Monday, January 28, 2019

that thing with feathers

A week ago I foolishly raised my hopes that we'd get a snow day. I let the prospect of a free day sink giddily into my heart and I started making plans for all the ways I'd spend it--bake dessert, read, catch up on lesson planning, sort through correspondence, clear off my desk. The next morning my alarm rang and my phone did not. I sulked my way through my morning ritual, bitterly sipped my coffee and scowled at the light snowfall on the pavement. Then I sorted out my expression when I roused my children in order to absorb their disappointment when they discovered it was a Normal School Day. My disappointment morphed into self-loathing because I'd gotten my hopes up and should've known better in the first place. If you expect nothing, you're glad to get anything. These are wise words to live by.

This weekend a friend and her daughter taught me that to guarantee a snow day one must flush ice cubes down the toilet, eat ice cream and put the spoon beneath one's pillow, and wear pajamas inside-out-and-backwards to bed. I spent Saturday and Sunday sitting in bleachers watching Mr. G play basketball at two tournaments this weekend, occasionally peeking at my phone's screen. How many inches now? When will it start? THAT cold on Wednesday? I drove home from Mr. G's second tournament last night (his team took 2nd place, they all played really well) thinking how bone-tired I felt. My brain was cheese, my butt sore from the bleachers. How lovely it would be to change into sweats and curl up in front of Victoria before going to bed. I tried NOT thinking about all the plans I could accomplish if school got cancelled and I tried NOT wishing for the early call. If I got my hopes up and we still had school in the morning it would make me crabby. How stupid to get crabby over weather--over the sense of entitlement for a day off. No, I'd wake up at 5:30 Monday like any other day and hit the shower. School wouldn't be called off and that would be that. Somehow the chores would get squashed in between work and practices, making supper and shoveling.

Don't. Get. Your. Hopes. Up.

I've learned this lesson so many times. One Christmas when I was about 8 years old I received a large box wrapped in festive paper--my heart leapt and I tore into it, hoping for a soccer ball. Nope, Santa had brought me a strawberry-shaped carrying case for Strawberry Shortcake and her friends. My freshman year at college I waited my turn to look at the list of names and parts for a production of Bus Stop posted on the classroom door, breath held until I read the small part I auditioned for went to somebody else. My heart pounded when the cute boy I made eye contact with at a party walked in my direction--and passed me by to talk to the girl standing a few feet behind me. Two years ago I cast my ballot for the first woman president ... well, you know how that turned out.

Yesterday evening I switched the radio from the weather forecast to WAPL and let the sweet strains of Metallica carry my mind from silly dreams of sleeping in, catching up with the laundry, wearing sweatpants all day instead of work clothes. Emily Dickinson's metaphor is apt, birds are fragile creatures, easily blown off course and crushed. I've seen birds swoop fearlessly into our huge living room window and crash into the invisible glass wall. They land stunned and vulnerable on their backs, their wings flat against the patio bricks.

My phone's screen lit up on the seat beside me. I was halfway home, the sun hadn't quite set. I turned down the volume, swiped my thumb and heard the superintendent's voice explain "due to extreme winter weather..." Was the news sweeter because I'd deliberately not hoped for a snow day? Did I feel more pleased because I could curl up to watch Victoria knowing I would get to sleep in the next morning? Is a gift more excellent when one has no expectation to receive it?

Emily Dickinson's 314th poem ends even stranger than it begins. "It never asked a crumb -- of me." I'd love to discuss this with her. She's not wrong, but I'll argue that when hope gets crushed, the person hoping pays a price. Yet I agree with her view that hope helps us get through the worst bits, asking nothing in return.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers - (314)
By Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018


It's the best holiday tomorrow, a combination of eating well and counting one's blessings. I give thanks every day, God has given me a lot and the crazy part is that the more I stop and reflect on how grateful I am, the more content I become. This attitude of gratitude winds up making me even happier.
"Darth Turkey" by Mr. G 

In no particular order, some reasons I feel THANKFUL:
*my bum knee is holding up without medication or surgery, I can hike, swim and bike without concern
*good health, my own and my family's
*Mr. T adjusting well to college life and making progress in the "figuring out what to do with my "life" portion of this exercise
*Mr. B making excellent choices and working so diligently in school
*Mr. G taking responsibility for himself in so many ways
*the rich sense of humor in this home
*the colorful dash of birds in our trees outside and their happy songs
*those 2 crazy cats, Rose & Thorn, who give head butts and enthusiastically purr in exchange for food, water and clean litter
*a good trail for hiking
*a stack of good reading material
*a job that makes me feel like I'm making a contribution to the world
*Wisconsin's election results this fall
*friendships that make me a better human
*a fantastic church that practices what it preaches and pushes me to grow my faith
*new mercies each day
*Mr. D's new satisfaction and enthusiasm with his work
*new sheets on my bed
*scoring Stranger Things season 2 at Target last weekend
*time to play this weekend
*a nugget of a workable idea for my next writing project (still have to finish the current one, but until a week ago I had no clue what I'd work on next)
*the smell of pine and rotting leaves
*sunshine (it's a a premium this time of year)
*the willing and engaging and hardworking students who show up in Room 212 every day
*the second floor copier
*a front porch with a hammock
*dark chocolate covered almonds
*the sound of my sons getting along with each other

Spill it, reader. Give a little thanks here and you'll see what I mean about how it makes you feel!

Friday, August 24, 2018

reluctant review

I hate to post this, my heart is torn. You see, we went to Belize this summer and it was marvelous. Warm, friendly people who express so much pride in their country and culture. Delicious food, gorgeous scenery, fascinating history. And it's not commercialized and franchised and wrecked by too many tourists. Yet. There's no Hard Rock San Pedro, McDonald's or KFC in sight. Here's an example of the simplicity of Belize, the entire country has one brewery and their beer is everywhere: Belikin. You can buy a bottle of regular, light or stout. That's it. Belize is pure, authentic and not westernized to the nth degree. This destination is great--they deserve my endorsement, I want people to enjoy experiencing this country as I did. But on the other hand, if you all go there, you'll insist on making it JUST LIKE EVERYWHERE ELSE with conveniences and brands and end up making it the SAME AS ALL OF THE OTHER PLACES that have become interchangeable. How does one know whether they've landed in Cancun or Jamaica or Cozumel? They don't because all of these places look the same: Hilton and Hyatt and stupid mega-sized souvenir cups for drinking eighteen shots of fruit-flavored alcohol available on every corner.

So please, whatever you do, read my post and know Belize is fabulous, but don't rush to get there.

There's a lot to see while walking along the shoreline of Ambergris Caye.

Let's begin with ease of travel, five hour flight, everyone speaks English and Spanish, the currency is a 2 to 1 exchange rate so you can spend Belizean or American money without going through hoops or paying fees. The country is pristine, the waters off the coast so clear you can see the bottom while you fly overhead to your resort on Ambergris Caye.

The view from our puddle-jumper flight to the island.

You might feel initially inconvenienced by the lack of all-inclusive lodging, but a closer look at that model of vacationing will convince you of the absolute violation of human rights incurred by exploiting people's labor for crap pay, so you'll appreciate that people in Belize, while generally quite poor, have better opportunities compared to people in neighboring countries who offer all-inclusive resorts for a cheaper rate. The accommodations in Belize are clean and range from adequate to luxurious, depending on what you care to spend. Plus, everyone knows that when you leave a resort for meals or entertainment, you stand a better chance of getting the local flavor. Each member of my family tried new things--from fried plantains to red snapper to soursop. (I became addicted to soursop juice and have not been able to find it here in America.)

Typical dinner scene, complete with Belikin beer and Hawaiian shirts.

I spent the week there blissfully hot (not uncomfortably, ocean breezes were lovely) and barefoot because Belize is a laid back place where you'll eat all of your meals outdoors on the beach and notice that your waiter is barefoot, too. The tourist crowd tends to be older or families, so the beach isn't overrun like some sort of MTV Spring Break event with obnoxious music and debauchery.  It's easy to find a peaceful spot by a palm tree and feel your soul soothed by the sound of surf and the salty air. (If given the choice, I'd spend my life by the water.)
Your standard beach chair with ocean view.

Belize offers adventures. We snorkeled and saw an incredible range of sea life by the barrier reef. Stingrays, nurse sharks, coral, moray eels, tuna, grouper, sea anemone, starfish--we swam with all of these things. The boys found conch shells and we even discovered a baby octopus washed into our kayak (we replaced her into the ocean after admiring her for a moment). We hiked in the rain forest, astonished by the racket howler monkeys make while establishing their territory. We explored Mayan ruins a mile from the Guatemalan border. We learned about all sorts of flora and fauna, dazzled by the myriad of ways the rain forest provides for us. We zip-lined over the canopy and rode in rubber tubes down a rock-bottom river as clear as glass. We floated through caves filled with Mayan artifacts, stalactites and mystery. Team Testosterone went deep sea fishing, far past the edge of the reef, and caught barracuda and grouper and even a shark. (The fish tasted wonderful, we brought it to a restaurant down the beach and enjoyed it family-style, prepared in a variety of ways by a creative local chef.)

Belize from above!

From a high perch at the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

Belize exceeded my expectations for relaxation and recreation. I loved it. You would, too. But please, stay away, so it remains lovely when I return.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

growth spurts

I'm starting my morning writing with my middle son lying at my feet. He's sleeping everywhere these days, partly because he's given up his room in a great act of sacrifice to a family member and partly because he's at that age where he rolls from couch to floor to bed. Mr. B has his driving temps this summer and eagerly takes the wheel at every opportunity. Life has boiled down to working out in the wrestling room, running, sleeping and playing Fortnite and Battlefield 1. Getting him to work has been a little difficult, but that's the age, right? He's also growing his mullet back. WHY? I don't know. I keep repeating, like a mantra, "it's only hair." It's only hair.

My new book project is chugging along. I'm writing in spurts of 1,000-1,500 words a day. This boils down to a scene or two each day. I realize it's becoming a little messy as I head into the middle section and events will require reordering. Do I hit pause and rearrange it now or keep going and wade through more volume later? I cannot decide. It is satisfying to watch the page count increase steadily, so I keep writing scene after scene, making the later work of putting the plot in order more difficult for myself. I guess I have decided, haven't I? I'm going to make a real mess of it.

Mr. T has done the heavy lifting for his summer (written thank you notes for graduation gifts, finished sending transcripts, etc. to college and sorted out his housing situation). Now he hangs out with his friends and earns money at the golf course until he leaves town. "Grown and flown" is the term used by parents of college-aged kids. His wings are new and fragile, but I have faith they'll hold him up. He seems clear on the direction he's heading, a bit vague on the details but that's not unusual for most young adults.

My garden flourishes, the trees have gotten big enough to house all manner of birds this year--including Baltimore Orioles! God has provided me with ample opportunity to expand my faith and grow fruit of patience and kindness, too. For example, I didn't kill Mr. T with my bare hands when he kept failing to write his thank you notes and left that project on half of the kitchen table for over a month! And I've opened my house to a person in crisis and mostly kept my opinions to myself, which is no small feat.

Mr. G turned 14 last weekend. FOURTEEN! Thirteen is kind of a puny excuse for a teenager, but fourteen seems legit. So that's it then. No more boys. Even this youngest one has passed me up in height and shoe size. He's all legs and arms and long shaggy hair (not sure what look he's going for, but I'm pretty sure it's inspired by MLB players). Thank goodness for his freckles, they keep him looking boyish. And he still tolerates hugs and kisses from his mama, bless his sweet heart. He's another kid coming far in developing self-control and maturity. I'm proud of his ability to help when asked, and more importantly when not asked. He's kind to animals, fairly clean and endures most frustrations with good humor.

And look at this, the Screw Iowa Writers Workshop got together for the FOURTEENTH time this June. These dear ladies flew in from both coasts and we rented a cottage on Little Green Lake. It was a good week for all of us creatively and emotionally speaking. These friendships are as vital to us as the solid writing advice we exchange. Over the years we've collectively produced so many things--writing seminars and workshops for various people, books, articles, short stories and essays. It's easy to forget how far we've come when I get bogged down in current work. Time and effort has stretched and built me into a much better writer, and I'm thankful for the part they've played in developing me. This year we worked on one full manuscript, two solid starts on new novels and a short story during our time together.

Spill it, reader. What's growing in your world these days?

Monday, June 18, 2018

formerly a "pantser"

If you attended UntitledTown, you probably were privy to a conversation happening on the sidelines--what kind of writer are you? A "pantser" or a planner? New writers in particular are "pantsers"--they write by the seat of their pants. I've generally written that way. I've had a vague idea of the story I want to tell, but I'm foggy on the details. It's a happy surprise when I write because I usually have no idea where things will end up. Sometimes a character takes a strange turn, and I've literally reached the end of two books with no idea how to wrap things up--as some readers have probably suspected. It wasn't until those last pages of Kicks Like a Girl that Gretchen picks one man over the other. That's great, because the reader winds up just as surprised as me most of the time. But it's awful because I have no idea what will happen so making things happen in a book can be dicey.

Conversely, a planner is exactly that. They've got the story arc in mind, writing with an outline or some structure assisting them while they go along. I attended a plotting workshop at UntitledTown 2017 and learned about using bullets to plot a book from Patricia Skalka. No surprise that a mystery writer needs to follow an outline, the logistical issues require good organization.Writing a series also demands some organization because readers expect consistency.

This spring I released my first sequel, On the River (available here! or from me! buy a copy! buy one to give to a friend!) and writing it was a GRIND. I sort of knew the big picture I wanted to paint, but this middle book needed transition plot lines for a lot of characters and had to develop their stories, as well as the story of Bassville. Now I'm working on the last book in that series and early on I made a decision to plan it. What did I have to lose? So I typed up a bulleted list of what various characters WANT, what scenes had to happen, what stories had to evolve and how they had to end. That page-long list is the first thing I see when I open the file to work on this book. It's a great reminder of where I'm headed, a road map of sorts.

Planning this last book has made a huge difference in how I write. I'm much more focused, I'm not spinning my wheels trying to figure out what happens next. I'm more efficient. Every day I gloss over that list and pick up one thread to write through. I haven't written a scene just to chop it out later because it doesn't lead anywhere or contribute to the big story arc. While I don't ever see myself working off of a detailed outline (because hey, I like some surprises and I've even had a couple while writing this last book), there's a lot to be said for having a plan. I don't need to know every little piece of the puzzle, but knowing the grid sure is lovely.

Spill it, reader. Are you a "pantser" or a planner when it comes to working on projects?

Friday, June 15, 2018

week 2 summer vacation

My summer pace has been delightful. I deep-cleaned all the rooms and edited 2 manuscripts for my writing partners. We knocked off appointments at the orthodontist, auto shop and the DMV. My book project is evolving at a steady rate. I swim, practice yoga or ride my bike. I watched some baseball and wandered to my neighbors' backyard campfire last night to chitchat and eat a roasted marshmallow. It's been so wonderfully calm and normal. Summer break with three teenage boys translates into much less heavy lifting than in previous years. It's like living with roommates who eat all your leftovers and don't pay their part of the rent.

And every single day I do the following:
1. Read. So far I've read Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, Experiencing the Presence of God by A.W. Tozer and Donna Parker: Secret Agent by Marcia Martin (I needed something fluffy while reading Salt to the Sea, Donna Parker books are like Nancy Drew and this is the only one of the series I never read. Published in 1957, this copy smells like your grandma's basement. It probably came from your grandma's basement.)

2. Remind Mr. T to write his thank you cards for graduation gifts. I hope he finishes soon.
3. Feed people.
4. Pick up towels from the floor.
5. Admire the view of our front yard. The peonies have bloomed in a staggered fashion this year, just gorgeous.
6. Water the flowers and veg garden because it just won't rain here. My rain barrels are nearly empty!
7. Putter in the yard.
8. Add to the small pile of donations for Habitat ReStore and St. Vincent DePaul.
9. Drink coffee. 
10. Curse while I read the news.

On that last point, here's a link if you're as angry as me and want to DO something useful:
RAICES Family Reunification and Bond Fund

Spill it, reader. What have you done every day of summer so far?

Friday, June 8, 2018


Incredible how one can go Mach 10 during the school year, juggling teaching, grading, planning, meal prep, loads of laundry, track and baseball schedules, volunteering and irregular workouts to A FULL STOP when the calendar page turns. The last two weeks of May left me breathless between graduation (which was its own beast this year between teaching seniors and having a senior of my own clad in cap and gown), track season (Mr. T made it to sectionals) and baseball. We held a party for the graduate, we made it to the state track meet to cheer on the qualifiers, we cleaned up the house and I finally checked out of my classroom for the summer.
Mr. T's last race. He's the one wearing the headband.

And just like that my life slowed down to the occasional appointment on the weekly schedule and a couple of baseball games for Mr. G. I read a lot. I deep-cleaned a few rooms and caught up with the stack of random papers and bills and correspondence that accumulates while one is armpit-deep in grading final exams and busting out dinner for five at nine o'clock at night.

The summer pace here is leisurely. Nobody really checks the time too much. I kick back in the hammock after pulling weeds and getting a little sweaty. Our main meal is now lunch, when Mr. T is back from his job at the golf course and his brothers are fully emerged from their bedrooms/Fortnite battles/chore list. (Be impressed, we haven't had sandwiches or frozen pizza all week!) Team Testosterone is handling the dishwashing rotation and I hardly have to drive anyone anywhere because the younger two have bicycles and the oldest has a drivers license.

The laundry load has decreased exponentially now that school's out. Mr. B declared he'd wear nothing but swim trunks for the first two weeks of summer and nobody's changing three times a day from school to practice to some new outfit before bed at night. I don't have papers to grade, but I have three manuscripts to read with a very generous deadline.

I'm writing again. Every day I've sat down and produced a couple thousand words for book three in the Bassville series. I'm bringing that trilogy to its conclusion and I finally figured out how it's all going to work.

And with this leisurely, luxuriously slow pace of life, I now turn to book two, On the River, which came out last month. Now I have time to really promote it, so here it begins:

The winter had become a test of endurance and patience, especially for those living in northern Wisconsin. Three friends, June Butterfield, Dottie Trayson and Arlyce Shanski sat at the end of the bar near the Bassville Pub’s kitchen and pored over knitting patterns, ignoring the grumbling men gathered to watch basketball on the wall-mounted TV set. A cold and snowy February had left behind three feet of snow, and now it was March 3, 1985, with no sign of a spring thaw. Even though the Shanskis had turned on every light, their bar still seemed dim. The huge windows overlooking the Wissipaw River let in little light on an overcast day and the view in both directions looked the same: a solid mass of unmoving snow and ice, except for the occasional vehicle crossing the bridge that connected both sides of Bassville.

So, dear reader, if you want to slow down your pace and read my book, you can email me (mwestemeier@melwestemeier dot com) or you can buy one online

Spill it. Do you have a different pace for summertime?