Kill Your Bucket List

American jazz musician and composer, Miles Davis, once said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” In a world where many people can’t afford to feed their kids, statements like this used to make my eyes roll. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to agree with him.

Over the past couple of months, two close friends of mine from college have been diagnosed with cancer. Neither of their prognoses are good. Because the three of us are the same age, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I still want to accomplish in my life, as well as about the ways in which I spend my time.

Like many people, for most of my adult life I’ve had a “bucket list” mentality. That is the tendency to divide the things I need or want to do into two categories: “things I have to get done now” and “things I plan to do at some later time.” The former category usually includes tasks like writing magazine articles, grocery shopping, and folding the laundry, while the second encompasses activities like hiking in Scotland, reading the stack of novels on my bedside table, visiting old friends, and finally finishing the three book manuscripts currently living on my hard drive.

I never saw a problem with this until recently. When, after all, is “later?” And what would I have to show for myself, and my life, if I were suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, unable to walk or talk or write another word? The answer, of course, is not the one I want.

The good news is that I still have time (knock on wood). I’m in the process of trying to figure out what work I can afford to turn down, and what household chores I can put off or delegate in order to make my bucket list my to-do list.

I don’t think it will be easy. It’s difficult to break old habits. And it’s even harder to ignore the voice in my head that tells me I’m being irresponsible if I choose to hike up a mountain instead of mowing the lawn.

Miles Davis died suddenly at the age of 65. It’s something that happens all the time. On an intellectual level, we know we are finite. But ours is a culture that eschews talking or even thinking about death. I think we need to start, though. Admitting to ourselves that we won’t be here forever, on a daily basis if necessary, is the best way I can think of to get the really important stuff done.

ENP

Upcoming Author Reading and Q&A

I’ll be reading excerpts from The Blue Bottle and chatting with readers on Oct. 9 at 4 p.m. at the Lowell Book Company, located in Mill No. 5 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Register for the event on the store’s website and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of the book. Admission is free.

I’m looking forward to seeing you!

ENP

Brick & Mortar

Like most people, I haven’t gotten out much over the past 18 months. Most of the things I’ve needed or wanted to buy I’ve purchased online. At first, this was because the stores where we live were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but even after they reopened it was often difficult to find what I was looking for.

Last weekend, my husband and I hiked Mount Equinox in Manchester, Vermont. While we were in town we visited the Northshire Bookstore. It had been a long time since I’d been in an actual bookstore, especially a well stocked and curated independent one. There are few brick and mortar bookstores around these days. Even big chains like Barnes & Noble have closed many of their shops.

Northshire is an amazing place. They have thousands of books on dozens of subjects, not to mention novels, poetry, biographies, short story collections, memoirs, coffee table books, travel guides, art and photography books, children’s picture books, rare first editions, and cookbooks. We ended up being in there for couple of hours.

As I was wandering around the store, I remembered why I love bookstores so much: Just being there, around people who also enjoy reading and learning, gave me a sense of belonging that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Although the other customers and the store employees were strangers, we all had something essential in common. It’s the same feeling I’ve always gotten in bookstores, but I’d completely forgotten what it was like.

The other amazing thing was that being in the store actually helped me think. Ever since COVID-19 took hold, my thoughts have been jumbled. I’ve had a lot of trouble concentrating on my writing, and most other things, too. Even reading for more than a few minutes has been challenging at times. At Northshire, though, I found myself actually coming up with ideas for novels, stories, and articles. Subjects I’d never considered reading about piqued my interest.

Maybe it was from being around all those printed words, but I was also reminded that everything we do or make begins as an idea. After nearly two years of feeling like my brain was in low gear, the possibilities suddenly seem endless.

Two independent bookstores have recently opened in the city where we live, Lala Books and Lowell Book Company. I haven’t been to either of them yet, but I think I’m going to visit both of them soon.

ENP

Note: My book, The Blue Bottle, is available at Lowell Book Company. I’ll be doing an author signing at the store on Oct. 9. Check back for more details.

Everyday Magic

Back in the early summer, my husband and I went for a hike at the state forest near our house. We’ve been there many times, during every season, and know the woodland pretty well. Along our regular route, there’s a side trail that leads to a ledge overlooking a pond. We don’t always visit the ledge, but this day we did. The first thing I noticed was a pile of what looked like white balloon skins. After looking more closely, I discovered a few more piles, all of them beside shallow holes dug into the sandy soil. Then it dawned on me: turtles! We had come across a nursery where mother turtles had laid their eggs in the spring. The baby turtles had recently hatched, leaving their egg casings behind.

It was amazing to me that we’d been to that exact spot so many times and had never noticed how alive it was.

Magic is everywhere if you’re open to seeing it. Sometimes it’s in the way the sun reflects off our birdbath, creating a dancing globe of light on the tree behind it. It’s in the miniature green bees that visit my garden, the pollinating insects almost too small for me to see without my glasses. There’s magic in a toddler’s smile, and in the look of delight on their face when you smile back.

A couple of weeks before we discovered the turtle hatchery, we were at the same state forest by the same pond, but in a different spot. My husband pointed to an oak limb stretching out over the water. “Look at that bird,” he said. “It’s huge.” An adult barred owl was perched on the branch, its eyes trained on the the pond. As we stood and watched, the owl swooped down and grabbed something just below the surface with its talons and flew up into the canopy, never making a sound.

Just yesterday, Rob and I were on the porch at Mount Holyoke’s Summit House, a 19th century hotel in Hadley, Massachusetts, that is today a museum and visitors center. Looking down at a flower bed below where we were standing, I spotted a tiny iridescent green bird bouncing from blossom to blossom. The hummingbird made several trips to the flowers, stopping occasionally to rest on top of a nearby fence. Several people walked right past the little jewel, most of them much closer to the bird than I was, but they were all too preoccupied to notice him. On the hummer’s final trip between the flower bed and the fence, he flew up to the spot where I was standing and landed briefly on the railing beside me. It was as if he knew I’d been watching him.

If you’re quiet and pay close attention to your surroundings, there’s almost no limit to the magical things you can find. I used to think I needed to travel the world to find inspiring, wonderful things to help mitigate life’s hardships and disappointments, and help me come up with ideas for my writing, but that’s not the case at all. Everything I need is wherever I happen to be.

The River Is Everywhere

I’m happy to report that I have recently signed a publication agreement with Vine Leaves Press for the publication of my second novel, The River Is Everywhere, which will be released in February 2022.

Literary fiction with hints of magical realism, The River Is Everywhere is set in the Massachusetts Berkshires and New Brunswick, Canada. It is the coming of age story of Ernest Benoit, a high school honors student from a devout Catholic Franco-American family, whose life is set on an unexpected and challenging path after his best friend, John Delaney, drowns while they are surfing together on Cape Cod.

John’s death makes Ernest question everything he once believed in, most especially God. He stops attending Mass and gets into trouble at school, but rather than going along with his parents’ plan to transfer him to an elite all-boys boarding school, Ernest buys a bus ticket to New York.

After surviving a fiery crash on the way to the city, Ernest saves a 7-year-old girl from drowning. While attempting to reunite the girl with her birth mother, a lonely middle-aged woman named Ann who had given them a place to stay lures Ernest into her bed. When Ann threatens them with a gun to prevent them from leaving, CL manages to remove the ammunition clip from the weapon, and they escape into the night.

The next morning, exhausted and chilled to the bone, Ernest and the girl, who he nicknames CL, meet Roland Laliberté, a modern-day adventurer and coureur des bois who makes a living playing poker, can shoot a bottle cap out of a tree from 50 yards away, and lives in a handmade log cabin with a tame black bear named Maurice.

Roland treats Ernest like a son, teaching him how to shoot a rifle, hunt for food, and drive a car. When Ann falsely accuses Ernest of rape, Roland sneaks him and CL over the Canadian border to protect Ernest from the police until the allegations can be proved untrue. But as Ernest settles into life on Roland’s family’s farm, it soon it becomes unclear who has saved whom, and whether Ernest will ever be able to return home.

Comfort vs. Enlightenment

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” —Pablo Picasso

I read an article recently about a California school district that banned several works of classic literature from its curriculum after parents complained that the books made their kids uncomfortable. All the banned books, which included Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, deal in some way with the ugly history of racism in America.

Among parents who filed complaints about the books was an African-American mother whose daughter had been subjected to racially charged taunts by a white student who said he was inspired to do so after reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. This is, of course, completely unacceptable as well as a remarkably sad indicator of the backwards belief system that many white people in this country are still holding onto for dear life.

But while I understand this mother’s desire to protect her daughter and other students from further trauma, I would also argue that this incident is solid proof that these books need to be read and discussed.

After the books were banned, PEN America, a nonprofit that works to defend free expression and promote literary culture, released a statement saying, in part, “Blocking engagement with these important books is also avoiding the important role that schools can and should play in providing context for why these books inspire and challenge us still today.”

You don’t need to be an English lit major to know that the point of these books is to make people uncomfortable. They are designed to make us think critically about our past and current beliefs and actions, the state of our society and culture, and what can and should be done to make the country we live in a better place for everyone who lives in it, now and in the future.

If we don’t understand the history of racism in America, we will never be able to have a productive discussion about the racism that exists here and now. Only once we are out our comfort zones are we are truly free to consider new ideas and other people’s points of view, and to examine what our own roles have been in perpetuating poisonous belief systems and ideas.

We as a society have gotten used to having the ability to selectively filter out news and information we don’t agree with, or that we find upsetting in some way. We are quick to vilify and criticize people who say and believe things that conflict with our own ideas. But art and literature can and should be a bridge that spans the raging river that divides us—a safe pathway that can lead to constructive discussion and practical solutions if we are only brave enough cross it.

The white student who made those racial taunts (and likely his parents) is responsible for his own actions. His morally reprehensible behavior was not the fault of the book he was reading. He used Mildred Taylor’s masterpiece as an excuse for behavior he likely would have exhibited anyway.

We need to ask ourselves: Do we want our young people to develop critical thinking skills that will enable them to become good citizens and work toward making our society a better, more tolerant and just place? Or are we OK with future generations of Americans shying away from the difficult tasks that must be tackled in order for us to live up to the ideals that America supposedly stands for?

Art holds a key to the truth. We need more of it, not less.

Summertime

I swapped out my flannel sheets for the regular cotton kind this morning, which means that warm weather is here to stay, at least for a few months. Being a New Englander and avid year-round hiker, I don’t really mind winter or the cold. In fact, I’m not really at my best when the temperature outside gets above 80. This year, though, I’m really looking forward to summer.

I’m sure I don’t need to go into all the ways that 2020 was a complete drag. It was for just about everyone, except maybe for Jeff Bezos. But there were some lowlights: My mom died. My daughter’s college graduation was canceled. The U.S./Canadian border was closed. I was furloughed from my editing job for six months, and I found myself unable to concentrate on just about anything. Even though I had plenty of free time, I didn’t write a word that didn’t have a hard deadline attached to it, including updates for this website.

But summer is on its way. Flowers are blooming. My family and I are fully vaccinated, and I feel hopeful about the future for the first time almost 18 months.

Thanks for hanging on with me. I hope this summer brings you nothing but sunshine and happiness. Stay tuned for more in the near future.

Reading With Kids During Quarantine Promotes Active, Engaged Learning

No matter where you live, you’ve most likely been affected by COVID-19 in some way. Tasked with working remotely while also helping their kids with online school assignments, parents who are quarantined with young children might be in one of the toughest situations. With many U.S. states announcing that schools will be closed for the remainder of the academic year, parents must find activities that will keep their kids entertained and engaged, while also helping them learn. For many, this is proving to be quite a challenge.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, reading with children interactively on a daily basis can help kids develop important literacy and language skills, while also helping them learn about the world around them. Reading with your kids is also a great way to spend quality time together and create lasting memories.

Several online resources are available to help kids (and parents) get easier access to books during quarantine, including Penguin Random House Audio, LibriVox, Project Gutenberg and International Children’s Digital Library.

For a limited time my middle grade novel, The Blue Bottle, an adventure story for kids age 8 to 13, is available for 50 percent off the cover price.

Stay healthy, and happy reading!

 

“Atlantic Currents” Now Available

Atlantic Currents, a short story collection featuring work by 65 writers linked to Cork, Ireland, and Lowell, Mass., is now available from Loom Press. I’m proud to have my short story “Death and the Modern Girl” included in the book alongside those of so many talented writers.

The book is meant to celebrate the connection between Cork and Lowell as UNESCO Global Network Learning Cities. Learning Cities support the practice of lifelong learning by promoting policy dialogue and peer education.

A book launch event will be held at some point in the (hopefully) near future, when the danger of contracting Covid19 has passed.

Visit Loom Press’ website for ordering information.

Résonance Volume 2

I’m proud to have my short story The Dinner Party included in the second issue of the University of Maine Orono’s literary journal, Résonance, published last week. My work appears alongside that of several notable writers, including Paul Marion, David Vermette, Elizabeth N. Kadetsky and Ernest Hebert. The fiction editor quoted my story twice in her introduction. I can’t think of anything more validating for a writer.
Check the issue out if you have time. There is a lot of great stuff in it.