JULY E-Book SALE at Smashwords.com

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During the month of July, you can get my e-book titles for 50% off if you purchase them at Smashwords.com. Here’s a link to my Author Profile (which, among other things, lists my Smashwords titles): https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Hilgartner

And here are the promotional codes (which you enter at checkout in order to receive your discount).

VK28Y for A BUSINESS OF FERRETS

PF36Z for A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

MH89E for A NECKLACE OF FALLEN STARS

MW85U for COLORS IN THE DREAMWEAVER’S LOOM

HA75A for THE FEAST OF THE TRICKSTER

and TH42L for CATS IN CYBERSPACE

My other books (A MURDER FOR HER MAJESTY and PKP FOR PRESIDENT) are still in print, so they’re not available on Smashwords — but you can find them on Amazon if your local bookstore doesn’t have them.

Tribute

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I don’t usually write short stories, but this one came to me after the death of the real life Fluffy (who was, at least in some ways, different from the narrator Fluffy in CATS IN CYBERSPACE and PKP FOR PRESIDENT). I hope readers will enjoy it.

 

The sun was warm on my back as I lay on the stone wall facing Fluffy. She had fallen asleep again, between one piece of advice and the next; but I didn’t mind waiting. She was ancient. The weight of her experience had pushed her skin down so that the spines of her backbone showed through her tired-looking coat. I had heard our Two-Feets fretting that she was so thin, and worrying that she didn’t seem very interested in food.
“It’s just too much trouble to eat, Sully,” she told me once. “Food used to be one of my principal pleasures, but now, it doesn’t seem worth the effort.”
“If you don’t want yours,” Ginger had said, moving in on the dish, “can I have it?” But then, Dana had swooped down, saying, “Ginger, you piggy!” and picked up Fluffy and her bowl and put them both in the room with the glass doors. Fluffy made an effort to eat, because Dana clearly expected her to; but even I could see her heart wasn’t in it.
She opened her eyes, then, and looked at me. “Sullivan,” she said, as though she were reminding herself who I was. “The Two-Feets always act like they have a plan and they’re in control, but most of the time, I think they’re just making it up as they go along.”
I thought about that. “But they have such constraints on their time,” I protested. “I mean, Dana knows before she even feeds us whether she has to go away in her smelly car, or not.”
“They have schedules,” Fluffy agreed, “but that’s not the same as a plan.”
She lapsed into silence as I pondered this. After several moments, when I saw her eyelids beginning to drift shut again, I said, “Would you like me to wash your ears?”
“That would be nice,” she purred. So I did. I had hoped it might keep her awake a little longer, but she fell asleep in spite of my efforts. I settled myself more comfortably to wait.
My brother, Gilbert, came along the wall, then: lanky, grey and white, and very interested in hunting. “What are you doing, Sully?”
“Talking with Fluffy.”
“She’s asleep,” Gilbert told me.
“I know. But in a few minutes, she’ll wake up again and tell me something interesting.”
“Oh. About hunting?”
“Probably not,” I admitted. “She’s spent a lot of time studying the Two-Feets, Gilbert. She’s very wise.”
Gilbert sat down beside me. He wasn’t very restful. He started to wash, but got distracted when a bug buzzed past. Then he noticed a bird in the old apple tree. “Too high to climb,” he said regretfully. “Sully, do you think if we worked together we could take down the woodchuck?”
It was not the first time he had asked this question. “No,” I responded. “But maybe you could enlist the neighbor’s Doberman. If you tried really hard, I bet you could figure out how to let it out of its kennel.”
Gilbert thought about that. “I’m sure I could,” he agreed. “But I’m not sure that, once it was loose, I could convince it that the woodchuck would make a better lunch than I would.”
“There is that,” I agreed.
Fluffy stirred again, yawned hugely — showing us her worn and broken teeth — and blinked. “Hello, Gilbert,” she greeted him. “I thought you’d be hunting.”
“Sullivan says you’re very wise. I wondered if you had some wisdom about hunting to share.”
“I tried to teach Dana to hunt, one summer,” Fluffy said. “I brought her chipmunks. They weren’t completely dead — just slowed down a bit — so she’d have a chance. I would bring them into the kitchen and put them on the mat by the door. But Dana never figured out that she had to keep a paw on them, so they would always run away into the house. Then, she’d go and get a big paper bag —”
Gilbert brightened up. “A paper cave?! For you to play in?”
“No, not for me. She would put it on the floor near where the chipmunk was hiding; then she would chase the chipmunk into it with the broom. Once she got the chipmunk inside, she’d close up the bag, carry it outside, and let it go. It was very frustrating. I could never make her understand that she was supposed to eat it.”
“I know,” Gilbert said. “They never eat the things I bring them, either — even when I leave them something good, and not just the innards.”
“Dana and I worked it out, though. She’d see me catch a chipmunk, and she’d come outside and say, ‘Do you want to trade that for some crunchies, Fluff?’ And I’d put the chipmunk down, and she’d take me in the house and give me crunchies.”
“But chipmunks are better than crunchies,” Gilbert said. “Aren’t they?”
“I don’t know,” Fluffy said. “They’re a lot of work. And I was never as good at killing them as PKP — or you.”
“Why did Dana give you crunchies?” I asked, “if she didn’t want the chipmunk?”
“I think she wanted the chipmunk to stay outside,” Fluffy said. “I think she didn’t like the idea of having it indoors, and by offering me crunchies, she was trying to teach me to leave my prey outside.”
“It’s too bad. If they’d let us bring rodents — or birds — inside, we could hunt while they’re off in the smelly cars,” Gilbert said. “It would make the days so much more interesting. What’s your favorite prey, Fluffy?”
Fluffy smiled. “I haven’t hunted outside of my dreams for a long time, Gilbert.” She yawned, then, and her eyes started to drift shut.
“Is that why you sleep so much?” Gilbert asked, sounding enlightened. “Because that’s where you hunt?”
“There’s more to life than hunting,” she said around another yawn; and her eyes closed.
Gilbert looked at me. “Of course there’s more to life than hunting, Sully. There’s wrang, and games, and sleeping, and even scritching and patting, I suppose. But hunting’s the most fun. I’m going after the rude red squirrel, today. Want to help?”
“No thanks. You’ll have more fun if I’m not in your way.”
Gilbert gave my ear a quick lick, jumped off the wall, and sauntered away toward the oak trees where the red squirrel hung out. I knew I had puzzled him. Gilbert wasn’t a terribly introspective cat. While I had spent some time figuring out how Dana’s computer worked, and what the point of books (and crossword puzzles) was, Gilbert’s idea of how best to utilize the New York Times was to curl up in the middle of the section Colin was trying to read. “It’s my job to be annoying,” he would say, “and so cute they can’t be mad at me. It takes real skill to get the balance just right.”
For Gilbert, things were simple: something was fun, or it wasn’t; it was good to eat, or not. The deeper questions — like how things worked, or why — simply weren’t important to him. I, on the other paw, wanted to understand the underlying structure, the reasons. For Gilbert, it was enough to know that Dana and Colin went off some days and left us shut indoors; I wanted to know why they did that some days and other days stayed home and let us out. I wanted to know what they did when they weren’t with us, and whether they enjoyed it. I wanted to know…everything.
I came out of my reverie to find Fluffy’s old eyes fixed on me quizzically. “You didn’t go hunting with Gilbert?”
I shook my head. “He’ll have more fun without me, and I was hoping we could talk some more.”
“What would you like to talk about?”
“What’s the most important thing you know, Fluffy?”
She was silent for a moment, thinking. Then she said, “I know that I am loved.”
“Loved?” I repeated. It was a Two-Feet concept. Dana and Colin said it to all of us — and to each other: I love you. It was more than simply caring for us; when Dana and Colin went away for longer than a day, the neighbor from across the street came over to feed us and clean our litter box; but she didn’t love us, even though she would pat us and even play with us from time to time. Sometimes, when Ginger is mean to me, Dana says, “Ginger, be nice. Sully loves you.” But I just want to be friends with her and wash her ears and make sure we’re part of the same cat tribe; I don’t know if it’s love the way Dana means.
“Do you mean loved by them?” I asked at last. “The Two-Feets?”
“Yes. No matter what happens, no matter how frail I get; even now that I’m not beautiful, anymore, I know that I am loved.”
“I think you’re beautiful, Fluffy,” I said, but she made a face.
“I’m skinny and my coat is in a terrible state—”
“You have a beautiful mind,” I insisted. “You’ll always be beautiful to me.”
“You’re doing it, too,” Fluffy said. “It’s what the Two-Feets have to give us — and to teach us: love. Not just a home and a comfortable life. Not even the computer, and language, and the Internet. Think about how it feels when they stroke you, or how you’ve gotten used to Dana picking you up and giving you a hug. It’s more than the touch, more than the sensations; it’s a kind of communication, a kind of acceptance, a kind of deep connection. They love us even when we’re bad, even when we make them sad or angry, even when we’re not very nice to them.”
“Like PKP?”
She nodded.
“And it’s important?”
“It’s the most important thing, Sullivan,” she told me seriously.
“I don’t think I understand,” I admitted.
“No,” she agreed. “But you will.” And then, she closed her eyes and went back to sleep. She didn’t wake up, even when Gilbert came tearing across the road chasing the red squirrel. He didn’t catch him; the squirrel got up the old apple tree just in time. Gilbert flopped down in the grass, panting.
“Too bad,” I said. “That was pretty close.”
Gilbert just panted. I jumped off the wall to sniff his nose. “Are you all right?” I asked him.
“Ran too fast,” he said. “Damned squirrel.”
I washed his ears and whiskers. The squirrel swore at us in squirrel-language; his chattering got the blue jays riled up, too, but none of them swooped down on us, this time.
“Did Fluffy teach you things?” Gilbert asked at last.
“She gave me a lot to think about.”
“You think too much, Sully. You should hunt more. Fluffy thinks all the time and just look at her!”
“It’s not thinking that makes her so thin,” I said.
“What does, then?” he demanded.
“She doesn’t eat enough.”
“She ate enough before she started thinking all the time,” Gilbert insisted, and I gave up. After a while, I realized Gilbert had gone to sleep, too.
I was almost asleep, myself, when Ginger came into the yard. She was using her most insolent saunter, with her tail straight up with the end crooked to one side. “Hi, Ginger,” I greeted her.
She gave me a long, disdainful look. “I see even the great gray-and-white hunter has succumbed to indolence. It must be contagious.”
“It’s peaceful,” I said. “You could join us.”
“Only in your dreams, gray-boy,” she sneered, and started away.
“Ginger, why is Fluffy so thin?”
“She’s old, you little idiot,” Ginger said without slowing down.
I thought about that. Fluffy had been an adult when we had come as kittens. I had gotten confused, when we first arrived, and thought she might be our mother; but she had smacked me gently with one paw and said she wasn’t even our Substitute Mother, but that we could sit with her if we behaved. Since that was a much nicer reception than we got from either of the other cats, we spent a lot of time with Fluffy. Even then, she hadn’t wanted to play with us, and I don’t remember her hunting, either. I wondered how old she really was. I jumped back up on the wall, to see whether she was starting to wake up again, but her eyes were closed. I curled up nearby and waited.
Fluffy slept the afternoon away. She didn’t even wake when Dana came out on the porch and called us to come in. I had to nudge her until she opened her eyes. “Sorry,” I told her. “Dana is calling us. We have to go in.”
Fluffy got creakily to her feet. “We can’t worry Dana. Let’s go.”
“Fluffy,” I said as we walked. “Ginger says you’re old. Is that true?”
She nodded. “I don’t know how old. Two-Feets have something they call a calendar, which helps them keep track of long stretches of time. But when I was a kitten and a young cat, I didn’t pay any attention to the passage of time, so I don’t know exactly how old I am.”
“Are you older than Ginger?”
“Oh, yes. I remember when Ginger was a kitten.”
I thought about Ginger as a kitten. It was hard to imagine. We climbed the porch steps; Fluffy rubbed against Dana’s legs and she bent down and patted her. Gilbert came up onto the porch after us, went into the kitchen, and flopped down on the linoleum, and Ginger stalked in, took up an expectant position near the food bowls, and glared at Dana.
“The least she could do would be fix us a snack,” she grumped. But Dana distributed pats, not food, and Ginger went off in a huff.
That evening, I went looking for Fluffy. There were five places she liked to sleep, and I found her in the second one I checked: under the dining room table. She opened her eyes as I approached.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” I told her. “About love. But I still don’t understand.”
“No,” Fluffy said. “It took me a long time. Don’t worry about it.”
“I think I shouldn’t have asked for the most important thing you know. I’m not wise enough to understand it. But do you think, Fluffy, you could tell me something else? Something I might be able to understand, now, without waiting to get old?”
She stretched toward me so she could wash my ears. “Always remember, Sullivan: There is nothing wrong with being nice.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I think I understand that.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “You know, Sullivan: I’ll miss you.”
“Miss me? But I’m not going anywhere.”
She gave my ears another, gentle swipe. “I know,” she told me. “But I am.”
“Where?” I asked, perplexed.
But Fluffy didn’t answer. She just gave my ears a couple more licks, and went back to sleep.

Transformative Teaching

Gentian_smallIt’s September (already! my heart cries); and for me, the concept of “September” is inextricably linked with “back-to-school.” Oh, I come by it naturally. Not only do I have a lot of schooling (all the way through Masters level) under my belt, but in my family of origin, my mother was a teacher; and among my siblings and their significant others, I have three brothers and a sister-in-law who teach. I’ve even taught, myself — in a private boarding high school, and as a private music teacher (beginning piano, recorders, and voice — with a bit of chamber music coaching, as well).

This September, as I contemplate all the students and teachers returning to the classroom for another year, in addition to offering my prayers for the transforming and blessed work of teaching and learning, I have been reflecting on truly exceptional teachers and teaching.

I do not consider myself an exceptional teacher; I’m competent, but not inspired; and while I enjoy teaching — and the interactions with students from which I frequently learn important lessons — teaching is not one of my passions; and I do think that truly exceptional teachers are also passionate about it. All the same, it has been my privilege and blessing to have experienced exceptional teaching from time to time in my life; in this essay, I wish to pay homage to a few of these remarkable people.

When I was in high school, I already knew that I not only wanted to write, but needed to; my writing provided a pressure-relief valve and helped me to make sense of and deal (more productively) with some difficult life lessons. I was fortunate to cross paths with a sympathetic and gifted English teacher: James Toole; between us, we set up an independent study English curriculum which allowed me to focus on my writing. He would give me lists of things (short stories, essays, biography, fiction, classics — a truly broad selection) and ask me to read them critically, noting how the writer handled the various elements of written expression, such as voice, imagery, point of view, characterization, tension or drama, etc. He didn’t require me to write down these analyses, but he encouraged me to put them into practice in my own writing. He read my fiction and — instead of “correcting” it — would note passages that didn’t work, usually just with a question mark; it was my task, then, to try to figure out for myself whatever he was drawing to my attention. If I couldn’t, I could go to him and ask, and he would explain; but usually, the passages he flagged contained issues I could identify and fix in my own way. From this experience, I learned a great deal about expressing myself, and conveying to others what was going on in my head, and/or in the heads and lives of the characters I invented.

Another remarkable teacher I encountered was my oboe teacher at music camp: John Morrison. From John, I learned that the best performers didn’t necessarily make the best teachers. John (a fine player, but not a superstar) had and taught a brilliant system for making reeds. (For those of you who are not oboists, you should know that the instrument is never any better than the reed — which is extremely fragile, affected by everything from humidity to the phase of the moon, and perishable. Even a great reed only lasts for a week or so of daily, professional or semi-professional playing.) John’s system was clear, logical, teachable, repeatable; each step was described and tolerances defined. John (and his students) could tell whether or not a reed was at its best simply by the way it crowed (without being attached to the instrument at all); and by the quality of the crow we knew where to cut, shave, scrape, etc. in order to achieve optimization. It may not sound like much to someone who has never had to wrestle with reeds, but trust me: John’s system allowed me, consistently, to make reeds that were playable. Having decent reeds meant I could reproduce the articulation and phrasing I heard in my head; as well, knowing I could (consistently) make a decent reed increased my confidence enough so that I could accept gigs without fearing that, when the performance rolled around, I would be stymied (and humiliated) by the instrument itself.

Another of my remarkable teachers is someone with whom I currently work: my dressage instructor, Judi Whipple. Dressage is a complicated discipline, involving the training not only of the horse, but also of the rider. In this realm, as well, it is clear that being a fabulous rider doesn’t necessarily translate into good or great teaching. One reason may be (as with music) that if things come easily to one (which is often the case with great performers), it doesn’t mean that one can break down the steps (the system, as it were) into a meaningful process for someone less innately talented.

I am not a fabulous athlete, nor a natural equestrian. I love my horse; I particularly enjoy dressage, because so much of the work is about developing the relationship between horse and rider. But I’m no Olympic contender; I have no aspirations to be one of the world-beaters. That said, I do want to be the best rider I can be, and to develop my partnership with my horse, Solace, to the limits of our combined talent. One reason that Judi is such an exceptional teacher is that she focuses on the goals (and the reality) of each horse and rider; there’s no pressure to conform to her agenda, but all the support I need to develop to the best of my ability and in accordance with my own aspirations and goals. Judi is good at breaking complicated, interrelated physical processes into understandable steps; and she clearly communicates how the various elements of a rider’s position and aids influence the horse. She also has a deep, instinctive awareness of what’s going on with each horse, so that the inevitable miscommunications between horse and rider rarely result in dangerous situations. (This is not — alas — a universal gift of riding instructors.) She is constantly learning, herself, and generously shares with her students her new and ever-evolving insights and techniques. Like James Toole and John Morrison, she encourages each student to internalize her instruction, so that we learn to develop and rely upon the toolbox of strategies she introduces.

There have been, of course, many other special and important teachers in my life — and not all of them in a formal or structured learning environment. But I chose these three because they all have given me powerful insights that affected me in ways that reach far beyond the scope of the instruction. Truly exceptional teachers transform us. They don’t shape and change us into what they envision; instead, they provide us with the tools we need to do our own becoming. Like the sculptor who releases the figure from the imprisoning block of stone, truly exceptional teachers help us to chip away obstructions, so that we may become more fully and completely ourselves.

What can I say …?

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Recently, a friend lost her middle child in a tragic accident. It hit me hard. When I read her post on Facebook, I couldn’t breathe for a moment, and then I started to cry. I am childless by choice, and while I have many close relationships with people of all ages, and have experienced my share of grief and loss, I am aware that the loss of one’s own child is the worst nightmare of any parent. I know that I have no way even to imagine her and her family’s pain. We never expect children to die; it is tragic and unfair when young lives are cut short. Words fail us. We are heartsick, and we don’t know what to say.

My friend’s trauma pulled up powerful feelings and memories from something that happened nearly thirty years ago. A kindergarten child was struck and killed by a vehicle, and since it happened at the school bus stop, many of the other students were witnesses to the accident. As one of the area clergy, I was asked, along with several other clergy members, social workers, psychologists, and school counselors, to come into the school to help the students work through their feelings. I ended up with a group of six or seven first graders. We sat on the floor in the library. One little girl climbed into my lap and cuddled up, burying her face in my shoulder while the other kids spoke, rather hesitantly, about their horror, grief, and fears. Mostly, I listened. Sometimes, I asked questions; but mostly, I listened. Most of the children did talk about their feelings; a couple of the boys seemed to need to distance, or perhaps harden, themselves, by dwelling on the gruesome aspects. The little girl in my lap didn’t participate in the conversation, just hid her face and let me hold her.

Finally, when everyone seemed to have had a chance to say the things they needed to, the silent little girl on my lap shifted and  looked up at me.

“You know,” she began, and though her voice wasn’t very loud, the other children all stilled to listen. “You know when you scrape your knee on the playground, and the teacher kisses it to make it better?” I nodded, and she went on. “Well, it doesn’t really make it all better. It just hurts until it’s done hurting.”

I nodded again. “This will, too.” I said. Then I asked, “Do you think it helps at all, to get your knee kissed?”

That small, wise child thought about that, and finally nodded. “It matters that someone notices.”

I said something, then, to the group about noticing one another’s hurts, about taking special care of each other while the pain of losing their schoolmate slowly healed. We all shared hugs and even a few tears; and then their teacher came to take them back into class.

It just hurts until it’s done hurting; and it matters that someone notices.

There are no perfect words for this. That’s a hard lesson for someone like me, who spends so much energy using language and imagery to convey ideas, thoughts and feelings, so I’ll say it again: there are no perfect words. There’s nothing you, I, or anyone else can say that will make everything all better in the face of loss, grief, or trauma. It just hurts until it’s done hurting. (There are things one can say that will make it worse, but that’s meat for another essay.) But it matters that someone notices. So go ahead and kiss the figurative knees: say, “I’m so sorry. I love you. Words fail. I’m thinking of you. You’re in my heart;” if you’re close enough, give hugs or bring casseroles; if you’re far away, send prayers and positive thoughts. Just don’t wait to do anything until you find the right words, because there aren’t any words that will fix this: it just hurts until it’s done hurting. If you try too hard to make it better with words, you’ll end up trivializing the other’s pain; but if you remain silent, because you can’t think of anything to say that will make it better, then you run the risk of seeming to the other person like you aren’t noticing, or that you don’t care.

Keep it short and heartfelt — but say something, even if it’s just “I don’t know what to say,” or “I’m so sorry.” And keep noticing; keep remembering; keep looking for the scrapes and abrasions of loss and grief — because there isn’t a sell-by date on this kind of pain. It doesn’t end with the funeral, or the year of mourning. It just hurts until it’s done hurting, and it can take a long, long, long, long time. Eventually, the pain subsides — mostly — though from time to time, it surges back, triggered by an event, a memory, or by something apparently unrelated; and even though there isn’t a fresh bleeding scrape to kiss, just welling tears or tightness around the mouth to signal that the pain isn’t quite done hurting, if you’re noticing, you can offer comfort — a silent hug or a quiet word.

And it matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quarrying time

Granite-Quarry09Consider, for a moment, the image of an abandoned quarry — there are several of these in Barre, VT, a place I lived for many years. On the steep rock sides, evidence of human endeavor is plain to be read: in the tool marks and rust stains, and in what remains after the huge stone blocks were removed. But the most striking feature of an abandoned quarry is what isn’t there; it’s the depth and width of the hole that attracts us; the contours and interesting shapes, and the jewel colored water at the bottom draw our eyes, and stimulate our imaginations, even when we are far too sensible to risk the dangerous climb to the bottom.

When we look at that abandoned quarry, we rarely find ourselves calculating how many expensive counter tops, beautiful architectural elements, or enduring monuments came out of the hole. Rather, we are intrigued by the emptiness, and the remnants; our imaginations may be caught by the sheer weight of stone, and the effort-filled, sometimes deadly processes involved in its extraction. But the hole, the negative space, and the secretive water — puddle? lake? tributary to an underground river? — are the elements that make these attractive nuisances so intriguing.

But what happens to this image when we consider time itself as the ground, and our lives the process of quarrying out what we will use?

One of the hardest things for me, as a writer, is to quarry out time to spend on my projects. Part of the reason this is hard is because I have never actually been in the situation where I am able to use my writing as my only source of income, so I’ve always had to fit my writing into the interstices between the work I do to keep food on the table, and the time commitments required by family, friends, and other activities. Prioritizing writing time — when it doesn’t come associated with a deadline — is difficult for me. Is finishing the book I’m reading more or less important than spending time on a story (or a blog post)? And should a sunny day, when I don’t have income-bearing commitments, be spent wreaking havoc among the weeds, working the horse, practicing for the next concert, “wasting” time with the enticing time-sucks of social media, internet games, or on any of the other  myriad distractions and entertainments that are available?

More and more, I am finding that my interests outstrip the available time. Oh, I’ve read numerous treatises on achieving balance in one’s life, on time-management, on the importance of setting clear and intentional priorities. None of it really helps. There’s simply more to do then there are hours. My life is full, and (discounting health issues attendant upon getting older, which I do resent) I am basically happy with my situation and the choices I’ve made. I would far rather go through my life feeling like there isn’t quite enough time to do all the things I want to do than to live with the sense of having too much time to fill up.

I’ve learned, over the years, that “perfect” doesn’t exist, and that attempts to get to perfect for perfect’s sake (or, God forbid, because I think someone else expects it of me, or will judge me for not achieving it) are counterproductive, if not actively destructive. For many things — the ones not deeply connected to who I am and how I want to be and live in the world, like keeping a clean house, an organized office, or attractive clothing — “good enough” is just fine. Even the important things don’t always require more than “good enough.” I’ve learned not to worry that my garden doesn’t look like something from “The English Garden” magazine; as long as it delights me and feeds my soul (and doesn’t annoy my husband too much), then it serves its purpose. The crucial lessons of experience are focused on when it’s necessary to strive for “the absolute best I can do” instead of settling on “good enough,” and on recognizing those unpredictable and serendipitous moments when the opportunity exists to scrap the planned to-do list and respond to something — an inspiration; a friend in need; an invitation to something unexpected and wonderful — that will move time beyond all mundane constraints into something precious and transformative.

So back to the quarry image. A very, very small percentage of the stone that came out of that hole got made into beautiful and enduring art; some of it was used in historic buildings (there’s a great photograph in the archives of the Vermont History Center of the cavalcade of oxen that was needed to transport a big granite keystone for the State House from the quarries to the railroad); still more of it was used for countertops, more or less generic tombstones, building stones and pavers. And a lot of the stone that came out of that hole is heaped up into a slag heap somewhere not too far away; it was in the way, not up to standards, completely ordinary, utterly unmemorable. So it is with our time. We really can’t know, when we’re digging, when we’re placing the charges and stepping back to  adjust our ear protection, whether this particular block of time will end up as art or dross; whether it’s destined for “good enough,” “the absolute best I can do,” for something so precious there isn’t even a category for it, or for the slag heap of minutes spent waiting for the tea water to boil, or flossing our teeth.

And no matter how we use our time, there’s still the question of the hole. What sort of mysterious presence will we leave, when all our time is spent, and all our projects completed? So quarry away; delve deep; spend, use, or waste whatever you draw up out of the pit. And remember the lesson of the quarry: it’s the hole left at the end of everything that draws the greatest interest.

 

Revisiting…

Revisiting

Lately, as I’ve been working hard to make my back-list books available in e-book format, I’ve found myself revisiting stories I haven’t really thought about much since they were published, around twenty-five years ago. It’s a curious feeling to be reading along, not completely remembering what happens next, yet knowing that I made that story up; how can I not remember it? It’s also a strange feeling to be reading these tales anew and finding myself thinking, “This is good,” and not cringing as one inevitably does when confronted with (say) a cassette recording of one’s high school talent show performance. In the twenty-five years since these books were published, I’ve grown and learned, as a writer. There are certainly things I would do differently, now, if I were writing these stories. But at the time, I remember feeling it was crucially important to get it right, because a book, once published, is an enduring, public example of one’s work. I think the fact that I can be comfortable with these stories, still, indicates that I did manage to tell the story to the best of my ability, then. If I were writing these stories, now, they would likely end up being very different stories.

With that said, another interesting aspect of this process has been the way it calls up memories from that part of my life — things I really haven’t thought of in many years. Today, I’ve been working on The Feast of the Trickster, and remembering — with startling clarity — exchanges with my editor about the book. I remember sending her the first draft and getting a response to the effect that the book felt like a summer camp story — that the “real kids” had taken over in some way and made the fantastic elements of the story feel unimportant. “It needs to be more epic,” she said; and I took that all to heart and made the book more epic. It also made it longer, but I was OK with that; it felt right. I liked the balance. And then, we had another conversation about the book. “It’s great. I love it,” she told me enthusiastically. “You’ve made it epic, and that’s great. But it’s too long. Cut a hundred pages.”

I was stunned. A hundred pages? I pushed. “Does it drag? Is the pacing wrong? Why does it need to be shorter?”

“There are no obvious slow places; I think the pacing is good. But at this length, it would end up costing more money; and libraries don’t like to pay more than $14.95 for children’s and YA books.”

(Remember: 1989 — the major market for children’s and YA literature was school and public libraries; and this was before Harry Potter and the discovery that kids would read (and love) big, fat books.)

I didn’t feel that cutting that much out of the story was in the best interests of the story, and I said so. “Cut one of the real-kid characters,” she suggested. “No!” I responded. “Their relationship won’t work if there are only two: there’s the cautious kid, the adventurous kid, and the ‘swing vote’ kid; if there were only two, they would constantly be getting deadlocked.” “Well,” my editor told me, “you signed a contract. Cut a hundred pages — or I will.” (That was, incidentally, the last time I signed a contract for a book that wasn’t completed.)

I wrestled with this. I felt the cuts were driven by bean-counter issues, and not artistic ones; but I also didn’t want to hand over the rewrite to my editor — even though I liked and trusted her artistic instincts. So I cut. Every extraneous bit of description, almost all the adverbs; I ruthlessly examined every scene to be sure it moved the story along. In the end, I went back to her having cut around eighty pages. “I couldn’t get a hundred out of it,” I confessed. “You did well,” she told me. “I figured you’d probably come back to me with sixty pages cut.” “Can I put twenty back in?” I asked; but she just laughed.

I don’t have the original, uncut epic version lurking in a drawer (or a file on my computer). I decided that if I was ever going to be satisfied with the book, the book that got published had to be the only version of the story. I made the cuts — and back then Word didn’t have a “track changes” function — pressed “Delete” and let them go. It was a hard decision at the time — and a brutal rewrite process; but I learned some valuable lessons. And that I can read the story now, and find myself feeling good about it, makes me pretty sure it was the right decision.

 

 

Gabriel’s miracle

The "miracle" cat.
The “miracle” cat.

A year ago in April, I started seeing a black and white long-haired stray cat in our neighborhood. We live on a dirt road, with few other houses, lots of woods, and abundant wildlife — including animals that prey on house cats — so it’s unusual to see strange felines around. This one was skittish, thin, and rough-coated, and far too shy for me to approach, let alone handle. I asked around to find out if any of our neighbors knew where the cat belonged, but other than hearing the animal had been sighted, off and on, through the winter, I could find no sign of owners.

One night, I was awakened by the sound of a serious cat fight, and when I ran downstairs to find out what was going on, I discovered the black and white stray, terrorizing my two pampered felines. Apparently, we’d left the bulkhead door open and the cat had come in — and my two had (quite naturally) decided to defend their territory and drive off the interloper. Unfortunately, they weren’t winning. I managed to separate cats, chased the stray outside, and tried to comfort my two, who appeared to be badly shaken but otherwise unhurt.

I had gotten a good look at the stray in the melee — enough to see that it was not just thin: it was starving. In the morning, I started putting out food and water for it.

We quickly discovered that the cat liked food, and knew (or learned in very short order) what the sound of a shaken box of cat food meant. While he was eating, he would allow us to approach and even touch him. I decided that we needed to get him to the vet to have a rabies shot and to be neutered, so I put the cat carrier on the porch and started feeding him next to it. When he had gotten used to that, I put the bowl inside the cat carrier, and one morning, pushed it all the way in, and when he went in after it, I closed the carrier up and took him off to the vet for tests, shots, and neutering.

Fortunately, there were no complications. Food remained a powerful lure, and once we knew he wasn’t carrying any diseases, we started getting him used to being handled. We named him Gabriel. He stuck around, came when called (or the food box was shaken), and started sleeping on the nice, safe porch during the night (when most cat-predators are more active). It became a frequent sight to see me or my husband on the porch, seated beside the cat, with our iPad in one hand while the other stroked him. Though he seemed to like this attention, he was unpredictable; his startle reaction was to strike out with his very sharp claws; he would also bite for no discernible reason, when (we decided) he had had enough patting.

We started looking for a home for him. I wanted him to go someplace where there were no other cats and no children (or grandchildren), since he was still unpredictable. We didn’t want to send him to a shelter, so we put the word out among our friends and acquaintances and waited. Secretly, I was also waiting for the other felines and my husband to become resigned to a new furry family member — and it seemed like progress was being made on that front, but slowly. Very slowly.

Then, early in September, a friend of a friend got in touch with us. She’d heard about the cat and wanted him. It wasn’t a perfect situation (she had two other cats and lived 50 miles away), but she was confident she could successfully integrate him into her family. She came up to meet him. He sat in her lap and purred. It looked like it was going to be OK. So I stifled my reservations, let go of my hope of adding him to my very small and select cat collection, and we sent him off to his new “forever home.” I checked in with her a day or so later to see how the adjustment was going, and she told me Gabriel had run away.

I was horrified. I went down there to look for the cat. I urged her to put food out for him and try to lure him back, but she was unwilling to do that, since she didn’t want to attract raccoons or other wildlife. It was clear to me that she had not sufficiently bonded to Gabriel to mount much of a search — so we did it. My husband and I put ads in the papers, contacted the local vets and  animal shelters, notified the local police, used social media and digital photos, put signs up in public places, and responded to the many helpful people who called with sightings of strange cats in their neighborhood.

We found lots of angels. There was a wonderful woman, Lynn, who not only called about a long haired stray, but tramped through her woods with me (listening without comment to the unique and peculiar call my felines — including Gabriel — are trained to answer), and mobilized her whole neighborhood to help in the ongoing search. Neighbor kids put out and religiously checked a Hav-a-heart Trap, and finally captured the animal they’d been seeing.

It wasn’t Gabriel.

By this time, it was the beginning of November. Sadly, we stopped running the ads and began trying to come to terms with the guilt and grief we felt. We had failed Gabriel. We taught him to trust humans, and then, we sent him off into a bad situation where he was betrayed.

And the first week of December, Lynn phoned me. “I found Gabriel,” she said. “He’s in my cellar, now. I can keep him here until you can come get him.”

“Where? How?” I asked. And the story emerged. She had stopped for gas at the small convenience store/gas station nearest her house, and happened to notice a paper plate by the entrance with cat food on it. She asked about it, and was told that there was this black and white cat who came around, and they’d been feeding it. She whipped out her phone, called up a photo of Gabriel, and asked if he looked like their stray. When she was told yes, she went out, called him using my special (embarrassing) call, and he emerged from under a picnic table. She was able to get him into her car and home, and called us.

I had a meeting that evening and couldn’t go pick Gabriel up, but my husband went. When he got to Lynn’s, she sent him down into the basement which, like many basements, was chock full of great hiding places for a feline. He called Gabriel’s name, and was answered by a tentative chirp. He called again, and the chirp was louder. After the third call, Gabriel emerged and, purring, allowed himself to be stroked and cuddled, and put in our carrier.

It was nothing short of a miracle. Gabriel had been missing for three months, in an unfamiliar area, with dangers ranging from wild predators to traffic (not to mention starvation); but he was safely back. And fatter than when he’d gotten lost. Apparently, he had entirely assimilated connection between  humans and food, and he had managed to convince workers from every shift at the convenience store that he hadn’t already been fed!

He still has moments when he forgets that he’s not supposed to bite (we say, very firmly, “House cats don’t bite” and he usually looks rather abashed), and he and the other two felines are still working out their relationship (with occasional noisy arguments, but — usually — no bloodshed). But it’s safe to say that Gabriel has decided that houses, central heating, humans, and regular meals are certainly worth learning and following a few ground rules.

And while I haven’t (yet) tried to clip his very sharp claws, he does let us brush him. And he has a great purr!

 

 

Entering the Blogosphere (at this late date…)

So, at long last, I’ve finally decided to create a web site for fans of my writing. Up until now, I felt that a regularly updated web site, with posts from me about what’s going on with my books and my life would take away from the time that I actually have to write — but I’m rethinking this. (Technology is my friend… Technology is my friend… Picture Judy Garland clicking her ruby-slippered feet together… Technology is my friend.) I’m getting ready to reissue my back list (books out of print, for which I have reclaimed the rights) as e-books, and it seemed only sensible to have a place on the Internet to let people know about what’s available and how to find it. So… Watch this space. And if you have requests about which book(s) to do first, let me have them. All my publications are on the to do list, except A Murder for her Majesty and PKP For President, both of which are still in print. Oh! And Great Gorilla Grins is not on the list, because — even though that picture book is out of print — I don’t own the rights to Leslie Morrill’s wonderful illustrations. Cats in Cyberspace is coming first, but after that…who knows? Weigh in and let me know what you think!

One of my feline helpers.
One of my feline helpers.