Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Craft and Vision

Sometimes it is the little surprises in life that make for a joyful day.

Yesterday morning I opened my email and found an offer from Craft and Vision - 50% off (almost) everything!  If you are not familiar with Craft and Vision, it is an online source of stunning photography ebooks at incredibly affordable prices (typically $5.00 per PDF).  David DuChemin is the founder and author of several of the available ebooks, as well as conventional books such as Within the Frame:  The Journey of Photographic Vision and Photographically Speaking:  A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images.  I felt as though Christmas had arrived a few months early, and I immediately went online to create my wish list.

I have downloaded a couple of these ebooks in the past and find the process to be user-friendly and quite efficient.  Typically I save the PDF on my computer, as well as upload it into my Dropbox account.  This allows me to read the book on my other electronic devices using reader apps such as iBooks, Kindle, or Nook.  Each ebook is clearly written with plenty of photographs to illustrate the lesson. The image resolution on the iPad is vivid and quite helpful for a visual learner like myself.

While I have not quite adopted electronic devices as a substitute for reading novels, I think it is the perfect delivery system for reading photography books.  I like the fact that I have an entire library at my fingertips which could be read and savored slowly or which could be skimmed quickly simply by looking at the pictures.

For a twenty dollar bill I downloaded several ebooks that I plan to read in the car this weekend as we drive nine hours to Nashville.   Hopefully when I return I will be inspired to practice photography once again.

For those who might be interested, here is the list of books I chose to buy:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Salon: Books on Journaling

I wish I could say I have always journaled.  Re-reading old notebooks filled with daily activities and harbored secrets would provide great insight into who I am today.  Fond memories could be relived over and over again, and documentation of answered prayers and dreams-come-true would bring hope in times of difficulty.  I think I have always wanted to be a journaler, but once I start writing it becomes difficult to stop, and the time commitment seemed too great.

About four years ago I began the practice of Morning Pages as outlined in Julia Cameron's popular book, The Artist's Way.  I use an online website that tallies my daily entry of 750 words.  Much of what I write is a retelling of the events the day before.  There is little soul-searching in these early morning snippets, but it does clear away the cobwebs and helps me to practice the writing process.

Last year I began a devotional journal, which I added to this morning writing routine.  I use the popular website, YouVersion, to access a daily devotional message and the scripture which inspired it.  This method of journaling helps me to connect with my spiritual self.  In this journal I tend to reflect on my past in order to gain insight into my present, and then discern where God would like to direct my path in the future.  Where the morning pages are more factual in nature, the devotional pages are more insightful and thought-provoking.

This past spring I was introduced to the concept of Expressive Writing, a style of journaling that focuses on emotions and feelings rather than the events that caused them.  First developed by James Pennebaker, Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, this kind of writing has proved to have tremendous mental as well as physical health benefits.  Since April I have read many books on the generic topic of journaling as well as the specific idea of journaling to promote healing.  I thought it might be of value to some of you if I provided a quick summary of those I considered most noteworthy.

Writing as a Way of Healing (by Louise DaSalvo)  The author references Pennebaker throughout the book, but her writing style is very easy to understand (whereas I found the works by Pennebaker to be too laden with scientific jargon).  One of the quotes that I highlighted from the book is found on page 31:
I didn't know that if you want to write, you must follow your desire to write.  And that your writing will help you unravel the knots in your heart.  I didn't know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work.  I didn't know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you'll learn through your writing - and only through writing - all you need to know about your craft.  And that while you're learning, you're engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labor.  I didn't know that if you want to write and don't because you don't feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.

A  Voice of Her Own (by Marlene Schiwy)  I found this gem at the popular used bookstore in Nashville, McKay's Books.  A four dollar investment yielded a treasure of insightful information.  Here is a quote found on page 99:
Your diary is your one place in life where all of the inner voices that clamor for attention can speak and be heard.  Most of them have been suppressed for so long that they won't speak out at all if they anticipate harsh criticism.  Be gentle with them.  

There are two internal figures that exist in all of us:  the muse and the editor.  But if the editor kicks in prematurely, the muse gets edited right out of existence.

Journal to the Self (by Kathleen Adams)  To be honest I don't remember where I first heard of this book.  It could have been recommended reading from one of the classes I took this summer, or it could have been a suggestion on a popular book site of people who purchased this book also purchased... In any case, there were some useful nuggets within, like this found on page 42 (my formatting):
What it means to write naturally:
*  You trust your inner wisdom to guide you to the places you need to go.
*  You let yourself be you
*  There is only one person who can write the story of you --- YOU.
*  You pick up your journal when the mood hits, and put it down when the mood shifts.

The Story of Your Life (by Mandy Aftel)  Absolutely fabulous book!  I just finished it this week and it will definitely become a permanent fixture on my personal bookshelves.  In essence the book states that we are the authors of our own lives.  We may not be able to change the past, but we can change our perspective of past events.  We may not have complete control over our future, but we do have the ability to adjust our plots if we do not like the story we are living.  I think I learned as much about literary analysis by reading this book as I did about private journaling.  One of the many quotes that I chose to write down is found on page 26:
Plot in fiction is constructed by the author and laid out for the reader.  Plot in life is more like a mystery we try to solve by telling and retelling stories.  In life our stories are always open-ended, evolving and changing to reflect our own growth.  Key points to remember about plotting:

  • All plots are character driven.  We use plotting to understand character - our own and everyone else.
  • Plots are thoughts, feelings, actions and events that we shape into narratives through language.   Words help us to develop and crystallize our sense of who we are.  We create, define, and revise our identities by choosing what to include in our plots and how to express it.
  • Successful plotting depends on our willingness to scrutinize our stories and look for patterns that reveal deeper story.  Unsuccessful plotting takes no thought at all.

Writing Down Your Soul (by Janet Connor)  This book was on the recommended reading list of the Spiritual Journaling class I took this summer.  I found this book quite practical as it gives a detailed list of questions (about 20-25 pages worth...) to answer in an effort to reconnect with your deeper self.  I have not answered all the questions yet (as a matter of fact, I have just barely started), but I intend to refer to these prompts over the next several months.  The author details some of the major differences between soul journaling and other forms of journaling on page 246:
Soul Journaling....
*  Begins with a personal writing ritual
*  Happens in a sacred place
*  Includes deep breathing
*  Directly addresses "the voice" (for me, the voice would be God)
*  Involves writing at the same time for 30 days
*  Writing fast 
*  Engaging all five senses
*  Does not judge, evaluate or edit what appears on the page
*  Activates "the voice" with questions
*  Provides a process to recognize and partner with the inner critic
*  Elicits guidance to improve life

Journaling as a Spiritual Practice (by Helen Cepero)  Another book recommended during the Spiritual Writing course and the one that I found most helpful to me.  The author is more explicit in her view of God as the inner voice, which for me was a point of common interest.  For others, this may not be your particular point of view.  The following quote, found on page 32, would be indicative of the tone, message and purpose of this entire book:
One of the best gifts of a journal is that it gives you a place to show up.  As you write you may discover where you actually are.  When you know where you are, you may also see what is true, hear from your own voice, gain an understanding of something that has troubled or puzzled you, or savor again a joy that might have slid by unnoticed.  Most of all, you gain a clearer view of God's presence with you, in you, and around you.

While I may not be a life-long journaler, I know that I will continue journaling for the rest of my life.  And I will always be on the lookout for books that will help me to reap the greater benefit from this practice.  If you have a favorite book on this subject, I would welcome the recommendation.

Weekend Cooking: Pork Chops

It has been quite a while since I have participated in this weekly meme, and it is the first time that I have written a Weekend Cooking post on this blog.  I have always been grateful to Candace for starting this fun and practical topic, and while my days of gourmet entertaining are long gone, I do enjoy creating in the kitchen every now and then.

Yesterday was one of those experimental days.  We are trying to eat more healthy in our household, which means lots of fresh salads and grilled chicken.  Tasty.... but predictable.  I was in the mood for something different, so decided to review the grocery circulars to see what specials might sound appealing and cost effective.  Boneless Pork Chops seemed to fit the bill:  10 for $10 - a bargain!

The problem, however, is that I have never cooked pork chops.  I vaguely remember eating pan fried chops on the bone as a child, but since it was not a favorite, I didn't try to recreate that eating experience as an adult.  But I knew there had to be other healthy and flavorful ways to prepare this meat, so I did what I always do when faced with a question:  consult the internet.

Ultimately I settled on two different recipes, both of which we thoroughly enjoyed.  The first recipe, Thai Pork Satay, I discovered at All-Recipes - a website that I have used for several years with great satisfaction.  The original recipe marinated bite-sized pieces of pork to be grilled on a shish kabob accompanied with bell peppers, onions, and water chestnuts.  I chose to marinate the pork chops in an 8x8 pan for about three hours before grilling them whole.  We LOVED it!  The meat was tender and juicy, and the peanut butter provided a subtle, unexpected flavor.

Ingredients for Thai Pork Satay marinade:

  • 1/4 cup crunchy peanut butter (I had creamy on hand and it worked fine)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped green onion (I used onion powder)
  • 2 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic (I used garlic powder)
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (I used several dashes of Frank's hot sauce)
As you can tell, I made a lot of adjustments to fit my particular tastes and utilize what I had on hand.  I mixed all the ingredients in a small bowl, and then spread over the chops.  Very easy ... 

The second recipe I found on Pinterest (how did we spend our time before the development of this website?!!)  I conducted a search for grilled pork chops and this one caught my eye:  Tailgater's Grilled Pork Chops - part of the K-State alumni ultimate football guide.  I'm not sure what attracted me first - the easy recipe or the familiar state university logo.  In either case, I decided that this would be a perfect compliment to the Satay chops.  It is amazingly easy to prepare, and while the meat was not quite as juicy as the other, the flavor was slightly sweeter and definitely delicious.  

Ingredients for Tailgater's Grilled Pork Chops marinade:
(I made half the recipe and have included my measurements here)
  • One six-ounce can frozen lemonade concentrate - thawed
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon season salt (I used a bit less due to the sodium in the soy sauce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery salt (I used onion powder...)
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
All of the ingredients can be easily mixed in a one gallon plastic bag.  Add the chops and marinate in the refrigerator several hours before grilling.

I served both chops with a large salad and corn-on-the-cob.  A healthy, filling, tasty meal with plenty of leftovers.  Overall, a successful kitchen experiment with two new recipes added to the collection of summer favorites.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Personal Reflection: An Evening Walk

Today was the first day of a new school year for me.  Three classes in a row from 8:15 to 12:20 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  A livable schedule.  And while I will not pretend to think that is the extent of my duties, I do plan to reserve Mondays and Fridays as sacred time for me to pursue personal interests like writing and Bible study and perhaps taking my granddaughter to the local library for two-year-old read alouds.

And since this is the start of a new year... I thought it only fitting to get back into a walking regimen.  I did so well at the beginning of the summer, walking 3.1 miles five days a week, but then a bum knee sidelined me for a couple of weeks and well... it is far more difficult to start a healthy routine than it is to maintain one.  And while I prefer to walk in the mornings when I am a bit more alert and the midwest weather is a bit less steamy, I forced myself to head out the door this evening and begin yet again.

As I huffed and puffed along the familiar trail listening to my playlist, I noticed a bunny dart across my path; apparently I startled him as I walked by.  And then I noticed another bunny quickly hop out of sight as I neared his location.  I found it quite interesting that they were perfectly content in the grass next to the road with the cars zooming by, headlights shining brightly, but the rabbits were fearful of me... the lowly walker who adores animals and would not dream of harming them.  Were they perhaps familiar with the traffic patterns and realize if they stay on this side of the curb they will not be harmed?  Was I the unknown factor and therefore cause for suspicion?

I continued to walk on, but I could not help but wonder if perhaps I am like those little rabbits.  How many times have I been scared of the unknown and shied away, when in reality there was nothing to fear. What blessings have I missed because I am not willing to stick around and take a risk?  On the other hand, how comfortable have I become with the familiar, edging too close to the fine line of temptations and bad habits that if crossed could cause me great harm?

An interesting point to ponder, and when I reached home I realized that taking a walk is not only good for the body, it is good for the mind and spirit as well.  Nature has a lot to teach us, if we are only willing to stop long enough to take a look.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Salon: Paris for the Semester

This time last week I had just finished reading my first Historical Fiction saga, Paris, and absolutely loved it!  I entertained the idea of reading another one of Rutherfurd's works, I have both London and New York sitting on my bookshelves, but instead I decided to linger in literary Paris a while longer.  In fact, I think I may spend the entire semester here.

There is good reason for this decision; let me share a bit of background information.  For about four years now I have had an idea for a story that just won't go away.  I have done extensive research on the lives of several Impressionists and the Paris of that time period.  I currently have three Moleskines filled with notes.  I have visited three museums, most notably The Frist in Nashville, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, to view firsthand these famous works of art.  I have collected images of many of these paintings to help me develop characters, settings, and plot ideas.  I have fleshed out the protagonist, antagonist, love interest and mentor.  I know at which point the story begins and how it will end.  What I am missing is a compelling conflict.

I have challenged myself to write this story during NaNoWriMo, which begins November 1st - a little less than three months away.  I have decided that I will try to immerse myself in this time period as much as possible between now and then, in the hopes that my subconscious will work some creative magic.  Many of these books I have already read and reviewed on my other blog:  Dancing for Degas and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler; Luncheon of the Boating Party; Life Stories; and Marie, Dancing... but I plan to re-read them over the next several weeks.  I recently picked up The Painted Girls (by Cathy Marie  Buchanan) from my local library and plan to begin reading it today.

Reading is not the only activity I will pursue while preparing for NaNoWriMo.  I hope to complete several detailed character sketches where I not only know their physical characteristics, but also their most intimate thoughts, secrets, and motivations.  I have many images of 19th century Paris, either digital files on my Pinterst board or as postcards purchased during my 2011 trip. I want to study these pictures and practice writing sensory details of each of these settings.  I want to envision this Parisian time period as vividly as I see present-day Kansas.  While I would relish the idea of re-visiting the Art Institute of Chicago this fall, I may content myself by viewing the few Impressionist paintings at the Nelson-Atkins.

It's rather funny... from the time I was eight years old I have wanted to spend a semester abroad.  It looks like I may finally achieve that dream, albeit in a slightly different manner than I had imagined.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Where did that come from?!

Tonight was back-to-school night... my twelfth as a teacher, but the first in which I did not have to welcome parents and attempt to give a twenty minute speech in seven minutes flat.  I made the decision to "semi-retire" last spring and have relished the thought of fewer classes, fewer preps, and fewer papers to grade.  That is... until I was driving to school this evening and realized that my sole duty was to distribute yearbooks.  I had no copies to make - I had no room to set up - I had no syllabi to review.  For all intents and purposes, I was going to be a non-entity, without purpose and value... and my eyes filled with tears.

WHAT?!  Why the tears?  I am thrilled to have long weekends where I can focus on my own hobbies and interests rather than tweaking lesson plans.  I love the idea that my husband and I can take off for four day adventures throughout the school year.  I have accepted the calling to write (whatever that means....) and gladly devote Mondays and Fridays to develop this new "career"  I have burned the candle from both ends for so many years that I crave the solitude and peace that this new teaching schedule will afford.  And yet....

I did not realize the fulfillment and satisfaction I derived from teaching a "full load"  I was a part of the inner workings of the school.  At one point not too many years ago, I was teaching 7th grade - 8th grade - 9th grade - 11th grade - 12th grade English classes PLUS computer apps and yearbook.  I knew practically every secondary student in the student body.  I was a long-time member of the Academic Committee and my longevity at the school earned me some respect.  But now... I teach two upper level classes on the "off" days.  I will not interact with other teachers - barely interact with administration - and only be familiar with juniors and seniors.  Yes, the subjects I now teach, I am truly passionate about... but my sphere of influence has dramatically decreased.

This evening during the Principal's introduction of teachers... it was quite apparent who are "popular" among students --- and with total reason.  Loud claps, hurrahs and cheers were elicited when the Algebra teacher, Biology teacher, and World Views teacher names were called.  And at one time - a couple of years ago, I was  a recipient of that kind student applause.  But this year, there was the token recognition at the name of "Mrs. Totoro" while the principal continued on.  I always knew I was replaceable... I suppose I had hoped that I would not be forgettable.

This sounds so narcissistic of me - and I hate that.  I am thrilled that other teachers have come to replace me.  I am honored that my lesson plans, syllabi and handouts have made it easy to pass on that responsibility to someone else. I am glad that my peers are loved and honored by the students.  I am excited to have a some personal time to devote to other interests.  I suppose that I am just mourning the fact that this time in my life is coming to a close.  And perhaps I am realizing for the first time that ... I really am a teacher, despite the lack of certification.  For I do not think I would miss the hustle and bustle of back-to-school if I were not.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Salon: Trying a New Genre

I am now two for two in the Sunday Salon posts.  I hope that this is the start of a new trend - not so much that I will write a weekly post, but more that I will continue to read for personal pleasure on a regular basis.

I skimmed two books on writing by Kelly L Stone, Living Write:  The Secret to Inviting Your Craft into Your Daily Life and Thinking Write:  The Secret to Freeing Your Creative Mind.  The author is a licensed professional counselor as well as a writing coach, so she presents the material from a slightly different perspective than other writing books I have read.  I enjoyed her smooth writing style and practical advice, although I have read so many books on the subject  that I found hers to be mostly a review of what I have already learned (and now just need to put into practice).  I was initially interested in this author because of the 90 Day Writing Challenge she offers each January; I think this would be a great follow-up activity to the November NaNoWriMo event.

I have spent most of my reading time this week absorbed in the 805 page saga, Paris, by Edward Rutherfurd, and I am now a bit more than half way finished. This is my first foray into Historical Fiction and I must say, I am falling in love with this genre.

I have never been a fan of history; it was simply a class that I endured to meet the high school graduation requirement, but I think that was perhaps because I never had a teacher who was passionate about the subject.  I remember memorizing a bunch of dates to put on a timeline, which I dutifully completed and then promptly forgot.  I never understood the significance of those dates... and I certainly don't remember the stories and characters and settings that helped to bring the past alive and relevant to our present.

I have always enjoyed research, however.  I love the hunt for information, the analysis of the facts (and the inevitable search for truth in conflicting data), and the final organization of material into a cohesive written essay.  It never dawned on me that Historical Fiction would be the ideal marriage of my love of literature with my passion for research.  And while I am certain that I cannot judge an entire genre based on the work of one particular author, I must say that Edward Rutherfurd has opened my eyes to not only a new reading past time, but perhaps to a new writing adventure.

In reading this book I am not only learning a bit about the history of my beloved Paris, but I am also learning how to balance those facts with a narrative that creates a compelling story.  I can easily see myself delving into the history of a particular time period, conducting a thorough research, all the while allowing myself to ask "What If..."  It is exciting to think that I can combine my passion for writing, my talent for detailed analysis, and my desire for creativity in one project.  I have the germ of an idea.... now I am ready to water it, fertilize it, and watch it grow.

I hope to finish Paris by the end of the week and perhaps I will begin reading another one of  Rutherfurd's works sitting on my shelves --- or perhaps I will try another author in this newfound genre.  Do you have a favorite Historical Fiction novel that you would recommend?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lesson Plans

While school does not officially start until August 21, for all intents and purposes my summer ended this week.  I was at the school three days out of five for various meetings and tutoring sessions, I spent an additional three to five hours a day organizing syllabi and lesson plans for the new academic year, and I started my typical morning routine by setting the alarm for 5:00am (ugh...)

At the height of my teaching career, about three years ago, I was teaching eight different classes (7th grade - 8th grade - 9th grade English; high school grammar; British Literature; Creative Writing; English Composition, and Computer Apps). The start of a new school year meant the cessation of my personal life for about nine months.

Since that time I have cut back ... WAY back... to where I am now only teaching three classes (Brit Lit - ACT Prep - English Composition) on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  I will consistently have a four day weekend, and most grading should be completed on Wednesdays.

Yes, my schedule is quite manageable.  I consider myself semi-retired... and I am blessed.  I now just have to convince my brain that my personal life is not coming to an end; right now, however, it is having a difficult time with that foreign concept.

While I have indeed dramatically decreased my work load, it does not mean that I will diminish the content nor the degree of excellence in which I will try to teach these classes.  And while I have used the same basic syllabi for Brit Lit and English Comp for several years, there is always room for improvement and revision.  I thought it might be helpful if I shared my definition of "lesson plans" for those who perhaps think I use this as an excuse to hibernate...

Before school begins I try to develop an overall scope and sequence for the year, that is, what units will I teach, how long will I spend on each unit, and how will the unit material be assessed (typically, a written paper and/or a literary exam).  I try take into account what other factors might need to be considered before assigning potential due dates (a major holiday, a sports tournament, other class papers, my own personal calendar, etc).  I give thought to previous years... what worked, what did not work, and tweak the new syllabus to reflect necessary changes.  I research the internet for other possible enrichment activities to help make the assignment come alive - or have more personal relevance for the students.  I compare the due dates of all my syllabi to ensure that I will not be overwhelmed with grading.  Typically, this takes several hours for each class.

My next step is to then create a daily lesson plan for the first two weeks of school.  This is where I decide what handouts I need, what books students will need, what topics I want to discuss in class.  I create detailed plans for each day ... and I try to include more than I think I will need.  I cringe at the thought of having more class than curriculum.  I try to envision the class - what could go right (based on past years) and what could wrong (and then have a plan B and possible plan C if needed).  My goal is to have a clear mental image of how the class is to progress from start to finish so that when the day comes, I do not need to glance at the lesson plan... it is embedded in my brain.

Of course the lesson plans must be tweaked after the first day.  I try to maintain a certain synergy in the class, that is, I know what information I need to cover in the course of the year, but I allow the students to dictate the pace.  By creating detailed plans two weeks in advance, I have material available if the class speeds through at a faster rate than I anticipate... and should they pause on a particular topic, I know how I will need to make up the time.  Therefore, at the end of each day's teaching, I need to evaluate the class period, make notes as to what we covered, and then revise future lessons based on this information.  I might decide that an enrichment activity is needed, in which case internet research becomes my homework.  I might decide that a group activity is necessary, in which case a careful pairing of students' strengths and abilities must be developed.  It is work...and it is time consuming.. but I enjoy the challenge of teaching the same material year after year in a fresh new way, one that appeals to the new dynamics of the class.

After the first few weeks of school, grading will be added to the mix of weekly preparations.  Depending upon the assignment, this could take just a few minutes (grading a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary quiz), to several hours (grading and critiquing a ten-page research paper).  This is my least favorite part of the job, especially grading written essays.  I feel such a sense of responsibility to assess the quality of the work (which always is somewhat subjective) with a traditional letter grade.  Because of this, I spend quite a bit of time creating detailed, objective rubrics.  I often read the papers  more than once and try to offer helpful suggestions for improvement.  What I fear most is being labeled that English teacher who dashed the hopes of a would-be writer because of all the editing marks.... and yet I maintain that proper written communication is absolutely critical in today's world of emails, texts, and blog updates.  Hopefully I achieve that proper balance.

So there is a bit of insight into my life as a semi-retired educator.  At times it is a frustrating, and occasionally stressful, but for the most part it is a wonderful way for this life-time learner to follow her passion and instill that desire in others.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Morning Musings...

This morning I was determined to get back into my walking routine after a three week hiatus due to knee problems.  In all honesty, the injured knee was only out of commission for two weeks but that was apparently long enough for old habits to return.  I enjoy walking.  I like the challenge of pushing myself  to improve, and I like the residual energy I seem to have throughout the day.  My workout playlist is upbeat and always puts me in a good mood.  So why do I resist?

Musing #1:  It occurred to me today as I was dressing for the activity... that the hardest part of the walk is putting on my shoes.  As silly as that sounds, I feel the most resistance when I first slide my foot into the sneaker and then begin to lace it up.  Once I make myself overcome that hurdle, it seems as though I am at the point of no return.  I suppose my mind reasons that if the shoes are laced, it is more trouble to take them off than it is to complete the route.

Musing #2:  I had walked about a quarter of mile, just long enough to complete the first song and increase my heart rate.  I was feeling good.  I was feeling confident.  And I noticed a woman across the street who was also walking, however her speed was significantly less than mine and I was certain that she would not break a sweat.  I reasoned that she was out for a stroll and that was better than sitting on a couch.  I did not necessarily snub her choice of exercise, but I wondered if she would receive any health benefits from it.  I continued on my way.

My route consisted of walking up the street to the junior high, walking twice around the track, and then walking back home.  It is a little less than three miles but is a pleasant path.  As I was walking home, breathing quite heavily and sweating more than a little, I noticed this same woman walking back carrying a plastic bag.  She had apparently gone to the grocery store and I calculated she must have  walked at least two miles round trip.  More than a little stroll, I'd say... she was exercising with a purpose.

and that led me to Musing #3:  One of the cultural traditions that I love about Europe is the daily visits to the local market.  Women (and men) gather their fish net bags and walk to open air shops to find fresh produce, bread, cheese, and perhaps a bit of beef, poultry or fish to take home for dinner.  The menu is devised on the spot, dependent upon the selection, and the daily outing is an adventure.  Perhaps this is why the Europeans are not as obese as Americans?  Perhaps this daily walk to the store, rather than get-in-the-car-and-drive keeps them fit.  And perhaps as they walk every day they are more mindful of the groceries to select:  striving for heart healthy foods, reasonable portions, and lightweight items.

This woman I saw today is living that European life - or at least I like to imagine it that way.  And if this is a tradition that I admire, why do I not implement it in my own life?  I live less than a quarter mile from the store and yet if I need a quick item or two, I drive rather than walk.  Maybe I need to keep those sneakers out in the open...

Musing #4:  Convenience and efficiency.  I marvel at the conveniences we have in the 21st Century and I am truly grateful to live in this technological age.  Indoor plumbing is something I cannot fathom living without... and a washing machine and dryer are necessities.  Dish washers are wonderful, especially at the holidays, but sometimes I wonder if I miss some peaceful solitude by not hand washing the dishes in a sink full of warm sudsy water, gazing out the window at the beauty of nature?

Computers and smart phones have enabled us to be so much more productive.  GPS systems prevent us from getting lost, cell phones are invaluable when the car breaks down on the highway, and apps can help me keep track of my to-do list, grocery lists, calories consumed, etc etc etc.  I can certainly type much faster than I can write, and emails are a way to communicate irregardless of the time of day.  But I question whether my pursuit of efficiency and productivity is a valid one? Ideally I would hope that by taking advantage of these productivity tools I would find more time to relax with pleasant past times that promote peace and tranquility.

But instead I seem to be addicted to the treadmill of life.  The more productive I am, the more I want to fit into my schedule.  The more I fit into my schedule, the more items I can check off the to do list.  The more items I check, the more accomplished I feel.  The more accomplished I feel the more I want to do.  It is a never ending vicious cycle.  But perhaps the time has come to wean myself of this addiction and balance productivity with peace --- convenience with mindfulness.  And perhaps the morning walk is a great place to begin.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Book Review: The Book Lover

For the first time in probably two years, I finished reading a novel!  For some this may not be a monumental occasion. but for me - a self-professed book lover, this is likened to the bear awaking after hibernation.  It isn't that I haven't been reading ... for to give up books completely would be like giving up oxygen to breathe... but I have limited my literary pursuits to non-fiction books on writing and photography.  Yes, I have been soaking up knowledge, but missing the truth of the human condition as can only be revealed in fictional characters.

In part this return to the fiction world was reignited by a friend who recently joined the Goodreads community.  I used to visit that site regularly, either updating my current read, uploading recent book purchases, or scanning possible literary groups to join.  But as with my fiction reading, visits to this site have been almost non-existent for nearly two years.  But there is something energizing about a community of like-minded individuals, and when I returned to the site earlier this week, the desire to read became too great to ignore.

Additionally, another good friend and fellow bibliophile recommended this book several weeks ago. I dutifully obtained it from the local library and placed it on my nightstand where it soon started to collect dust.  Since its due date is in just a few days, I thought I would try it to satisfy my fiction craving; I am very glad that I did.

The Book Lover is written for an audience like me:  an adult female reader who has not only a passion for books, but a love of words and a desire to write.   It is a character driven novel, my favorite, in which the two main characters are so well developed that they quickly become the reader's close friends.  In many ways I am like both of the women in the story - at least at this point in my life.  Lucy Barrett loves to write - and after suffering the loss of her infant son, decides to escape from the real world into the pages of her own novel.  Most of her storyline focuses on the struggles of writers to find an agent and/or publishing company... and the stigma associated with self-published books.  In addition to the shame of "not being good enough" to find an interested buyer, there is also the focused marketing efforts the author must pursue (rather than just...write) in order to place the book in readers' hands.  I found the journey from finished manuscript to book club recommendation fascinating... and rediscovered the truth that most writers are not motivated by money or fame, but by the pure passion of the craft.

Ruth Hardaway is the owner of a struggling bookstore in New York state - the Book Lover, a job she has held since the death of her husband over thirty years ago.  Her story focuses on the daily frustrations of managing an independent bookstore, as well as the efforts of fledgling businesses on Main Street, USA.  Again, the author gives an honest look at the struggles these bookstores must face in competing with the big box chains - either in the malls or online.  I must admit that I felt more than a twinge of guilt when I discovered how my own shopping habits greatly affect the financial security of my local "mom and pop" stores.  And I found it interesting how the passion for books motivates Ruth to think outside the box in order to bring customers through the door:  an on-site cafe, pre-packaged gift baskets, and even an attempt to revitalize the entire shopping district. Again, I found Ruth's character fascinating because her dream job is also fueled by the love of books and definitely not by the almighty dollar.

The lives of these two  women are not only similar in terms of their love for books, but also in terms of their private relationships.  There are complicated love interests on both sides.  While Lucy is adjusting to a devastating divorce, she unintentionally finds love elsewhere.  Ruth continues to harbor resentment towards her dead husband (whom she was sure she would have divorced if he had not been killed), but soon discovers an unexpected second chance at love with a most unlikely match.  The two women meet when Ruth offers to host a book signing to help market Lucy's novel... and the friendship grows from there.  As the back flap of the book reveals... there is a "little white lie" that jeopardizes this relationship, and that thread provides the necessary conflict to propel the storyline forward.

I thought The Book Lover was well-written, although there were a couple of times that I felt as though the author was forcing the axiom, "show vs tell" just a wee bit.  The storyline was tight, except the bird metaphor was perhaps a bit too contrived for my personal taste.  I feel as though I not only learned about the inner workings of the book selling business, but I also learned about the craft of writing.... a winning combination - which is why I would rate the book 4 out of 5 stars.

Next on the list?  Paris by Edward Rutherfurd.  While I have yet to read any of this author's other epic sagas, I have owned New York for quite some time and London for even longer.  Ah... some day...

But for now I am compelled to read Paris for a variety of reasons:   I have always had a love for this city and a desire to learn about its rich history, but I am also writing my own  novel (of sorts) that is set in the Paris of the 1880s. I am hoping that perhaps this book might serve as a bit of research.  It is an ambitious read, a little over 800 pages, and will have to compete with back to school preparations, but I am hopeful that the subject matter and writing style will inspire me to escape into its pages a little bit each day.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Personal Reflections: Sterile Surroundings

I have been organizing my nook in preparation for back-to-school planning that will begin next week.  I weaned my bookshelves of five bags of books and took them to Half Price so that others might have the opportunity to offer them a good home.  I sorted through office supplies to ensure I had ample pens of various colors, pencils, paper clips of assorted sizes, index cards, and post-it notes.  And I cleared the craft tables of project remnants like scraps of cardstock, assorted rubber stamps, and corresponding ink pads.

Yes, the nook is tidy... not necessarily clean (as dusting and vacuuming are not my strong suit)... but everything is in its proper place.  And while there is a deep feeling of satisfaction that I have a well-maintained area, I also have this nagging feeling as if something is missing.  And surprisingly the word "sterile" came to mind.

Now when I think of "sterile" I immediately imagine a hospital:  solid white walls, shiny linoleum floors, and the unmistakable scent of rubbing alcohol.  Not a place I enjoy visiting.  So why would I associate sterile with my beloved nook where I enjoy spending hours each day?

I decided to look it up in the dictionary and realized that there are two distinct meanings associated with sterile: one matching my image of the hospital, that is disinfectant and germ-free - but the other definition is barren, empty, unfruitful.  At first glance it does not appear that my nook is barren - one look at the loaded bookshelves and overrun craft center would dispel that assertion; and it is certainly not germ-free as the light coating of dust that clings to all flat surfaces would attest.

But then it occurred to me:  my space is empty of any sensory inspiration.  I sit here in silence most of the day, not because I need silence to focus... but because I never think to turn on music.  Why is that?  Music was such a large part of my life in high school.  Why do I deny myself of its richness now?

And while the room does not have the lingering scent of Lysol, it is also lacking any fragrance  whatsoever.  I am always attracted to the pleasing names of the popular three-wick candles - Caribbean Escape, Salted Caramel Latte, Lavender Vanilla - but for some reason I never choose to light one when I am in the room.  

And for the most part, my sense of touch is confined to either the laptop's keyboard or the swipe of the tablet's screen.  I use Pinterest as a virtual dream board rather than cutting magazine images and creating old-fashioned collages; ebooks are slowly replacing the print copies; and writing in a word processor is far more efficient than handwriting.  But what have I compromised in the long run?

Could it be that my desire for a tidy nook has sabotaged my own creative efforts?  Have I inadvertently cast the muse outside the door so that my sterile silenced will not be disturbed?  I complain that my right brain has atrophied, and yet I have established an environment where it cannot flourish.

Well, no longer.

As of today I will reconnect with that music loving girl of high school.  Between iTunes and Pandora, I am bound to find any style of music to match my mood and project.

As of today I will light a candle and allow the pleasing fragrance to transport me, if only for a short while, to a happy place of my choosing.

And while I will not completely give up my valued electronics, I will try to spend a portion of my morning writing the old-fashioned way - with paper and pen.  Slowing down to allow the hand to catch up with the brain could be a good exercise in fully fleshing out ideas.  Gliding the pen across the paper, focusing on the image of connected loops and appropriate dots resembles the act of painting - which is good food for that malnourished right side.

And occasionally reading a book in print, with highlighter in hand, could provide that perfect textile experience that reconnects me with the storytelling muse.

Sterile surroundings?  No longer.  I should like to think of the nook as cozy and inviting, with perhaps just a bit of a mess.