Thursday, December 31, 2009

What If...?

Today is the last day of 2009 and, like most years, it has brought its share of good times and bad, births and deaths, victories and challenges. Although the turning of a calendar page doesn't automatically wipe the slate clean, we always think of the "new year" as an opportunity for a fresh start, a new beginning. Yet, many (most) new year's resolutions fail even before the first week of January is over, and we find we've brought last year's baggage along with us into the new one.

BUT... What if we decided that 2010 was going to be the year: be thankful for what we have, instead of bemoaning what we lack? stop saying negative things about others, and instead look for the good in them--even those with whom we disagree? take action to DO good, instead of just talking about it? help others achieve their potential, instead of tearing them down? change ourselves, our attitudes, instead of trying to change others? seek to live in harmony with nature, instead of destroying it out of greed or ignorance? give the other person the benefit of the doubt, to check things out first-hand, instead of believing rumors, whether verbal or written, and passing them on to others? refuse to pass on to others ANYTHING we would not want passed on about ourselves?

We have a choice. We can enter the new year with the same old attitudes, the same prejudices, the same certainty that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Or, we can admit that, just maybe, we, too, are fallible human beings, subject to misunderstanding and being misunderstood, and subject to the same failings and uncertainties as others. We can choose to forgive, and enjoy the subsequent freedom from carrying those hurts around with us all the time. We can choose to learn from the lessons of the past without constantly reliving in the present the events that taught us those lessons. We can choose to let old wounds heal, without repeatedly subjecting ourselves to the same things that wounded us in the first place. We can choose to forgive ourselves when we fail to be the person we wish we were. In short, we can give ourselves and others permission to be human.

What kind of year would that be?

This coming year, I'd like to challenge you to find at least one good thing each day--one thing to be thankful for. And if you can't find anything to be glad about on a given day, you can always be glad that day is over and you can start over the next. Will you join me in this challenge? If so, please post your comments below. Let's see what kind of a year 2010 will be if we choose to look for the good in it and in each other.

Wishing all of my family and friends a happy, healthy, peaceful, safe, and uplifting new year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Simplify the Holidays -- Part II

Welcome back! Today I'm continuing with suggestions for ways to simplify the holidays. If you have more ideas, please share them in the comments section.

9. Embrace e-cards. Cut the cost of Christmas cards by sending online greetings to as many people on your list as possible. And if you send regular cards, buy them on sale, make them out, and mail them early. Check out your local dollar store's card section, too--you might be surprised at their nice selection.

10. Write it once. Instead of individual notes, write a Christmas letter. If you're not sure how to do this without coming across as bragging or sounding cheesy, there are templates and sample letters online to help you. Writing all the information once, then photocopying it, saves a great deal of time yet gives others an idea of what's been happening in your life. Keep a copy of these letters in a binder as a keepsake history of your family.

11. Window lights. Instead of outlining the windows with strings of lights, put an electric candle in each window. They look nice and are much quicker and easier to put up and take down. Just make sure cords and outlets can't be accessed by pets and children, and secure the bases so they can't tip over.

12. Opt for artificial. Buy an artificial wreath or swag for the door. As with an artificial tree, these can be stored and reused for many years, saving you time and the effort of shopping for or making a real one.

13. Pick and choose. There are many holiday concerts, plays, and parties this time of year. Don't try to do everything. Choose one or two things that are meaningful for you, and do something different next year. Another entertainment option is to invest in DVDs of favorite holiday films and concerts to enjoy at home. We have been using our collection of Christmas programs as a "countdown to Christmas" this year, and enjoying it immensely.

14. Take time out. When you feel yourself getting stressed out, take a break to recharge your batteries. Fix a cup of tea or hot chocolate, get comfy in a chair, turn on the Christmas lights, and listen to some holiday music. Watch the birds at the feeder, or the children outside building a snowman--or go build a snowman yourself. Take a warm bubble bath, or add relaxing bath salts to the water. Read a book with a holiday theme. Breathe!

15. Focus on people, not projects. Watching holiday programs together is enjoyable, but do other activities together, too. Have a Christmas sing-along. Make Christmas cookies together. Pop some popcorn and make a cranberry-popcorn chain for the tree, then put it out for the birds after the holidays are over. Read Christmas stories out loud as a family. Play games or make a puzzle. Gifts may be forgotten, but memories will last a lifetime.

16. Give to others. There are many charitable organizations that need help this time of year. Donate change you've collected throughout the year to a charity. Donate your time by cooking a hot meal and serving it at a local homeless shelter. Donate non-perishable items to your local food shelf. Have your children take old toys and games that they no longer play with and that are in good condition, and donate them for others to enjoy. If a local bank or other organization has a mitten tree or giving tree, donate to that. And don't forget homeless animals, too. Animal shelters are always in need of food, treats, used blankets, towels, paper products, etc. Charities often put their list of needs online or in the local newspaper, or you can call and ask how to help.

At the end of "A Garfield Christmas," Garfield says, "'s not the giving, it's not the getting, it's the loving." Presents are a symbol of the love we have for one another; but it's the giver, not the gift, that is important. As the poem by Christina Rosetti, set to an Irish tune, says, "Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, love divine; Love was born at Christmas, Star and angels gave the sign." So, cut back on the commercial aspects of Christmas, slow down the pace, simplify to minimize the stress, but magnify the love.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Simplify the Holidays -- Part I

Last Saturday, in preparation for our family's early Christmas celebration while our son and daughter-in-law were here from Chicago, my husband and I put up our tree. Sounds simple, right? Take the tree out of the box, assemble the trunk and branches, add lights, garland, and decorations. Voila! Well, not quite. Last Saturday was a really bad pain day for me, so I had to keep sitting down. It took five hours to get the tree up and decorated! Once the tree was done, I was done in, and there was no way I was going to be able to put up the window lights or the garland along the post and railing on our staircase. Amid my lamenting the inability to do things the way I used to, my husband, who is part Santa Claus and part wiseman, said, "Next year, let's get a smaller tree and downsize our decorating." We decided that if that's what it takes to keep our "ho, ho, ho" from turning into "bah, humbug," so be it.

There are many reasons why the holidays can be overwhelming. Perhaps you, too, live with the challenges of chronic pain and illness, or you're getting older and just don't have the energy anymore, or perhaps you're juggling a family and a full-time job, and your hands are too full to take on the added responsibilities and stresses of providing a "fun, old-fashioned family Christmas" like Clark Griswold in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." We remember how much fun the holidays were when we were kids, but now it just seems like too much work. So, how can we preserve the enjoyment while cutting back on the stress? See if some of these suggestions might help.

1. Bake ahead and freeze. Many cookie, candy, and cake recipes can be made ahead of time, baked, and stored in the freezer. Fruit pies can be put together and frozen, unbaked, then put in the oven when you're ready to use them. For added fun, get a couple of friends together for a group "bake-in," where each of you bakes extra, then divide up the goodies so everyone gets to take home several ready-to-eat-or-reheat items. And if baking is just too much for you, buy special holiday treats from the store or local bakery.

2. Plan ahead. Pick up Christmas gifts throughout the year to take advantage of sales. By buying a little at a time, purchases will have less impact on the checkbook and you'll save yourself the last minute hassle of dealing with crowded stores, long checkout lines, and traffic snarls. And you'll also avoid the post-holiday credit card statement shock.

3. Shop online. Many brick-and-mortar stores have an online presence in addition to those that are strictly virtual stores. Most now have secure websites to protect your personal information so you can feel confident using credit cards online. No need to brave inclement weather, deal with crowds, etc. Just shop, make your choices, and click, and your purchases will be delivered right to your door. You may find that many of your local stores are also online, so you can still "buy local."

4. Divide and conquer. If your adult children or friends are coming to your house for holiday dinner, divide up the menu and ask everyone to bring something to share. Take turns from year-to-year hosting the dinner, and ask family and friends to pitch in with preparation and clean-up chores.

5. Simplify the tree. If decorating a big tree is too much for you, downsize to a tabletop tree. And if the care and mess of a real tree is stressing you out, get an artificial one. Perhaps the fussiest part of tree decorating is getting the lights on it. Why not buy a pre-lighted, artificial tree? You can get them in various sizes, with a choice of white or colored lights, and they look nice once you've added your personal touches. This also avoids the mess of shed needles all over the house when you cart the tree outside after the holidays. And, it can save you money in the long run because artificial trees can be stored and reused for many years to come.

6. Downsize the decorations. If a smaller tree won't hold all your decorations, hang some from garlands or lights strung along staircases, around windows, along the edge of the ceiling, or from cupboard knobs--anywhere you can see and enjoy them. Rotate groups of decorations from year to year, or cut back on by giving some of your treasured keepsake ornaments to your adult children for their trees.

7. Draw names. As families grow, it gets more expensive and harder to know what to get for people. Instead of buying for everyone, draw names. There will still be packages under the tree, but there won't be the guilt of having overspent, or the risk of getting people something they neither want nor need. Or, if you prefer to give to everyone, agree to limit the dollar amount of the gifts or give homemade ones.

8. Think outside the box. Make a donation in someone's name to their favorite charity, and place an announcement of your gift under the tree. Give gift coupons for services you are willing to perform: cleaning their attic, basement, or garage; painting a room; helping to clear out clutter; catering one or more meals; babysitting; etc. "Adopt" an animal in their name to support wildlife, such as the program run by Defenders of Wildlife, or make a donation in their name to the local Humane Society.

Watch for more ideas Friday.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Can't Wait 'til Christmas, or Can't Wait 'til It's Over?

A few nights ago we watched the movie "Christmas Every Day" in which a little girl makes a wish that every day would be Christmas, much to the chagrin of her big brother, Billy. But if Billy thought he had it rough reliving Christmas day after day, what about parents?

As a child, the words I associated with the holidays were "festive," "bright," "joyful," "merry," "gay" (meaning joyful, glad, cheerful), "fun" and other positive words. Today, more often than not, Christmas is described with less positive adjectives: "hectic," "harrowing" (especially if your're in heavy traffic on snowy roads or in a crowd all trying to grab the last of this year's hot ticket item), "exhausting," "chaotic," and "over-commercialized." We've gone from "Can't wait 'til Christmas" to "Can't wait 'til it's over." And I began thinking about how Christmas is different for children than it is for adults, and why we look back with fond memories while dreading the present holiday season. Even those of us who love Christmas wouldn't want it every day of the year.

As children, we reap all the benefits without having to do any of the work. We build snowmen, go sledding and ice skating, build snow forts and have snowball fights, write letters to Santa, and sit on Santa's knee at the store telling him all the wonderful things we want him to bring us. We color holiday pictures, sing carols, and watch Christmas programs on TV. In short, we get to do the fun stuff. Meanwhile, what are our parents doing?

While we're out playing, our mothers slave over a hot stove baking special holiday goodies, buy and wrap gifts, disrupt an otherwise orderly household to make room for holiday decorations, address/lick/stamp countless cards, then cart those cards and packages for out of town friends and relatives to the post office where they wait in long, slow lines, often with cranky, tired children in tow. Then they must take those same cranky, tired children to see Santa, read them holiday stories, help them make or address their own Christmas cards, put up countless holiday pictures brought home from school, buy gifts for teachers, bake cookies for school parties, make costumes and coach lines for plays and pageants, then attend those plays, pageants, and concerts, too.

Mothers and fathers wrestle Christmas trees into stands, untangle and string lights only to discover--after the tree is all decorated--that some have burned out and need replacing, guide young hands in helping to decorate the tree, pretending not to care when old, treasured ornaments are dropped and broken, and turn a blind eye when the tree looks more messy than festive. Then, on Christmas Eve, they struggle to get excited children to sleep who are determined to stay awake to spy on Santa. By the time they have cleaned the house, finished the baking, wrapped the gifts and put them under the tree, stuffed the stockings, and climbed into bed long after midnight, parents are exhausted.

Then, often before the sun is up, the children are screaming, "He came! Santa came!" and heavy eyelids are pried open, smiles and bathrobes are put on, and parents try to oversee the opening of gifts, making sure one doesn't open another's toy, and refereeing when there are disputes over ownership or someone doesn't want to share. While children set off to play and fathers retreat to read the paper, mothers clean up the discarded wrapping paper and ribbons, put the room back in some semblance of order, then report to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Depending on the ages of the children, they help kids get dressed for the day, then back to the kitchen to prepare dinner and ready the house for guests. Setting the table, serving the meal, clearing the table, doing the dishes, and, if there are no visitors, perhaps finally getting a chance to sit down and relax for a minute. If there are guests, however, relaxation yields to conversation and seeing that visitors are entertained. Then the dinner process is repeated at supper time, the house has to be straightened up before bed, and by the time the children are settled for the night and company has gone home, mothers finally fall into bed, the day a total blur, thinking about the thank you notes they will have to write not only for themselves, but for each of their children--or at least oversee the writing of the children's thank you notes. That means more writing/sealing/stamping, and another trip to the post office. And then there are the trips to various stores to exchange things that are the wrong size, wrong style, or just plain wrong.

In some homes, the tree comes down Christmas Day, in some it stays up until New Year's Day, and in others until Twelfth Night (Epiphany). But at some point, the tree has to come down, and it is usually the mothers who have to remove and pack away the ornaments and lights, and help the father wrestle the tree out of the stand and out of the house for pickup by the sanitation department. Is it any wonder that parents are glad Christmas comes only once a year? And why do they go through all of this? So they can make wonderful memories for their own children to remember and cherish when they are grown.

Now that I'm getting older, I understand why my mother down-sized Christmas in later years. I, too, find the refrain "simplify, simplify" playing in my mind. Sometimes we have to minimize the work of Christmas in order to preserve the wonder of Christmas. After all, it's not the presents we need every day, but the presence--the spirit of Christmas that reaches out to others in selfless giving, stands up for those who are oppressed, and recognizes our common bond with our fellow man. If you have to cut back a bit in order to enjoy the season, isn't it better to downsize some of the trappings so you can perhaps rekindle some of that excitement and joy you had as a child?

Next time: Suggestions for Simplifying the Holidays

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Happy Birthday, Miss Emily!

Unlike many modern-day celebrities, Emily Dickinson fervently avoided the spotlight. Born in Amherst, Ma, in 1830, she lived a reclusive life, rarely seeing anyone face-to-face once she had left school and returned home to care for her mother, who suffered from chronic illness.

Her shyness extended to the point that she would listen, out of sight, after inviting a friend over to play music for her. Although she appears to have fallen in love several times during her life, she never married. Her eccentricities included dressing all in white, using unconventional punctuation and phrasing in her poems and letters, and writing letters even to those who lived nearby, such as her sister-in-law who lived just next door, rather than engaging in conversation in person.

During her lifetime, less than a dozen of her poems were pubished. Fortunately, her sister Lavinia and a couple of friends edited the rest of her poems and published them posthumously.

To read more about her life and how her work was preserved, go to

In honor of Emily Dickinson's birthday today, I thought I'd share with you one of my favorite poems by this American poet and fellow New Englander.

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody,
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
--Emily Dickinson

Some other writers and poets born in December:

Joyce Kilmer - poet Dec. 6, 1886
James Thurber - humorist - Dec. 8, 1894
John Milton - poet - Dec. 9, 1608
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - novelist - Dec. 11, 1918
Harriet Monroe - poet - Dec. 23, 1860
Robert Bly - author - Dec. 23, 1926
Mary Higgins Clark - author - Dec. 24, 1931
Rudyard Kipling - writer - Dec. 30, 1865

If you have a favorite Dickinson poem, please share it in the comments section.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lessons for the Living, Gifts for the Dying

Advent is a time when we think of birth and beginnings, stars and shepherds, decorations and Christmas carols, trees and gifts. But, sometimes, illness and death are a part of the holidays, as well. Just before Thanksgiving my son-in-law's family experienced the loss of two family members within a week of each other: one, the sudden, unexpected death of a beloved uncle; the other, the natural culmination of the long life of a grandmother. They are fortunate in that they have a large, close-knit family who know how to come together in difficult times for mutual comfort and support.

Others are not so lucky. In our culture we try to distance ourselves from death. We closet it away in hospitals and nursing homes, couch it in euphemisms, and sanitize it so we can put thoughts of our own mortality out of our minds instead of recognizing it as a normal, sometimes even welcome, part of life. So, as we think about giving, what can we give to the dying, and what can we learn from them?

Today, I would like to introduce you to someone who transformed his own personal experience of a cancer diagnosis, and the attendant fear and grieving, into a means of helping others, and, in the process, learned some valuable lessons which he is now sharing through his new book and a series of videos. I met Stan recently through Facebook, and now, I'd like you to meet him, too.

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. He has published six books and numerous articles dealing with loss and end of life issues. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life. The MyShelf book reviewer says "it is a book to change the way you'll live the rest of your life."

Stan is also a regular columnist on,, and the Hospice Volunteer Association's quarterly magazine. Other articles also appear on his website: He consults on issues of change and leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and dramatically changed. He has been a bedside hospice volunteer for seven years and currently serves with Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. He is the 2009 Hospice Volunteer Association's Volunteer of the Year.

When Stan was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer, instead of giving up or giving in to self-pity, he decided to learn about dying from those who were experiencing it by facing his fear and becoming a hospice volunteer. Being with, caring for, and listening to those at the end of life taught him much more than how to die--it changed how he viewed not only death, but life. In Lessons for the Living he shares some of those stories and lessons with the rest of us and, in so doing, reminds us that death is as natural as birth, and by understanding it and allowing it to be our teacher, our remaining time on earth can be transformed into a more joyful, meaningful experience.

In addition to his book, Stan has just added a series of twelve videos called "Helping Loved Ones Die," which you can access through his website or by going directly to YouTube at In this series, Stan offers specific ways to make a loved one's last days and moments more comfortable and more meaningful so they can have closure and be at peace. I can think of no better gift to give them than that.

For more information about Stan, his books and articles, and to read an excerpt from the book, go to his website: His book is also available on Amazon and other outlets.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Holiday Lesson from Benedict Slade and Ebenezer Scrooge

Last night we watched "An American Christmas Carol" starring Henry Winkler. This Jerome Coopersmith adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is set in 1933 in Concord, New Hampshire, during the Great Depression. On the day before Christmas, Benedict Slade (the more modern day Scrooge) sets out with his employee Thatcher (the Cratchit character), to repossess the items townspeople bought with money borrowed from Slade. There is a nice twist with the three spirits who visit him, all of whom bear a striking resemblance to people he visited earlier in the day; and, in the end, Ben learns his lesson and sets out to change his life by changing the lives of those around him for the better. The movie is a vivid reminder that Christmas is more than a one-day-a-year holiday...or at least, it should be.

No matter what holidays you celebrate this time of the year, it is a joyous season for most people. Shoppers are busy buying decorations, special foods for their celebrations, and gifts for family and friends. Lighted Hanukkah menorahs and Christmas lights appear in windows, and Christmas carols play in stores, on radios, and on TV, both in programs themselves and in commercials. In addition to white and colored lights, stores and houses are dressed in holiday finery and boast special displays, there are special programs on TV, people make travel plans to visit loved ones who live at a distance, and diets are thrown out the window until after the first of the year. It's a special season of giving, of sharing, of love and laughter and hope...but not for everyone.

There are many people who will spend the holiday season in homeless shelters, or worse...trying to survive the elements outdoors. Others will spend the holidays alone--some in their own homes, some in nursing homes, hospitals, or other institutions. Service organizations such as the United Way and Salvation Army, and local churches, strive to reach out to bring some joy and comfort to them; but many will fall through the cracks. For them, the holidays are a bleak reminder of what they lack--family, friends, companionship, physical necessities and comforts, and the inability to provide these things for themselves. And it's not just the human population that is in need. Many homeless animals will spend their holidays not curled up on the rug with a loving human to care for them, but in a cage in a shelter.

There are numerous opportunities to give to others this time of year, and many people do. But the needs continue year-round. When you reach out to help in December, why not make a commitment, like Benedict Slade and Ebenezer Scrooge, to continue your giving throughout the coming year? Even small monthly donations can go a long way if those donations are pooled together. If you're looking for a way to help others this season, here are a few suggestions.

Donations can be made to the following. For national organizations, you can usually find a local chapter on their websites:

local food banks and soup kitchens
local homeless shelters
local battered women's shelters
local crisis pregnancy centers

And for animals in need: or your local humane society - trains hearing and service dogs for people with disabilities - North Shore Animal League, the world's largest no-kill shelter

These are just a few ways you can reach out and enrich the lives of others. And in doing so, you will find that your own holiday celebration, indeed your life, will be enriched as well. As Scrooge said, "I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year." What a difference it would make in our world if we all did the same.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Withdrawal Symptoms and Returning to "Normal"

After blogging every day for a month, it felt strange NOT to blog yesterday, and today I'm experiencing what can only be called withdrawal symptoms. I even reread the first three chapters of my NaNo novel last night, correcting a typo here, doing a bit of rephrasing there, before reminding myself that I'm taking the month of December off to concentrate on the holidays.

Returning to "normal" is a process. It began yesterday with getting caught up on some much-needed sleep, reading some more of Death at Epsom Downs by Robin Paige (pseudonym for Bill and Susan Wittig Albert), and watching "The Bishop's Wife" on DVD--the original version with David Niven, Loretta Young, and Cary Grant. I also talked with my son and daughter-in-law, wishing them a happy anniversary--their second. Today, I had my last physical therapy appointment. It will seem strange not seeing my physical therapist, Jenn, after working with her for five months to get my hand back in shape. She's expecting her second child, another boy, in April, and I'll miss talking with her. We also called my father-in-law in South Carolina today to wish him a happy 80th birthday.

"Normal" also included our monthly trip to our local health food store to stock up on my gluten-free supplies and check out the new items they've added to their stock. I remember how truly awful gf foods were twenty years ago when I was first diagnosed with the condition. Really, the boxes tasted better than the contents! But now, there are so many delicious items to choose from, it's hard to decide what to have. Tonight it's lasagna, a salad, and gf cheesy garlic bread.

My husband and I are doing a "Countdown to Christmas" by watching a Christmas movie on TV, DVD, or VHS every night ending with "A Child's Christmas in Wales" on Christmas Eve--an annual tradition begun when my first child was a little girl. And tomorrow, I plan to start making room in the living room for the tree and start getting the decorations up in preparation for my son and daughter-in-law's visit from Chicago a week from tomorrow.

It feels good to know I accomplished what I set out to do in November. But it also feels good to return to my "normal" life, broaden my focus again, and fully embrace the Christmas season. What holidays do you celebrate in your family this season--Hanukkah? Christmas? Kwanzaa? Something else? How do you get ready for the holidays? What puts you in the holiday mood? Are you one of Santa's elves, or is the Grinch more your style? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Day Thirty: Where Do We Go From Here?

This is it. At midnight tonight, NaNoWriMo 2009 will be history. Those who have reached the finish line will be celebrating their victories. Those who did not, will celebrate their attempt and redouble their efforts to cross the finish line next year. All will heave a sigh of relief and anticipate the return to a more normal life.

What lies ahead? For some, December is NaNo novel editing month, but others, like myself, plan to put that off until after the holidays when there will be fewer (we hope) distractions. Again this year, CreateSpace is offering to print a free proof copy of each NaNo novel that was completed. This offer is good for six months and coupons will be available December 2.

In April, there is another writing challenge: Script Frenzy. The goal is to write a 100-page original script during the month. According to the Script Frenzy website, this may be in the form of a screen play, stage play, TV show, short film, or graphic novel. To help you prepare for April, the website offers a series of "How To" guidelines for each category as well as advice from experts. As with NaNoWriMo, Script Frenzy also has a Young Writers Program.

In addition to the challenge of writing a novel during November, I challenged myself to blog every day. While it was a lot of fun, it was also a lot of work to come up with new and, hopefully, interesting material on a daily basis. Beginning with December, I plan to blog once a week and see how that goes. I would like to invite you, my readers, to submit questions and topic ideas that pertain to writing, animals, chronic illness, or life in general, and I will endeavor to include those in my blog posts. I hope we can have some interesting discussions, and perhaps there will be a contest or two or some other enjoyable activities in the year ahead. So, if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments section or drop me an e-mail. And thank you for joining me in my NaNoWriMo journey this year.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Day Twenty-Nine: Across the Finish Line!

Early this afternoon, I crossed the finish line a day and a half ahead of the deadline. After combining my individually saved chapters into a unified document, it was uploaded to the NaNoWriMo website for word count verification. To be considered a "Winner," the completed manuscript must be at least 50,000 words long. Mine came in at over 60,000, giving me a generous buffer to allow for any differences between the word counter on the website and the one in my word processor. Verification completed, the bar on my NaNo homepage turned purple with the word "WINNER" emblazoned on it, and I was informed of the rewards for having completed NaNoWriMo 2009, one of which is the little badge you will see if you scroll down on the right side of the page.

What are the feelings that are experienced upon completion of this challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days? Elation! Joy! A sense of accomplishment! The wonder of "I DID it! And, relief! Across the land and around the world, TGIO (Thank God It's Over) parties are being planned, not so much to celebrate a win as to celebrate the fact that we survived!

From a personal standpoint, I am also grateful for the support of my husband, who encouraged me throughout the month to stick with it, gave me the time and space the daily writing required, brought up infusions of coffee and sustenance when needed, and was there to celebrate when I reached "THE END." My children, too, were a source of encouragement and inspiration, as they have always been. They know just how many years I've held the dream of being a writer, and have supported my efforts by giving constructive criticism and, in the case of my son, motivating me to join Facebook and form relationships with others in the writing community.

I appreciate my friends, too, who were graciously understanding of my rare and brief communications throughout the month. And I am grateful to those in the writing community who encouraged me, shared bits of writing wisdom, and inspired me by their example. Their congratulatory comments are much appreciated, and an inspiration to continue to pursue my writing goals.

Finally, I am grateful to Chris Baty, who founded National Novel Writing Month a decade ago, and who labors each year to make it an incredible experience for all who participate in it; to his staff, who tirelessly work to keep the website up and running, and who are there to help when there are problems, or to answer our questions. And then there are the volunteer Municipal Leaders, who send out encouragement on a regular basis to NaNo participants in their regions, schedule meet-ups and write-ins, host forums, and give so much of their time and energy while trying to complete the writing challenge themselves.

Tomorrow at midnight, NaNoWriMo 2009 officially draws to a close. But for many of the participants, it will also be the beginning of a new phase of their NaNo experience--rewriting, revising, and polishing their novel, and, perhaps, eventually seeing it in print as a published novel.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Day Twenty-eight: Glimpses of Normalcy

NaNoWriMo is like taking part in a total immersion language program. For those who may not know what that is, instead of taking a foreign language in college for two or three one-hour sessions a week, you live in a dorm with other students of that particular language, French for example, and that is all you speak. By only being allowed to communicate in the language you are learning, you learn it much faster. The theory behind it is based on how children learn their native languages, which is primarily from hearing their parents and older siblings speak it.

NaNo is something like that. You may be physically present in a non-NaNo world, but much of your waking time is spent either working on your novel, corresponding with your writing buddies about your novels, or talking in the forums seeking support or discussing problems with your novels. Even when you're not actively engaged in writing or discussing, your brain is trying to work out plot snags or details of the next scene. You speak a whole new vocabulary, one steeped in writing terms and NaNoJargon.

It takes some adjustment when you finish your book and suddenly remember that you have a life that exists the other eleven months of the year. Somehow, during November, that seems to slip your mind. But I've begun to catch glimpses of normalcy. For instance, when I'm writing, I like to listen to the classical music station on the radio ("ALL Classical, ALL the time," is their motto). But a couple of days ago, I suddenly realized there was a smattering of Christmas music sprinkled in amongst the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Grieg. Then, while watching television in the evening, it was impossible to miss the holiday commercials; and even two of our favorite programs had Thanksgiving themes, and one was a Christmas episode!

There have been more mundane reminders of that "other" life, too. Bills still have to be paid: creditors don't consider NaNoWriMo a valid excuse for late payments. And my husband informed me that there is something amiss with our refrigerator--how can it be freezing and thawing at the same time? So, it looks like a call to the repairman is in order.

And then there's the mud! Not only have we had one of the wettest springs and summers on record, but fall has not been much better. Our back yard is so saturated, I'm thinking of investing in "Wellies" for Mindy, my dog, so she won't track in so much mud from outside. If it were just a bit warmer, we could grow rice or perhaps have a cranberry bog of our very own. The bottom line is that the floor by the kitchen door needs to be mopped almost daily to keep the muck from spreading into the the main house.

It was also nice to take a day off from writing to enjoy Thanksgiving with family, to talk with real people instead of just the characters in my book, and to listen to conversation that I didn't write. Soon, meals will return to being more balanced, and more regular, as will bedtime. Once again laundry will be folded upon its return from the laundromat, and clothes will be available in drawers and closets instead of having to be fished out of the accumulated bags of clean laundry piled by the linen closet. Furniture will be dusted, floors will be vacuumed and mopped, beds will be made. In short, the normal rhythms and responsibilities of life will return--at least until next November.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Day Twenty-Seven: Oops!

Three days to go before NaNoWriMo 2009 goes down in the history books. This week, with preparations for the Thanksgiving holiday, and cumulative exhaustion kicking in, for the first time I got a bit behind in my word count. So, today, I wrote. And then I wrote some more. And then I did some fascinating research about engagement rings in the early to mid-1800s, before writing even more.

Did you know that most of the rings were yellow gold and had carved bands? Some had single stones, and not always a diamond since diamonds were so expensive. Other bands used gemstones to spell out the word "dearest" using a diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, another emerald, sapphire, and tourmaline. Still others used a diamond as the center stone, then had one or two stones on either side. And not all bands were a regular circle. One such band, called a "bypass" ring, caught my eye because where the stones were set, one end of the ring bypassed the other, with one gemstone set on each end so the two stones "hugged" each other. I thought, what a perfect ring for my protagonist to give his intended! So, I busily wrote the scene in which he selects the ring, choosing a diamond (his intended's birthstone), and a sapphire (his birthstone). I had nearly finished the scene when I realized there was a problem: my main character has amnesia. He doesn't know who he is, where he's from, or anything about himself, so how would he know when his birthday was? Oops!

What do you do when you still have approximately 12,000 words left to write before you can upload your story, and you run into a problem? At this stage of the game, I had three choices. Delete the past hour's work and start over, have him suddenly recover a convenient portion of his memory, or keep writing and "fix" the problem during revisions after NaNo is over. Since one of the "rules" of NaNo is "NO EDITING," I decided to keep going and solve the problem when I do the revisions in January.

Even with the little "glitch" this afternoon, it was still a very productive day. I managed to add another 4000+ words to my total, with another 7,384 to go. So, my goal is to write another 4,000 Saturday, finish on Sunday, and upload the novel for word count verification on Monday before midnight. In the meantime, my story is building to its climax, and I can't wait to see what's going to happen.

Have you run into similar problems while writing your stories? Have you discovered inconsistencies in your plot, found that something you included in your story didn't exist until a later time period, or suddenly realized you'd changed the name of one of your characters without realizing it? Such things happen to us all, and that's where a good editor comes in; but that will be another topic for another day.

If you're participating in NaNoWriMo, writing furiously to finish your story before the end of the day on November 30, don't panic. Take a deep breath, keep writing, and remember that this is a first draft, and all its imperfections and inconsistencies can be worked out during the revision process. For now, just keep writing and keep the finish line in view.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Day Twenty-Six: Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of the day, I thought I'd share the one-paragraph Thanksgiving story I recently submitted to a contest. It didn't win, but it did get read and tied for fourth place.

Tom shivered in the chilly November wind, a worried look etched on his face as he realized his friends were disappearing, one by one. He'd heard rumors all his life about Big Jack and what he did to you when you reached a certain age--the atrocities he allegedly committed; but didn't Big Jack take care of them? And wasn't it he who provided their sustenance, who tended to them when they were sick, who gave them shelter? No one knew for sure what really happened when Big Jack singled you out because no one had ever come back; but what he'd overheard Little Jack tell Annie yesterday had made his blood run cold. Kind of hard to believe someone who seemed so caring could also be such a heartless monster. Still, as the day wore on, and more and more of his friends took that one-way trip wrapped in Big Jack's arms, Tom's fears grew. "Gotta keep my head," he thought, "--try to think of a way to survive. " It was almost supper time now, and he saw Big Jack walking in his direction. Very nonchalantly, Tom began to ease to the rear of the nervous, dwindling group gathered in the yard. "If he doesn't see me, if I can just make it through the day, I'll be okay," he thought as he suddenly found himself pressed up against the rough siding of the building. No time left to run, no place to hide, his heart sank as he resigned himself to his fate. Gathering his courage, he vowed not to cry out as Big Jack scooped him up in his arms, held him close, and said, "Yes, Tom, you'll make a fine Thanksgiving dinner."

[Can you find the secret word hidden in this story? If you think you know what it is, post your answer in the comments. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving--but keep your head.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Day Twenty-Five: Traditions in Transition, and a Recipe for You

Today, I wanted to take time out from talking about NaNoWriMo and writing, to share something on a more personal level. I've been thinking a lot about family traditions lately--maybe because some of ours are changing. As children grow up, move away from home, get married, parents grow older or pass away, the family constellation changes and so do some of our traditions. Some of the old ones no longer seem to "fit," or are impossible to continue, and new ones take their place. Yet there is always something that we cherish and pass on to the next generation.

On a trip to Virginia, when our children were little, we stayed with friends and experienced grits, red eye gravy, and monkey bread--all for the first time. The first two were not met with much enthusiasm by our children, but the monkey bread was an unequivocal hit with everyone and became our traditional Thanksgiving breakfast. Why it's called "Monkey Bread," our hosts couldn't tell us. I'll include the recipe at the end of this post so you can try it and perhaps it will become one of your traditions, too.

As for dinner, of course, the center of attraction is the turkey. In my family, we always made a bread stuffing; but when I met my husband, his family made a meat-based dressing. When I became gluten-intolerant several years ago and could no longer have bread stuffing (I tried it with gluten-free bread, and it just wasn't the same), I was very grateful we had added this tradition from my in-laws. Of course our kids all wanted Stove Top, so that, too, became a staple at our holiday dinners.

When my daughter Jen was in nursery school, she learned how to make homemade butter. This has been present on our Thanksgiving table for more than three decades, though it may be missing tomorrow since Jen will be with her husband's family for the holiday this year and I may not have the time or energy to make it. The butter was for pumpkin bread, which my mother used to make. Now, my son-in-law Louie has taken over this part of the meal, and does an excellent job of it, too.

We've even made a change in the squash, buying some that has already been peeled and cut into chunks (when we can find it). Davy and Sarah used to cut this up for me after I began having some problems with my hands; but when they're not here, we appreciate the convenience of buying it ready to just toss in the kettle, and are thankful for those who prepared it. I still make the boiled onions from scratch, though, because I don't like the flavor of the canned ones.

Several years ago, as our family grew through marriage, everyone decided to contribute to the meal so I wouldn't have to do all the work of getting a huge dinner by myself. Jen had tried a new potato recipe, "Cheesy Potatoes," and brought that as part of her contribution. They were a huge success, and were immediately voted in as a new "tradition." She has brought them many times since, and the dish has always been emptied by the end of dinner with one exception. Last year, the potatoes exploded! The glass casserole dish had been set on the glass-top stove, and no one noticed that one of the burners was on. Thankfully, it happened while we were at the other end of the room, and no one was injured, though it did take out two nearby pies. She made the potatoes again for Christmas dinner (by popular demand), and this time there were no unwanted surprises.

My daughter Sarah began a new tradition for us when she was in Girl Scouts and learned to make homemade cranberry sauce--super simple, super delicious! We also include the canned jellied cranberry sauce on the table's tradition! (I can hear Tevye breaking into song right about now. Tevye is the patriarch of the family in "Fiddler on the Roof.")

I always made at least three pies: an apple, a pumpkin, and sometimes a banana cream. Now, I make pumpkin custard (pie minus the crust), and Sarah (or my daughter-in-law Tracy, before she and Davy moved to Chicago) makes the apple pie. My mother always made a big fruit salad with both fresh and canned fruit, and fresh whipped cream and cherries on top. Now, that has fallen to me, only this year we're having it at Christmas instead.

And what would Thanksgiving Day be without the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? We always used to get up and watch the pre-parade show at 9 a.m., then the parade itself from 10-noon. In recent years, I haven't always been able to watch all of it, but try to at least catch the last hour. Another relatively new tradition we added was watching the National Dog Show, sponsored by Purina, right after the parade. We're able to do this because, for several years, we have shifted our Thanksgiving dinner from noon to 4 or 5 p.m.

About five years ago, we had a very different Thanksgiving--one I'm glad did NOT become a tradition. I ended up in the hospital over the holiday! The doctors and nurses were very nice, and after a couple of false starts the kitchen finally sent up a turkey dinner that was gluten-free, but I much prefer being home. It was definitely our quietest celebration, and the only year I didn't do any of the cooking.

This year, Sarah and Louie will be with us, Jen and Kreig will be with his family but will call us, and Davy and Tracy will be home in Chicago having dinner with friends, and will talk with us on ooVoo later in the day. We may not all be able to be physically present with each other, but we will be in touch with each other and share at least part of our day via phone or computer.

In reading this over, I realize just how many of our traditions have changed over the years; yet the important things remain: keeping in touch with family and friends, taking time to give thanks for our blessings, and remembering to keep glass casserole dishes off hot stove burners.

What is your favorite Thanksgiving tradition? Have some of your traditions changed? Have you added new ones? Please share in the comments section. And have a very happy Thanksgiving!

Here's that Monkey Bread recipe I promised:

1 1/2 sticks of butter or margarine
1 1/2 cups of brown sugar
1 Tablespoon of cinnamon
4 cans of refrigerated biscuits
1/2 cup of chopped nuts (optional)

Cut biscuits into quarters.
Melt butter or margarine in a saucepan, add brown sugar and cinnamon. Heat until sugar is dissolved.
Place cut biscuits into a greased 4-inch tube pan, deep casserole dish, or oblong pan.
Pour the brown sugar mixture over biscuits and toss to coat biscuit pieces. Sprinkle nuts on top (if using).
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

[Note: This recipe is NOT gluten-free. To convert it, make biscuits from scratch using gluten-free flour, and use gluten-free brown sugar.]

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Day Twenty-four: Heading Into the Homestretch

Today is the first day of the final week of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). We have struggled through figuring out what to write about, coming up with a title, creating an effective "hook" (hopefully) so that readers will want to read our work, constructing a plot, and have been fleshing out the story with interesting descriptions, compelling dialog and action, and multi-dimensional characters. We have watched our protagonists start out with a problem to overcome, or go on a quest or voyage, face a monster (whether literal or figurative), or some other challenge. We have watched as they struggle through these challenges, sometimes failing, sometimes victorious, while experiencing personal growth. We have met their families, their friends, their enemies; we know their strengths and weaknesses, their flaws and foibles. Sometimes, they have taken us in unexpected directions, or stumbled upon an additional problem we hadn't foreseen. Now, we are reaching the climax of the story, and soon our characters will have their happy ending -- or not.

Some openly admit to hating their stories, but keep writing because they just don't want to give up. Some love their stories, and could write (or have written) more than the required 50,000 words. Some intend to never look at their stories again, while others will pursue the dream of getting theirs published, eventually.

As with some of our characters, not all participants will make it to the end. Indeed, some have already fallen by the wayside for various reasons: the intrusion of life's responsibilities--expected or unexpected, sickness--our own or that of a loved one, writer's block, plot knots that refused to be untangled, or computer problems that left us so far behind we felt it impossible to catch up. Some have finished early, having logged their 50,000 words several days or even a week ago, and can now bask in their assured victory. And then there are the rest of us, doggedly racing on, whether trying to catch up or right on target, determined to reach that finish line, to see our word count bars turn green, and receive the "WINNER" designation and all its attendant glory.

Wherever you are in the process, whatever the outcome, I hope you will have learned something along the way that will help you in your future efforts as a writer. Or, you may have discovered that writing is just not your thing, and that's fine, too, as one of my fellow NaNoer's said when I interviewed her. I'd like to share with you a few things that I have learned through the experience this year.

For one thing, I've learned that I need a schedule. NaNoWriMo has given me the structure of having to get a set number of words written each day. I seriously doubt I'll continue to write nearly 1700 words a day after NaNo is over; but I will contract with myself to either write a set number of words or write for a specified period of time on specific days, if not every day.

Another thing I've discovered is that I need a writing buddy and contact with other writers. I already belong to several writing groups online, plan to join a couple of "real time" groups, and have arranged with one of my NaNo buddies to continue our mutual support beyond November. It's important to have some kind of support system in place, at least for me, it is. I need someone to talk to about the struggles and joys of writing, to share ideas with, to discover new techniques, and to help each other grow and learn and develop our craft. I also need the wisdom of experienced writers who have traveled the path before me, who can share their wisdom, set a standard to strive for, and help me avoid some of the pitfalls.

I also realized I need to strive for balance. During NaNoWriMo, writing takes over pretty much everything. But to maintain a healthy mental and physical life, there must be time for other people and other things. I plan to enjoy the holidays with my family, and to have regular get-togethers with my children and their spouses throughout the year. I need to spend time with my husband, and support him in his artistic goals as he supports me in mine. I need to spend time with my animals, giving them the attention they so richly deserve for all the joy and love and humor they bring into my life on a daily basis. I need to keep in touch with friends, both inside and outside of the writing community. I need to properly nourish my physical body as well as my spiritual body, and I need to exercise both so they can be as strong and healthy as possible. And I need to connect with the natural world, the plants and animals that share this planet with me, and to enjoy the beauty of its physical features -- its lakes, rivers, mountains.

In closing, I just want to encourage all those who are still pressing on toward the goal to keep on, don't give up, hang in there. We're in the homestretch, and the finish line isn't far ahead. Let's cross it together.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Day Twenty-three: When Writing is a Pain

The writing process can sometimes be a "pain," for example, when you run into that "wall" I mentioned a couple of days ago, or you have trouble controlling your characters, or your computer crashes and you lose the last chapter you'd just written and have to reconstruct it, or you're in the last week of NaNoWriMo and you're still introducing new characters, story lines, and plot twists instead of heading toward the climax of the conflict and preparing to write the ending.

Yes, those are all problematic, but what I'm referring to is physical pain. When you're under the gun, trying to write a novel in thirty days, you spend a lot of time at the computer. That can wreck havoc with certain parts of your anatomy. Here are some suggestions that may help you minimize computer stress and its painful side effects. Let's start at the top and work down.

The Neck: If you become engrossed in what you're writing, you may not notice your posture and that can cause neck pain. The head is positioned on the spinal column, but they're connected at the back of the neck. So, when you keep your head bent forward and down, out of alignment, for extended periods of time, the weight of the head (approximately 8-12 lb.) pulls on the muscles in your neck causing muscle strain and stiffness. This can also affect the shoulders and neck. To combat this, adjust your monitor so that you can look at it without having to bend your neck at more than a 15-degree angle. Place the monitor or laptop on a stand to raise it to a comfortable level if it's too low.

The Eyes: Looking at a monitor for too long at a time can cause eye strain and make your eyes feel dry, itchy, tired, sore, and cause blurred distance vision. To help avoid this, make sure you position the monitor so there is no glare either from a lamp or from the sun shining in the window. If the screen is too bright, adjust the brightness to a slightly lower level. Try to maintain a distance of at least 20" between your eyes and the monitor. Periodically, look at something in the distance -- a picture on the wall, a tree outside that is a distance from your house, anything that allows your eyes a break from the closeness of the monitor. And be sure to keep your monitor's screen clean and free of dust and smudges.

The Shoulders: Tension often causes us to raise our shoulders without our even being aware that we're doing so; and poor posture can exacerbate the muscle strain that may already be there from the neck being out of alignment. Periodically, make a conscious effort to lower your shoulders. Take a few deep breaths, let your arms hang limp at your sides, and try a few shoulder rolls and shrugs to ease the tension and relax the shoulders.

The Arms and Hands: Improper positioning of the keyboard and mouse can cause serious wrist pain and carpal tunnel syndrome, often associated with repetitive stress injuries (RSI) including typing for extended periods of time. Adjust your chair so that you can reach the keyboard with your arms at your sides and slightly forward, and bent at a 90-degree angle. The wrists should be relaxed in a natural position, neither bent downward nor upward. Use your chair's armrests and a wrist pad to support your wrists if you have them. Touch the keys on the keyboard lightly. Take periodic breaks from typing, and if your wrist are painful, stop.

The Back: Slouching, bending at the chest, sitting with one shoulder elevated above the other, twisting, leaning sideways, and bending at the waist can all cause muscle fatigue, stress, and eventually, strain. When sitting at the computer, keep your back supported, especially the lumbar curve. Your back should be straight (neither bent forward, nor flattened against the chair) and the ribcage should be lifted so you can easily take a deep breath. If you bend forward, bend from the hips slightly, keeping your upper body in proper alignment. Get up about every half hour and do some stretches, move around the room, or take a short walk.

The Legs: Sitting for extended periods of time, crossing one leg over the other, or sitting in a chair that is not properly adjusted for your height can cause cramping, tingling, and swelling in the legs and feet. First, be sure your chair is adjusted so that your feet are flat on the floor in front of you or slightly forward. If the chair can't be adjusted, use a footrest, a low stool, or a couple of books to elevate your feet so your legs and back are at a 90-degree angle, and your knees are the same. Again, take periodic breaks to stand and walk around to get your circulation going.

Hopefully, these suggestions will help take the pain out of writing, and allow it to be the pleasure it is supposed to be.

[Disclaimer: The material contained in this post is for informational purposes only, and is not to be construed as medical advice. If you are experiencing any of the above mentioned problems, consult with your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment.]