Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The woods were lovely, dark and deep....'til we arrived

“The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep,” I said to myself as I looked out the bedroom window across the berm and into the trails of the state park while getting ready for work this morning.

Except that unlike Robert Frost’s woods on a snowy evening, the woods weren’t dark, because it was only 10 a.m. Just lovely and deep.

And the only promise I had to keep at the moment was the one to be at the office in another three hours, since I was working a half-day.

The woods are lovely and deep, I said to myself, retrofitting the poem to my own circumstances, and the promise I have to keep is the one that I would try to be more direct in pursuing the things I want, rather than expecting them to fall into my lap. It was the closest thing I had to a New Year’s resolution for 2014, and two days before the first of the New Year, it hung over my head as I looked out at the bare trees and snowy ground cover.

It’s a perfect day for a walk in the woods, I told myself, contradicting the sentiment of the Frost poem that had come to me so easily. Because we’ve gone more than a week without fresh snow, the trails in the state park are temporarily closed to skiers, which means walkers and even dogs are welcome there. The temperature was a comfortable mid-30s, with predictions of colder weather to come, along with more snow, which would mean the trails would be restricted to skiers once again.

If ever there was a winter morning for walking in the snowy woods, I told myself, this is it.

But it wasn’t just me. I wanted the kids to come along also. And they are not generally winter hiking enthusiasts.

I pitched it to them the same way I had ultimately pitched it to myself. Limited opportunities for using the trails in the winter. Nothing else on the schedule. Not too cold.

And then I pleaded a little bit. “I really really really want to do this,” I told them. “It would be a big favor to me.”

But it turned out I might not have had to work quite that hard, because they shrugged and said once they were done with breakfast, they’d go.

Just as I’d imagined from the bedroom window, it was a beautiful day to be in the woods. The snow was packed and crunchy underfoot, the air crisp but not too cold.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t quite the walk I imagined. Not the walk I would have taken by myself, anyway. I imagined trekking quietly through the snow, immersing ourselves in the beauty of winter, but that’s not how my kids roll. Or rather, that’s not how my kids hike. There were piggy backs and horseplay; deliberate slipping and sliding and innocuous collisions. There were shouts of “Oh no, wolves!” delivered in falsettos of mock horror. There was much hilarity over the challenge of fastening the dog’s new winter coat around her torso and not letting her shake it off.

Their style of hiking is different from mine. Ideally I probably would have had it both ways: their company, but also the meditative silence and observance of nature with which I like to tromp through the woods.

Instead, I got their company, the walk I wanted, and a good deal of shrieking, shoving, laughing and chasing.

Which was fine also. To any other abutters of the state park, looking out their own bedroom windows and contemplating a winter walk, the woods may have seemed a little less lovely, dark and deep with the three of us plus the dog flailing and cavorting our way through.

But it was a good walk nonetheless. Because the woods really are lovely, dark and deep. And I felt very lucky to be making my way through them, along with two kids and a dog, this morning.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Taking a blog vacation. Happy holidays all!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Critical reviews

Rick wasn’t crazy about our Christmas poem this year.

It was bound to happen. Every December since 1992, which was the year we got married, I’ve cranked out a Christmas newsletter comprising about eight to twelve stanzas of rhyming pentameter, covering the events of the past year for us.

Initially, it was a lark, just something I thought would be fun for our first Christmas together. And there was plenty to tell that year: our wedding, the arrival of our first niece, our honeymoon in Venezuela, a trip to Colorado, a new job for Rick. And somehow I was able to make all of it rhyme.

Some years it was more difficult than others, but every year I managed to come up with something. This year, too, though I had to confess in the course of the poem that it hadn’t been a particularly eventful year – but that sometimes an uneventful year suits us just fine. The kids are well-established in school, happy and doing well academically; Rick and I both have plenty of work and plenty to do in our downtime. No safaris, cruises or mountain treks to describe; no major life changes to touch upon. And that’s fine with us.

Still, Rick didn’t think it was a very good poem, when it was done. But I didn’t really mind. After nearly 25 years as a professional writer under one guise or another, I’m pretty thick-skinned. Not everything I write resonates with everyone. Most of the editors I currently work with tend to offer very little criticism of my work, but I don’t necessarily see that as an altogether good thing, knowing it’s mostly because we’ve worked together long enough that I know just what they like.

And criticism can come from various places: not just editors and not just bosses. Last year a local realtor asked me to write a marketing piece for her, describing a historic property that was up for sale. I worked on it for days, and the realtor was delighted with the results, but one of my closest friends visited the property during the open house and said afterwards, not knowing I’d written the marketing materials, “The house is wonderful, but the brochure didn’t do it justice at all.”

I couldn’t really understand why she didn’t like it, and I don’t really know why Rick wasn’t too fond of this year’s Christmas poem. But in a paradoxical way, sometimes this kind of criticism makes me happy, because it reminds me that I’ve reached a point in my life and in my writing career when I understand that not everyone will like everything – and that one off-the-mark piece doesn’t make me an incompetent writer. It’s subjective, and I don’t take it to heart when someone doesn’t like something I’ve written.

On the other hand, it’s always useful to listen to people’s criticism and learn from it. I don’t have to impress or please every reader with every piece of writing, but I’d rather write marketing copy that my friends find appealing, and I’d rather write a Christmas poem that Rick considers an engaging reflection of our year.

So being thick-skinned is good in my profession, but been attuned to feedback is as well. I’ve learned a lot from pieces I’ve written that have been well-received, but I’ve probably learned more from those that haven’t. I put effort into everything I write. And sometimes it’s invaluable to learn, through negative feedback, how that same amount of effort might have been better used. And how I might be able to do better next time.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Wreathed in holiday spirit

“I should at least have put a wreath on the door,” I thought with mild remorse as I drove home one day last week.

It was two hours until I was hosting our annual holiday cookie exchange, to which all the guests bring homemade holiday cookies and we each take a few of each other’s cookies until everyone has a variegated combination of treats. (The idea is to then have cookies at the ready to serve for any holiday gatherings that take place in the upcoming weeks, but most guests have confessed that their families eat the collected cookies within a day or two of the party.)

Still the first week of December, it seemed to me to be too early to decorate the house, and it didn’t bother me at all that we didn’t yet have a tree, because of all the watering and sweeping that putting up a Christmas tree requires. “But I should have at least picked up a wreath over the weekend,” I told myself.

But when I entered the house, I stumbled into a coincidence. “Look what Mary and Pat sent!” Tim said, pointing to the kitchen table. It was a Christmas wreath, lush and large and fragrant with pine needles, a red velvet bow encircling the dark green boughs.

Merely taking it out of the box to see what the mystery package concealed, as the kids had apparently done before I arrived home from work, had already caused a shower of needles to blanket the floor, but I didn’t mind sweeping them up. Once I’d done that, we all marched to the door and put the wreath on the hook that was still there from last year.

Hanging a wreath is a perhaps inordinately important gesture to me. Our house is not visible to passersby on the street, regardless of whether they are driving or walking, and in some ways that can be a cop-out when it comes to seasonal decorating. Why bother with jack-o-lanterns, Christmas lights or even spring flowers if no one but us will see them?, I reason when I don’t feel like going to the extra trouble and expense that any of these frills would require.

But at other times, I regret the fact that even when we make the effort, no one really gets the chance to appreciate it. We don’t even use the front door ourselves; we go in and out through the garage most of the time. Putting up a wreath is, in a way, the “If a tree falls in the forest” equivalent of home d├ęcor. Why do it if no one will see it?

This same question causes minor friction in our household when it comes to cleaning. My husband Rick believes in cleaning the house only if we’re expecting guests, whereas I believe in the value of cleaning just so that the four of us can enjoy a clean house. (His attitude does not extrapolate to eating well only when we have company, though. He’s happy for me to prepare good meals no matter how few of us are present to enjoy it.)

And really, the idea that no one will see our wreath brings up a larger issue for me: just how easy it is to insulate ourselves from society. I sometimes think I’d be happier with a regular stream of people walking, driving or biking past our front door. Living in the woods amidst the trees, deer and owls is picturesque, serene, and often blissful, but sometimes I regret not having more humanity around.

Nonetheless, this was the evening of the annual cookie exchange, and by coincidence, it was also the day that a gift mail-ordered by my aunts, who live two thousand miles away and didn’t even know about the party, had arrived. The wreath would be on the door just in time to greet our guests.

None of the guests even mentioned it. A wreath on a front door in December hardly bears comment, after all. But I knew it was there. And to me, just knowing that made the annual party perfect.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Peaceful and joyful

Not long after Halloween, a friend described her daughter practicing Christmas carols on the piano. "I know this is early, but it sounds so peaceful and joyful," she wrote.

Perhaps this is true of all writers, but certain words catch my ear in a particular way: a simple phrase that, when dissected, can't possibly be original or unique, but somehow hits me as if it is. "Peaceful and joyful" – it may not quite bear the resonance of t.s. eliot’s "When the evening is spread out against the sky, Like a patient etherized upon a table" or Robert Frost’s "The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep" and yet their pairing jingled in my mind as pleasingly as the Christmas carols must have sounded to my friend when she wrote that.

Peace and joy are words that are often twinned in the holiday season, of course. And surely those two abstract nouns are among the most noble goals to which we might strive. But “peaceful and joyful” are a more tempered version. Adjectives, not nouns, and somehow more modest and relative in nature. Even when the absolutes of peace and joy seem impossibly out of reach, the adjectival forms seem possible: even if we haven’t achieved peace and joy on either the universal or the domestic level, an 11-year-old playing Christmas carols can still be deemed peaceful and joyful.

I liked the phrase so much I decided to adopt it as a holiday season mantra and resolved that everything I choose to do under the umbrella of the holiday season had to fit into one category or the other, or better still into both.

This isn't to say I expect the entire month of December to be peaceful and joyful for me. There are other things I'll still need to do -- like buying groceries, and folding laundry, and commuting to work -- that may seem neither peaceful or joyful. But anything I opt to do in the name of the holiday season -- any party I attend, any gift-buying excursion I embark upon, any hours spent creating the perfect holiday newsletter -- are hereby required to fit into at least one of the two categories.

It’s a little simplistic as a benchmark, I realize. Peace and joy should be hallmarks of everyone’s holiday season, and for that matter, everyone’s non-holiday season as well. And I’m sure I’ll still find myself standing in a long checkout line or baking Christmas cookies at midnight at some point this month, feeling neither peaceful nor joyful. But I still like those guidelines. Peaceful. Or joyful. Maybe even both. As a way of approaching the holiday season, it just sounds right.