I am not a fan of cold winters. As a teenager I dreamed of going to college in a warm, sunny locale. Even now, on particularly chilly days, I search for property listings in New Mexico, Arizona, southern Utah. But here I am in Missouri, where the sky is overcast and drizzling, and my front yard is covered in bleak five-day-old snow.
It’s easier, isn’t it, to bear unpleasantness if you can find little positives: When we lived in Pocatello, Idaho, the first snow of every season would have the city buzzing with the knowledge that our local skill hill would soon be open. I’ve never liked the cold, and the first snow usually makes me groan. But in Idaho, when I woke up to see that blanket of snow, I felt the same thrill everyone else did. Only in ski country does a fresh coating of powder make your double mocha taste better, your neighbors friendlier, and the world seem full of promise.
I’m still working to find positives in our Missouri winters. The ski hills here are, um, lacking. There’s rarely even enough snow to go cross country skiing or snowshoeing (and I still have to figure out where I can rent gear…) It all just seems cold and bleak and dark and unending.
But today, I remembered one thing that makes January a little brighter.
After nearly a month of letting the bird-feeder on my front porch go empty, I finally hauled the bag of sunflower seeds out and filled it up. Not more than five minutes later, at least 50 birds had flocked to my yard.
There were black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, brilliant cardinals. Five fat, furry squirrels scampered underneath, hoping to get in on the action. Common grackles dotted the lawn, their iridescent black feathers striking against the snow. A couple of bluejays flitted around the fringes. I even spotted a red-bellied woodpecker on one of our trees.
I could barely pull myself away from the window, I was so fascinated by all the activity. And I realized that the only reason I could see so many creatures so easily was because it was winter. The trees are bare, exposing the birds perched on the branches. Food is scarce, bringing the crowd to the feeder. And the muted background of January makes the birds stand out in colorful contrast.
A nice reminder, too, that sometimes the bleak moments are the ones that enable us to see most clearly. The slow, sleepy months give us time to notice what we otherwise miss. And when the cold prompts us to huddle a little closer for warmth, shelter, food, sometimes we’re able to appreciate the beauty in our fellow creatures a little more.
For the uninitiated, True/False is a documentary festival. It has grown from a tiny upstart in 2004 to an highly regarded event featuring more than 42 films, more than 100 screenings, and more than 40,000 ticket sales.
The last time either of was able to attend was our last year of college in 2007, when we got free tickets to a couple of films through the journalism school. Through four years in Idaho and one in Omaha, I’ve watched True/False grow from afar. It’s changed massively in that time, and I was eager to get back.
Even in those early years, the films we saw at T/F were wonderful, so I had high expectations going in. They were all met. The festival was a blast — well run, stocked with documentaries that had people buzzing at every restaurant where we stopped to get a bite to eat, and brimming with the optimistic, DIY spirit that makes T/F great.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve struggled with a serious funk. I’d been having a hard time feeling inspired, motivated, or really anything but discouraged and lethargic. A weekend at T/F was the perfect antidote. Even though we only had time to spend two days at the festival and hit seven films, it was an emotional roller coaster that magically left me feeling fortified and encouraged. Even better, the new sights, sounds and issues that have been occupying my brain for the past few days has gotten me mentally revved up again.
There was plenty to be inspired by in the subjects of the films themselves, but I’m also always struck by the courage, passion, and plain old hard work that it takes to make a captivating documentary. Some of my favorites this year included Blackfish, Twenty Feet from Stardom, and The Moo Man. If you get a chance to see any of them, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
And even if you can’t make it to a whole weekend of documentary excellence, filling your brain with new sights, sounds and mental stimulation is a great way to get that creativity rolling after you’ve stalled out. Go to a museum, see a concert, read a book that’s out of your comfort zone. Or hunt down a documentary — I guarantee it will change your perspective.
This is my seed order for the year, spread out on our dining room table. I might have gotten a little carried away with the seed catalogs, but what can I say? After two summers of moving, I’m eager to get a garden going again, even if I have to stick with container gardening for now. Some of these will get started by a window in our dining room this weekend, the first volley in this spring’s veggie growing campaign.
There are a lot of reasons that we like to grow at least some of our own food, and I’m passionate about all of them. But at this time of year, the only one that seems to matter is this: These little seeds promise me that someday, someday, spring will arrive. The days will be longer, we’ll be able to strip the bed of its cocoon of extra blankets, and I’ll once again get to spend afternoons reading on the porch and spare moments puttering among the plants.
I can’t wait.
Seeds make another promise that always astonishes me, too. There’s nothing quite like the knowledge, especially in the middle of winter, that every single one of those little gems (assuming I don’t screw everything up, of course) holds enough potential to burst into a lush plant, bearing fruit that will provide nutrients for us and the seeds for next year’s bounty, too. Feel free to draw an inspiring metaphor between that and just about anything you like. Nature is always so poetic.
This is my view today, almost one month into 2013. The flowers were my reward for reaching my latest writing goal, and behind them you can see a few pages from a draft that I’ve been revising. Today, everything feels slow–the words come slowly, it takes extra-long for the teapot to whistle, I plod from office to kitchen and back–and I can’t help but daydream about spring.
In the meantime, I’ve been spending a lot of time with other people’s books, too. The American Library Association announced its 2013 youth media awards Monday, including the Newbery Medal and Printz Award. You can find the full list here. I’ve been adding a bunch of the honorees to my reading list. I finished Printz Award-winner In Darkness yesterday (it was so good, and something I never would have picked up otherwise), and Splendors and Glooms is up next. What’s on your reading list lately?
Yesterday, I was feeling creatively drained and was avoiding editing the manuscript that is sitting on my desk. Naturally, I wound up on Facebook. This summer, my high school class will hold its 10-year reunion, and someone has created a Facebook page to brainstorm event ideas and keep alums informed.
I went to college halfway across the country from my high school, and I moved to Idaho immediately after that. With very few exceptions, I haven’t seen or talked to my high school classmates since then. I’m not particularly interested in attending the reunion. But, curious, I did start clicking on some of their profiles to see what they’re up to these days.
I was flooded with inspiration.
People who dispense writing advice often suggest that coming up with great ideas is all about asking “what if?” What if a bored little girl followed a well-dressed rabbit into his hole? What if there was a place where children never had to grow up? What if a whole society of wizards lived among us, unnoticed? It’s a useful device. And, as it turns out, it’s great fun to play this game with your former high school classmates.
Flip through the pages of your yearbook (figuratively or, if you happen to have it close by, literally). What if that girl you were always in competition with turned out to be a corrupt CEO? What kind of corporate mind games could you imagine her playing? What if that cute but sort of spacy basketball player who sat in front of you in AP English had turned out to be a famous poet? What if you ran into that girl you were best friends with before you broke her brother’s heart? What if you found out that the guy who wrote “I hope we stay in touch” in your yearbook was now your stalker? What if the awkward math whiz became a millionaire inventor and whisked you off on his private helicopter at the reunion? (OK, that last one was from Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, but still.)
The great thing about the people you went to high school with is that they are like half-formed character sketches, just ripe for your imagined enhancements. You’ve got a part of their back story — now it’s just up to you to fill in the details and imagine where they will go next. I’m not suggesting you populate your writing with thinly veiled references to your former classmates. But your imagined futures for them can be great spring boards to your own complex characters.
I’m already dreaming up a plot about a shy but kind teenager who morphs into a cutthroat politician. How about you?
Baking has long been a go-to source of therapy for me. When I’m stressed, or frustrated, or even if I’ve hit a writing wall, whipping up a batch of cookies seems to do the trick. It’s a dangerous habit, though. All I wanted was a little mindless time over a mixing bowl and a cookie or two, and I’ve suddenly downed half a batch. Whoops.
If you use Pinterest, you’ve probably seen the recipes for just one cupcake, or just a couple of cookies. These are always intriguing, but I had tried a couple in the past and been disappointed. The texture wasn’t right, or the flavor fell a little flat. But recently, in need of a cookie — but trying to avoid a whole batch — I tried this recipe. It was…close. The cookies were delicious, but the flavor and texture weren’t exactly what I was used to. On the upside, the recipe actually made four perfect cookies, just right for sharing. The mister and I launched a scientific investigation, making a new batch of four cookies each night, tweaking the recipe just a smidge each time.
Last night, we hit on a winner.
And because I’m sure I’m not the only one faced with this cookie predicament, I thought I’d pass the recipe along. It makes delicious, thick, not-too-sweet cookies. Use them to bust an afternoon bout of writer’s block. Share them with a friend who drops by for coffee. Or munch on a couple while you read that page-turner after dinner. And if you find a way to improve on this recipe? Please, please share.
A couple of recipe notes: I prefer using whole wheat flour, because it adds fiber and makes the cookies a little more filling. However, if you don’t like the taste or texture of whole wheat, you can substitute all-purpose flour. Likewise, I prefer bittersweet chocolate chip cookies, but you could use semi-sweet or even milk chocolate. If you don’t have an 1/8-teaspoon measure, try to eyeball half of a 1/4-teaspoon instead.
1.75 Tbsp. butter, softened (but not melted) in the oven or microwave
1 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg yolk
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/4 c. white whole wheat flour
3 Tbsp. bittersweet chocolate chips (I like the ones from Ghirardelli)
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (you can get away with just lining half the sheet).
In a small bowl, mix butter with both sugars, salt and vanilla. Add the egg yolk and stir to combine. Add baking soda and flour; mix again. Finally, stir in the chocolate chips.
Divide dough into fourths and drop onto baking sheet, spaced a few inches apart. Bake for 12 minutes, until the edges are brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes before gobbling down.
To be fair, I’ve never heard a squirrel described as anything but nuts, if you’ll forgive the bad pun. But you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that these squirrels are particularly crazy.
I spend an inordinate amount of time watching their antics. My squirrel observations began this summer, when I would curl up on our porch swing with a book in the humid afternoons. The squirrels hurried down the tree trunks, scampered across the lawn—stopping, occasionally, to dig up a nut another squirrel had just buried—and then they came sniffing onto the porch. The moment one caught sight of me, it made a startled leap and flew back across the lawn and up the tree, chattering down at me from a distant branch. I was smitten.
As the days have gotten colder, I’ve traded time on the porch for watching my squirrels through the front window. We have a simple bird feeder that hangs on the front edge of the porch, and the squirrels delight in prowling beneath it, sniffing out sunflower seeds that the birds have dropped from above. When I’m feeling generous (and in need of entertainment), I leave a dried corn cob on the swing and wait for the squirrels to find it. In the winter, they’ve become fat little Buddhas, rocking back on their haunches and sucking down corn kernels as fast as they can.
In recent months, their hunger has turned to greed. I’ve watched several squirrels shimmy up the chains of our porch swing, gazing longingly at the bird feeder. It hangs a tantalizing few inches out of reach, and there’s not much to grab. I’ve waited, curious, as one squirrel after another has tried every possible approach. They’ve climbed up and down the chain. They’ve put two paws on the ceiling, only to determine, apparently, that they are incapable of clinging to the ceiling upside-down. I even watched one wrap its hind legs around the chain and strain the rest of its body toward the feeder, to no avail. I thought they were defeated.
And then I saw one jump.
It happened just out of view; I was only vaguely aware of a flying gray mass and a violently rocking bird feeder. But I knew what had happened. I raced to the window, terrified by the scene I was sure to see. But instead of a flattened carcass, there was the squirrel, sniffing around the forgotten sunflower seeds like nothing had ever happened. He didn’t even look embarrassed by his failed attempt.
Several more squirrels have made the leap since then. Not a single one has managed to grab hold of that feeder, but none seems worse for the wear. Each jump has been more spectacular than the last; the squirrel I watched today was all flailing limbs and contorted torso, and he wrapped his arms around the feeder with such determination that I was sure he would be the one to make it. He didn’t. Like the others, though, he was rewarded with a little bit of spilled seed for his efforts, and he happily scurried beneath the feeder. I have a hunch he’ll give it another go before long.
One of these days, one of those furry little critters is going to take a deep breath, throw himself off of the porch swing chain and find, to his great delight, that he is clinging to a fully stocked bird feeder. It will be a proud day. I’m sure the other squirrels will hail him as a hero, and he’ll tell and re-tell the story of his successful leap into gluttony.
Until then, they’ll all just keep jumping.
Author’s note: The above represents a gross anthropomorphization of the behavior of squirrels, and should in no way be read as an example of scientific observation.
A very happy new year to you! I am still on something of a writing holiday while I settle back into an everyday routine and get ready to tackle the start of a new year. I feel like I’m standing on the edge of 2013, my toes curled over the edge, about to free fall into the coming months.
I’m looking forward to what this next year will bring when it comes to my writing. I’m deep into draft #2 of one project and still working on draft #1 of my NaNoWriMo story. I have lots of plans for this year, and a renewed commitment to do everything I can to bring my writing goals to fruition.
On a smaller scale, though, I’m a little puzzled about the direction this blog should head. It desperately needs a makeover, and I’m planning to give it an overhaul in early 2013. But I’m still brainstorming content. I want to document my writing adventures, of course. But I know reading “Started new draft today…yay, inspiration!…Argh, writing is frustrating!….Yay, finished draft!” over and over again can get rather dull, so I’d also like to include other types of posts as well. Would you like to read about some of my non-writing adventures, as well? Inspiration posts? Book reviews? Excerpts from what I’ve been working on? I’d love your feedback on the types of posts you’d like to see here. And if you’ve got big goals for 2013 (writing-related or otherwise), I would love to hear them. Please share!
This week, my writing keeps getting shoved right off my to-do list. Between all of the tasks I’m trying to get out of the way before Christmas and the pre-holiday rush at in my stationery shop, things just aren’t getting done like I wish they were. I’ve been working hard to achieve a balance between daily chores and writing and editing. This week, though, I’m just having to roll with it. Sometimes, balance isn’t realistic.
I’m looking forward to writing more when life settles down a bit. In the meantime, at least there are cookies…
Are you finding that some things will just have to wait until after the holidays, too?