Summertime – Farms and the Country in the CHRISTMASTIME series

rolls of hay sunset

I was born and raised in small-town Illinois, and the countryside played an important role in shaping my idea of the world – the sense of openness and wide skies, the beauty of the changing seasons, the rhythms of the land.

Though I never lived on a farm, country life was an integral part of the area and its presence was felt in the farms and orchards surrounding the town, in my classmates who lived on farms, in the county fair with displays of livestock and ribbons won for home-baked goods, canning, and 4-H projects.

And though my family lived in town, the country and farms were still a part of our lives. We used to drive out into the country to buy eggs from one farmer, and honey from another old-timer who kept bees. Some of my brothers and sisters earned money over the summer by detasseling corn, and we all learned to drive on those long, straight country roads.

Once, my dad took us out to glean a cornfield. A picture of Millet’s The Gleaners hung in my friend’s living room, and I thought gleaning sounded like an old-fashioned, romantic thing to do –

framed Gleaners

though I imagine the purpose of our outing was to show us the value of a dollar, part of the Midwestern work ethic that was woven into everything back then. We piled into the back of my dad’s pickup and drove out to a farm. With bags and buckets in hand, we began gleaning the cornfield of ears of corn missed by the combine. There was something fun and adventuresome about it, like being on a treasure hunt. After several hours, we emptied our bags into the bed of the truck, and then took our harvest to the grain elevator – we each made $2.

Probably because I never lived on a farm, I’ve always romanticized about it (though I know farming is backbreaking work with long hours, and farmers are at the mercy of the weather). It is that romanticized version the country and farms that made its way into my Christmastime books in the storylines that take place on Kate’s farm in Illinois.

windmill

(images from Pinterest)

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The Christmastime series is available on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, iTunes, and Google and in libraries by request, on Ingram and Overdrive

Amazon —  https://amzn.to/2xFgnt0

(Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, the final book in the series,

will be available in the fall.)

 

St. Patrick’s Day — John O’Donohue on Beauty and the Celtic imagination

rainbow

Images of Ireland and quotes from John O’Donohue’s book, “Beauty, The Invisible Embrace.”

“When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.”

 

Ireland 2

“When the imagination is alive, the life remains youthful.”

“Beauty calls us beyond ourselves and it encourages us to engage the dream that dwells in the soul.”

coastal road

“We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul.”

“The imagination creates a pathway of reverence for the visitations of beauty.”

Skellig stairs

“With swift, sheer grace, the Beautiful is like a divine breath that blows the heart open.”

“Beauty is quietly woven through our days.”houses and green hills

“The imagination is the great friend of possibility…In a sense, that is what beauty is: possibility that enlarges and delights the heart.”

“Beauty does not linger, it only visits.”

Cliffs of Mohr

“To experience beauty is to have your life enlarged.”

“When the soul is alive to beauty, we begin to see life in a fresh and vital way.”

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“The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the wonder of our gaze.”

“Ultimate beauty is a profound illumination of presence, a stirring of the invisible in visible form.”

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“When we awaken to the call of Beauty, we become aware of new ways of being in the world.”

“The eye of the imagination will often be drawn to the edges of things where the visible and invisible worlds coalesce.”

lighthouse stars

“True beauty is from elsewhere, a pure gift.”

“Everywhere there is tenderness, care and kindness, there is beauty.”

window kettle flowers

“Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue was a native Irish speaker, a former priest, and author of books that provided sustenance for many souls hungering for connection.” (www.npr.org)

clover key

(Images from Pinterest)

The Making of a Book Cover — Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series

I was lucky to find a great book cover designer, Laura Duffy, for all my books. The Christmastime series, in particular, required several drafts.

Laura patiently added snow, made streetlights glow, erased modern buildings, and cropped and colored and added details until I had the image I wanted.

The cover for Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series posed the most challenges. Early on, we decided that it would have a few subtle differences. As a prequel, it would not be part of the color sequence of the other books — green, red, blue. And Laura suggested that the “photograph” be vertical rather than horizontal.

I wanted the cover to evoke a sense of happiness and hope, with just a hint of the shadow cast by the war in Europe. After searching and searching for a photograph that would capture the main character’s (Lillian Hapsey) longing to move to Manhattan and start life anew, I found an image that might possibly work — with a little magic from Laura Duffy.

The photo had certain elements I was looking for: snow, a source of light (a lamppost), and it was immediately recognizable as Manhattan, with the Empire State Building in the center of the photo.

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But it needed some work.

First, the lamplights needed to be “turned on.” It took a few attempts to get the right shade of soft gold. Then we looked at several Christmas wreaths, pine boughs, and red ribbons to attach to the lamppost. We decided on the one below. I purchased the photo and Laura added and aged it.

Next, the Empire State Building needed to be more pronounced. The original photo depicted a foggy day (I wanted snow), and the outline of the building was obscured.  So Laura found and superimposed a clearer photo of the Empire State Building and added a light snowfall.

Empire State Bldg superimposed

We were getting closer, but it didn’t yet capture the charm and promise of new beginnings. I imagined a scene at dusk, people hurrying home after work, the Christmas season in the air — and Lillian pausing to look at the view of the Empire State Building and having a visceral feeling of connection — Manhattan embodied everything she wanted.

So Laura turned day into evening, showing lights in the office windows, and patiently adjusting my requests for “less blue, a little grayer, more dusk-like, a little darker, more snow?” — until finally, it clicked — and I entered the world of Christmastime.

The image captures a moment in the story when Lillian becomes a part of the city she so loves. I could see her dressed in 1930’s shoes and coat, her face raised in happiness, knowing that her two little boys would also love the magic of the city. I felt the image now had charm, a sense of excitement, and the feel of Christmas.

1939

Thank you, Laura!

Check out the variety of Laura’s covers here: https://www.lauraduffydesign.com/ 

Christmastime 1939 is now available (the softcover will be available any day now).

(The final book in the series, Christmastime 1945: A Love Story,  will be published in 2019.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Evenings in the Garden

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Long summer days mean that we can spend more time out of doors. And one of the best places to linger in the summer twilight is in a lovely garden. There’s something about candlelight and dinner in the garden that is absolutely magical.

GH table 1b

Though I can count such dinners I’ve experienced on one hand, they stand out in my mind. Some memories shine more than others, like tiny jewels in an inner treasure chest — clearer, sharper, more durable.

One such memory is of an impromptu dinner I once had with friends in Seattle. A guest was visiting from Switzerland and we decided to have our dinner outside, just beside the flower garden.

We pulled out the kitchen table, draped it in a lace tablecloth, and added details to make the dinner even more special — fresh flowers from the garden, antique water goblets and an Art Deco silverware set that belonged to my grandparents, and a tiny salt and pepper set — green and white enamel owls. One of my roommates, who was attending a culinary arts school, created a sumptuous meal full of summer freshness — I remember a cold blueberry soup with creme fraiche swirled on top and a salad with orange nasturtiums from the garden.

I never made the connection before, but surely that evening found its way into my novel The Garden House, which is set in Seattle. There’s a scene where the main character, Miranda, sets a beautiful table on the garden deck and enjoys a lovely summer evening with her husband and a few friends.

The Italian poet and author Cesare Pavese said, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those words came to him as he sat in a summer garden at evening.

GH eve book

Amazon Link: http://a.co/hsncwXs

 

 

 

Books and Flowers

flowers and books

The grouping of books with flowers is a poetic one — whether it’s a studied composition, an impromptu arrangement, or simply a flower used as a bookmark. Both books and flowers serve as portals to worlds of beauty, meaning, and pleasure. The pairing is made more poignant by the contrast of one being ephemeral, the other ever-lasting.

“With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” – Oscar Wilde

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“With a few flowers in my garden, half a dozen pictures and some books, I live without envy.” – Lope de Vega

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“Flowers lead to books, which leads to thinking and not thinking, which leads to more flowers and music, music. Then many more flowers and more books.” – Maira Kalman

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“Here’s to fresh coffee, sunshine, morning walks, blooming flowers, good books and all the other simple but glorious pleasures of life.” – (I’m not sure who said this, but I couldn’t agree more.)

The Night Sky

NYC aerial night

Flying over Manhattan at night is beautiful to behold. Below lays a glittering, golden metropolis — silent, twinkling, sprawling. An utter transformation from its gray and gritty daytime self. At night, the city enters the realm of the magical, the fairytale, the mystical.

In a way, it’s an odd reversal of star-gazing, as if we have created a facsimile of the stars here on earth, to be viewed from above.

stars 3

I have read that there are tours for stargazing that take you to far away places where the night sky still reigns.  It must feel like taking a step back in time, where we can see the sky as we saw it for hundreds of thousands of years — an upper land that played before our eyes, the shapes and patterns of stars and planets shifting and traveling with the seasons. The firmament must have been held as a mix of prayer, ritual, entertainment, wonder, and peace. An infusion of beauty that the human night soul absorbed in quiet, simple, cosmic connection.

stars 2

I had a taste of that connection growing up in small-town Illinois. The night sky was a source of beauty, anytime you wanted to step outside and look up. Which we often did, inspired by the curiosity of our mom. From the prosaic location of the driveway or the sidewalk out back, she would stand beneath the glittering stars and marvel in wonder. We would crane our necks this way and that trying to locate the Big Dipper or Orion’s Belt, and question if some of the brightest stars were actually planets — Venus or Mars.

And years later, visiting my sister’s house out in the country in Oregon, we have stretched out in the deck chairs and gazed at the firmament — growing excited at the shooting stars, feeling that instant connection to a distant past, and to something far far beyond earth worries. It seems almost too wondrous to believe that all you have to do is gaze upwards at night to dip into another world full of mystery and beauty,  inconceivably distant and enormous — yet ever-present, just there for the taking.

blue stars night

 

 

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all my followers and supporters!

May 2018 bring you closer to your dreams. 

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“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth — not going all the way, and not starting.” – Buddha

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

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 “The greatest masterpieces were once only pigments on a palette.” – Henry Hoskins

”The beginnings of all things are small.” – Cicero

“To begin, begin.” ― William Wordsworth

 

The autumn leaves are falling like rain…

autumn mist and leaves

There’s a poem I’ve come across over the years that is simple, beautiful, and lyrical. It seems to find expression in different times, in slightly different wording. All the versions are evocative, stirring up rich images and emotions.

The autumn leaves are falling like rain,
Although my neighbors are all barbarians,
And you, you are a thousand miles away,
There are always two cups at my table.   – Tang Dynasty poem

In this version, most likely translated from the original, I imagine a rugged landscape,

rugged autumn

 

 

 

 

 

 

perhaps the Great Wall of China,

GW China autumn

and a cup of tea.

Chinese teacup

A quick search reveals a few remarkable facts about the period the poem was written in: “China’s Tang Dynasty, 618-907, is often considered the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. During this period, poetry was an important part of social life at all levels of society. Scholars were required to master poetry for the civil service exams, but the art was theoretically available to everyone. Tang poetry has had an ongoing influence on world literature.” (Wikipedia)

However, there are other, similar versions of the poem. Perhaps the poem has been been translated in various ways throughout the years, or perhaps different poets were moved by the universality of the poem and reworked it for their time and place.

For example, this later version about an earlier period, is said to describe the far reaches of Britannia under Roman rule:

Here at the frontier 
There are fallen gods 
And my neighbours 
Are all barbarians 
Although you 
Are thousands of miles away 
There will always be on my table 
Your cup.

Different imagery comes to mind: the wall morphs to Hadrian’s Wall, the landscape shifts to bleak highlands. I imagine damp cloaks, stomping horses, tents pitched next to a sputtering campfire.

And more recently, these lines, close to the original, appear in John Fowles’ The Magus:

“Here at the frontier there are falling leaves; although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, You are a thousand miles away. There are always two cups at my table.”

rainy leaves window

All the versions suggest forced separation – perhaps by war, conquest, travel of some sort – contrasted with the memory of friendship, the comforts of home, civility.  They speak of longing, memory, and the hope for future togetherness. And most of all, they express that it’s the simple things in life that have the greatest pull on us.

 

 

 

 

October

autumn lake

There’s an old green-covered book I open this time of year. The spine is split in some parts, the lettering on the cover is faded. It’s a book of poems by Robert Frost that my mother gave to me in high school. It was already worn back then. I don’t know if she bought it used somewhere around town or if someone made a gift of it to her years before. It wasn’t a formal presentation or given to mark a special occasion. It was like the other things she gave to us – a sort of “here’s something you might enjoy,” or “take a look at this.” Items that would simply appear on our dressers without any note at all – Classic Comics for my brothers, a porcelain bluebird for my sister’s collection, a red maple leaf, an exotic stamp off a letter from her brother who traveled widely. Things that would delight, pique our curiosity, entertain, or answer to inner longings.

The book of poems resonated deeply with me, especially the ones in the beginning of the book from the section “A Boy’s Will.” The autumn poems in particular became the ones that most spoke to me. “October” might have been the first poem I ever memorized, outside of school assignments. I memorized it because I wanted the words inside me, I wanted to walk through an autumn day and have the words at the ready: “O hushed October morning mild, Thy leaves have ripened to the fall, Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, Should waste them all.”

CP autumn bridge

These many years later, the words are still there. As I walk through the neighborhood or cut through Central Park, a solitary leaf might float down from a tree on a mild autumn day, and I hear the words: “Release one leaf at break of day, At noon release another leaf.” The birds in the autumn sky might caw and without any prompting my heart recites: “The crows above the forest call; Tomorrow they may form and go.”

CP yellow elms

The simple book of poems remains the touchstone of autumn for me – it embodies the solitary, the nostalgia and memories of other Octobers, and the deep connection of inner yearning with outer seasonal beauty.

book with leaves

(Thank goodness Robert Frost didn’t stop at October. His poem “My November Guest” soon became my favorite.)

yellow leaf on bench