Just Killing Time

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Steve Martin as Gil, the overwhelmed dad in the movie Parenthood, explodes at his offspring’s whiny “Do you have to?”, snapping, “My whole life is ‘have to.’”

Sometimes life sure feels that way. And for most people on the planet, it actually is. Life for millions is a constant struggle for survival.

But many North Americans, however swamped we may feel, actually have a lot of choices. Recently, this has become painfully clear to me.

I start every day with a list of things I want to accomplish—that I think are important. But most mornings just slip away before I get a grip on any of it. I work my way through my morning routines and the usual interruptions. Lunchtime all too often rolls around while I’m still on the mundane tasks of drying my hair or cleaning litter boxes. Then, till I finish all that, as well as lunch, it’s mid-afternoon. And I still haven’t even touched my top-priority goals for the day.

I’d begun to feel hopeless about it all. No matter how I tried, every day was the same. Day led into day, days into weeks, weeks into months and years. My whole life was being consumed by grunt work and trivia.

One day, I hung up the phone after a long call, feeling really put upon. Yet another morning gone, and nothing to show for it. Poor me. I felt like I tried and tried, but just couldn’t win. I just had too many petty responsibilities and distractions.

But suddenly, the truth smacked me. I am not the victim here.

From the moment I woke up, I’d had decisions to make. And I’d made a lot of poor ones.

Instead of getting up, I’d hit the “snooze” button. I’m often plagued with poor sleep, so I justified this by telling myself I needed more rest—that I’d be more productive later if I caught a few more winks.

Then, when I finally got up, I picked up the novel I’d been reading at bedtime…instead of turning off the light and trying to go to sleep a bit earlier. I hadn’t quite finished that chapter. Maybe reading for a bit, and drinking my coffee, would wake me up. So I sat down with the book “just for a quick minute.” Twenty minutes later, I’d finished the chapter and started another one.

After that, I finally took my shower and made the bed. I was about to start the litter boxes, but thought maybe I’d better check my email. And Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram. I hurried, but forty minutes passed as I watched dog videos, commented on friends’ posts and checked questionable links on Snopes.

When I’d finally buckled down to work, the phone rang. Instead of letting it go to voicemail, and calling back later, I’d chosen to pick it up. And to talk for over an hour.

Now, I thought about Henry David Thoreau, who said, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” It wasn’t even lunchtime, and I’d already riddled eternity with bullet holes.

Our lives are full of decisions. Not just the big ones—like whom to marry or where to go to school—but a near-constant stream of seemingly inconsequential ones. I hadn’t really stopped to realize I’d been making decisions at all, but all the “little” choices I’d made were pulling my life far off the path I really wanted.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Bible says God told his people, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live….” This verse popped into mind, and I shoved it aside. But it just crept back into my head again.

Every choice has consequences. Every choice I’d made all morning had in it the seeds of something larger. Blessings or curses.

It’s not a big deal if I hit the snooze button occasionally. Or decide once in a while to finish those few pages of the book I’ve been reading. But when those choices compound—and when they become habitual—I’ve written myself a prescription for failure.

I don’t expect to overturn a lifetime of bad habits overnight. But recognizing what I’ve been doing is a start, anyway. I’ll never again fall into those patterns without recognizing I do have a choice. More often, I hope, I’ll choose the blessings, and not curse myself with another wasted day.

 

 

 

 

Gone to the Dogs (and Cats)

Animals have always been an important part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are about a kitten named Tiger; and Ginger, a fluffy Pomeranian. My favorite childhood cat was named Puss (you can probably tell from these names that I wasn’t straining my imagination), who followed me like a dog whenever I went for a walk.

I’ve often written about animals, too. Two of my Chicken Soup for the Soul stories were about rescue dogs. “One-Eyed Lily,” about my old foster dog, appeared in MY VERY GOOD, VERY BAD DOG. Our dog Newton was the “Dog of the Month” in WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE DOG, and also helped inspire my novel DEATH BY BABYSITTING.

We have three senior cats right now: Ferris and a pair of 14-year-old littermates, Chester and BeeGee. Ferris meowed at our door about 3 AM, every night until we finally let her in—the best decision ever! My daughter found the other two alone and crying in her friend’s backyard when they were babies.

We have two dogs of our own—cattle dog Elvis, and 7-pound Spike, a Yorkie mix who arrived as a foster dog when he was in terrible shape from abuse. But we also have a senior foster dog, Katherine, who’s also an Australian cattle dog mix. Katherine is sweet, but she really only loves her people. She tolerates cats, and doesn’t really enjoy the company of other dogs or people she doesn’t know. Katherine came from a shelter, where she’d landed after showing up on somebody’s doorstep in the middle of a blizzard, and nobody claimed her.

All these animals have stories—just like people!

Have you ever tried to keep a dog off the couch? Or a cat out of the basket of clean laundry? Somehow, they always seem to find a way to get where they want to be! And even when I don’t really plan to include animals in my writing, they seem to find a way of creeping in.

 

 

My Life of Mystery

I’ve always loved a good mystery. I started with Boxcar Children, Trixie Belden, and Nancy Drew and then, added every one I could order from the school paperback book club. I was beside myself with excitement on “book day,” when our teacher lined up our purchases along the chalk tray, with our order slips sticking up out of the top—Mary C. Jane, Helen Fuller Orton and Augusta Hueill Seaman (every worthwhile children’s mystery author, it seemed, needed the added weight of that middle name or initial)!

My best friend Judi and I really wanted detective careers, but felt our sleuthing skills were lacking. When we read Nancy Drew or the Dana Girls, it seemed as if they were always ready for adventure, an overnight bag stowed in the trunk of the car, complete with magnifying glass and flashlight. They also had numerous survival skills we added to a mental checklist that we knew we needed to work on.

Judi and I made a point to try to get ourselves lost in the woods, so we could work on finding our way out (okay, that was pretty stupid). And we spent heart-pounding afternoons, trying to elude her brother and his friend, as we darted through alleys, and slipped through department store racks and stairways, with them hot on our heels.

By middle school, I’d graduated to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, and devoured mystery shows and movies on TV. The great favorite of my 20s and 30s was Dorothy L. Sayers, though I also loved other classic authors like Rex Stout and the Lockridges. Eventually, I found my favorite niche in the perfectly-named cozies—oozing dead bodies, but never too horribly graphic. And always tea time!

It’s my great joy, at this stage of my life, to be writing mysteries myself. I felt such pride years ago, when I joined Mystery Writers of America, with its roster of famous members whose stories I’d been reading my whole life. When I stood up at the 1999 Edgars banquet, to present the award for best children’s mystery to Wendelin Van Draanen for Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, I felt a real connection with all those authors that had gone before, and those who continued to carry the torch.

Sherlock Holmes, of course, lived at 221-B Baker Street. I’ve always believed it was no coincidence that our first apartment number was 221—and that is our house number right now. I think it’s one more sign that I was destined for a life of mystery!

 

So Where Do Novels Come From?

Where do novels come from? Just as “mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” novels also begin at a specific point, which even the novelist may not recognize until looking back much later.

Some writers start with a character—someone they saw at a bus stop, or one that simply springs into their minds and won’t go away. Others may see a news story about an incident. Their subconscious immediately begins adding the yeast of imagination, till eventually that tidbit rises and grows into a plot—often quite different from the original seed of inspiration.

For whatever reason, my mind most often fires off of setting. I’ve found repeatedly that if a setting doesn’t speak to me, my novel will never really come to life for me. If I haven’t found my setting, my plots tend to be mechanical and my characters wooden. I’m not sure why this is so, but it has happened often enough that I’ve been forced to recognize that finding my setting is always job #1.

As a reader, I’m immediately attracted to—or put off by—certain settings. When I see San Francisco, or a small New England village on a book cover, for instance, I’ll almost always pick it up for a closer look. And I once stuck with an awful book way too long, simply because I loved the old Florida, abandoned sugar plantation setting. On the other hand, I’m left entirely cold by books with sports settings (ballparks, tennis courts, speedways, gyms, etc.) or the ocean (marine biology, diving, etc.).

I’m always curious about settings that attract other people. Judging by popular cozy-mystery books I see, libraries and tea shops interest a lot of readers.

But the real estate agent’s mantra, “location, location, location,” isn’t all there is to setting. Time period also makes a huge difference. Some people favor contemporary stories, while others like specific historical settings (Regency, Civil War, Gilded Age, etc.). Sci-fi lovers often look to the as-yet uncharted future, or delve into time travel.

My work in progress, a middle-grade mystery, The Ghosts of Harpers Ferry, came right out of my fascination with that old town in the crease of the mountains, closed in by rivers and weighted with history. But even though the town’s history works its way into the plot, and onto nearly every page, the story takes place in a contemporary setting—because that’s what I like best to read and write.

Settings make a difference!

 

 

 

Things I’ve Missed

I love bookstores, but was too busy reading (while my husband drove through a pretty little Midwestern town on our road trip) to notice we were passing one. When he pointed it out to me, I jumped out and hustled inside, where I spent a very pleasant hour, browsing the shelves and chatting with the proprietor. I ended up buying two bags of books, as well as getting a tour of the overflow book stash in the basement!

It made me think of all the things I’ve missed. Instead of enjoying the scenery we were passing, I’d had my eyes and mind deep in the fictional world of the book on my lap. Not only was I missing the view, but also a store full of more glorious printed pages—and a very kind and friendly bookseller.

I’m not always reading, of course (often, not always). Many times when we’re driving, I see a fleeting roadside tableau. I yell at my husband, wanting to stop and appreciate it, and try to capture a picture. But till he reacts, we’re generally well beyond the point of interest. When he asks, “Do you want me to turn around?” I catch the subtext: “Surely, you don’t want me to turn around.” So the blurred image swiftly fades from my retina, and on we go.

Several years ago, we visited Arches National Park. The surreal landscape captivated us, with the dramatic size, number, and variety of its natural rock arches. By late afternoon, after much hiking and climbing, our energy was flagging. My son wanted to divert to see one more—Wall Arch, at that time the twelfth-largest arch in the park. We voted him down. “Next time,” my husband told him, over squawks of protest.

The news that night shocked us. Wall Arch had fallen down!

Although we’d known none of those imposing stone monoliths would stand forever, the suddenness and timing of this collapse felt like a divine judgment. We’d presumed a certain permanence—both in ourselves and in the landscape—where there was none.

I was just reminded of this in recent weeks by the ancient buckeye tree outside my bedroom window. Every morning, I sit in my chair, pray, and write in my journal. Every spring, for at least the past ten years, I’ve watched the cycle of the seasons. In spring, pale-green tufts of leaves emerge at each branch tip. The changes from day to day are noticeable. The leaf clusters extend; they begin to unfurl; tiny rosy-buff cones rise above them; the cones burst into bouquets of white-and-pink blossoms; the pale green leaves turn bright green as a leprechaun’s topcoat, and pop open like an unfurling parasol.

About midway through this enchanting process this year, I promised myself that next spring, I’d take a picture every morning, recording the transformation of the gnarled, winter-bare tree into a shady haven for nesting squirrels. But then, we got a windstorm.

A central limb crashed, revealing a hollow core.

Two weeks later, another major hollow limb fell. And then, a third.

Maybe there will be enough tree left next spring for me to be able to make some sort of album. Maybe not.

And so, I’ve resolved to pay more attention. At least, if I’m driving, I’ll turn the car around for a better look…maybe even get out. And if I decide not to do something today, I’ll try to do it with the recognition that life doesn’t always provide second chances.

And I’ll always take the picture. Sometimes it will be with a camera—perhaps more often, it will be with words. A photograph, though supposedly worth a thousand words, doesn’t always do justice to its subject. Words have the power to create pictures in the mind—sometimes more profound than their initial inspiration. Like the late Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I truly believe “an experience isn’t finished until it is written.”

When I’ve captured a memory in writing, I feel like a good homemaker must feel when she seals a bit of summer sunshine and fragrance into a jar of berry preserves or spicy piccalilli. There, I have it now. Some cold winter morning, when frost has breathed icy ferns over the window glass, I can open it up and it will be summer again, if only for a moment.

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The Years the Locust Has Eaten

We just received a rare visit by the 17-year “locusts” or, more properly, cicadas. Many people hate their loud, insistent whirring in the trees—and their thumb-sized winged bodies everywhere. I love them. I think they’re beautiful, and love their summer music.

Partly, I know I’m fascinated with them because of their long years underground, and too-brief escape into the air and sunshine. I search the bushes for their shed husks, and sit outside to listen to their music.

Because they emerge in colonies, some areas have them in the thousands—and other places right next door have none. This time, we had more than a few, but they weren’t overwhelming. For less than a week, they sang to me, and then, they were gone. But a few areas near us, with later emergences, still had a few. When my dog, Elvis, and I walked the trail, we heard them in the woods beside us.

I hadn’t heard any cicada music in a week, but one day, when we went to a different trail section, a handful of survivors called from the trees. The trail was littered with hundreds of spent bodies, but because they were spread over miles of trail, it didn’t really seem like so many. They were scattered like punctuation across a page—one here, one over there.

Soon, we came upon one still alive on the packed ground, legs moving helplessly in the air. Though I knew he was dying, I hated to see him smashed by a speeding bicycle.

We stopped, and I put down a gentle finger, and instantly, he hooked on. I carried him to the edge, where he could expire peacefully, but he didn’t want to let go. I tried moving him to a smooth leaf, some soft grass, a rough wooden fencepost, a firm patch of earth. He preferred my hand.

But when I did finally install him in a safe spot of weeds, I soon came upon another. He, like his cousin, preferred human skin. Eventually, I rescued about a half-dozen—the only survivors left on the trail surface. As they clung to me, they seemed surprisingly vigorous. The last one even made a long, steep, and heroic hike up to my neck before I dislodged him.

I wondered if the secure feeling they got, being attached to me, was why they hung on. I felt bad, knowing I wasn’t really rescuing them. All were in their final moments of their brief aboveground lives. Did they know what was happening to them, I wondered.

Maybe I feel such empathy for these little guys, because I’ve also just reemerged after about 17 years “underground.” After publishing my first three novels, and selling a fourth, in the late 90s, I let life get the better of my fiction writing, and turned to publishing short nonfiction articles. Though I still wrote novels, they—like the cicadas—weren’t seeing the light of day. I’ve enjoyed writing the personal experience—such as those in Chicken Soup for the Soul books—stories that have brought me close to many of my readers. But now, my novels have come back to the surface, and I want them to have their fruitful time in the light and the sunshine.

The Bible says in the Book of Joel, “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten….” It promises when we turn back to the path where we belong, God will redeem our “lost” period of wandering.

Although many years will go by before I see and hear the cicadas again, I hope I’m still around to get reacquainted. Their lives up here may be fleeting, but they have purpose. I know, too, my own earthly life is scarcely more than an eye-blink in the face of eternity. But I hope, in its own way, it will also ultimately have purpose and beauty.

Paths

I think mystery readers—and writers—share a fascination with paths. What will happen if I go down this way? What might I find over that way? Maybe  there’s a body in the tangle of bushes, or an abandoned house behind that crumbling wall.

Of course, our paths aren’t always physical. We’re constantly choosing: to go to school or get a job; to get married or backpack across Europe; to do the right thing…or the easy thing; to earn money or try to write. Over the past forty years, I’ve made a lot of choices. And when I find I’ve made a bad one, I either work to make it right—or I make another choice. I decided long ago to write, a path I’ve never regretted, though it’s often been steep and rocky.

The beauty of writing (or reading)—especially mysteries—is the opportunity to try many more paths than anyone could ever cram into a single lifetime. Mysteries also give us the chance to be braver than we ordinarily are. Our hearts may be pounding with apprehension but we push open that creaking gate and follow that dark and overgrown footpath, despite the stealthy footsteps behind us.

With my Australian cattle dog, Elvis, I’m always being drawn down one interesting path or another. As we go along, I’ll be sharing some of them with you.

The picture above is a springtime glimpse of one of our favorite trails. We took a path we’ve taken many times, but that particular day, we discovered something new. We found a treasure, though it wasn’t buried, and it wasn’t gold, money, or jewels. The phlox was blooming, and I literally stopped and gasped when I saw it. We never know what we might find when we get out there and keep our eyes open.