girl, we came across clover sprouting in the back yard. I told her they were fairy houses. She squatted in front of them for long minutes of silent awe, her starfish hands on her knees, studying them. She believed in the invisible fairies, without any evidence except the glossy emerald beauty of the tiny stem and rounded roof.

Where did that sense of wonder go? That easy joy, the awareness that beauty was everywhere, and magic rained in the night? When had these jeweled surprises become problems? When had I become so obsessed with the responsibility of “maintaining the lawn” that I forgot to smile at the little lavender fairy’s house, half-hidden under the leaves?

And suddenly I understood why I dreaded starting that book. I’d lost the wide-eyed joy, the sense of play. Why should I be afraid of beginning a new story? It is the most magical time of all, when nothing is set in stone, when everything is possible. When spontaneity, whimsy, and imagination are the ingredients that, brewed with joy, can create a fascinating new world.

I didn’t pull the little purple weed. My eyes opening, I spotted a yellow one, too, over by the wall. I got my camera and took pictures of them, ignoring the look His Highness gave me across his rake, while he obviously tried to recall the symptoms of sunstroke.

And then I came in and started to work…no…started to play on my book.

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My father used to tell us, “Everyone in the world is either Irish or wishes he were.” I was a kid, so I believed it. It didn’t take me long to discover that everyone values his own heritage that same way, but I still secretly think it’s super cool to be Irish. 🙂

So, in honor of this day, which of course has a special sparkle for me, here is a list of my favorite Irish things!

1) The music. Someone once said of the Irish, “All their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.” I’m the corniest person on the planet, so I love a good tear-jerker song. Try listening to Bing Crosby sing “The Isle of Innisfree,” and you might see what I mean. If you’ve ever been away from your home and your people, you’ll cry at that one, or your tear ducts are broken. How about “The Fields of Athenry” or “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”? Sinead O’Connor singing “Molly Malone.” Christy Moore singing “Nancy Spain.” Anyone doing “Danny Boy.” Even while they’re tearing out your heart, you’re hitting the “repeat” button! Don’t like to cry? Hmmmm…you must not be Irish! 😉

2) The Dingle Peninsula in Western Ireland. This is what heaven looks like (as the song said). The picture here is of my daughter in a magical little cove called Slea Head. If you get a chance to go, do it. The Burren, the Cliffs of Moher, Lisdoonvarna…if you can, stay in an absolutely charming little B&B called Castlewood House, where they serve breakfast that was made by the angels.

3) The words. The irreverent definition of blarney is the ability to tell a man to go to hell in such a way that he looks forward to the trip. Whatever you call it, words fall from Irish tongues like fairy dust. Think of their wonderful blessings: “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back.” And “May you be buried in a coffin made from the wood of a hundred-year-old tree that I shall plant tomorrow.”
And when they turn their words to poetry…to the lyrical celebration of nature, of life, of love, of fear and innocence… that is heaven, too. Yeats is my favorite Irish poet, and these are two of his images that I love the best:

From “Sailing to Byzantium”:
“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing”

From “Song of Wandering Aengus”:
“And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.”

Ooops… I’m suddenly realizing that three things isn’t enough! What about their gorgeous actors (Liam Neeson!), their art (The Book of Kells), their plays (Pygmalion!), their novels (Maeve Binchy), their courage, their beer and their history? But I mustn’t go on forever, so I’ll leave you with the Irish blessing I love best.

May the saddest day of your future be no worse than the happiest day of your past.

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