Friday, April 29, 2011

Gardening as therapy

Mom holding Zach when he was a baby.

I have a love/hate relationship with April. Love because spring is finally here; I can get out of the house and into the garden (well, if it’s not raining). Everything is green and flowers are blooming everywhere you look. As someone who can’t stand being cooped up inside, April feels like God’s reward for enduring winter.

In addition, a lot of good things have happened for me in April. As a lot of you know, I was very sick when my first son was born 8 years ago. I went into the hospital on February 26th, 2003 and after doctors told my husband on at least three occasions that I probably wouldn’t live through the night, I finally came home on April 1st, 2003. I still remember inching my way up the steps, only to see Darby the Wonderdog wagging her tail and wiggling her whole body with joy when she saw me. I broke into tears right then, overwhelmed with joy to be alive and home.

Good things continued on April 16th, 2003 when Zach finally came home from the hospital. He was born 10 weeks early on March 12th, 2003 and weighted 2 lbs, 14 oz. Doctors told us he would probably stay in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) until sometime around his due date (May 22nd). He surprised everyone and came home 4 weeks earlier than expected.

Like I said—Good Things.

However, both of my parents died in April which makes the month feel bookended by grief. As I mentioned in an earlier post this month, my dad died on April 4, 2001. Three years ago, my mom died on April 25th, 2008. However, she lived alone and I didn’t find her until April 29th which makes today especially hard; therefore, in spite of the cloudy weather, I’m spending the day in the garden.

I feel like I’m part of something larger than myself when I’m in the garden. The physicality of garden pulls me outside of my head. Yanking weeds, planting seeds, digging sod all require a good amount of strength which means that for a little bit, I have peace. In addition, the repetitive nature of the work becomes meditative. It allows me to drift back and remember the every day moments I shared with my mom—like our trips to garden stores.

Both of my parents loved gardening. My father dug up a large part of their back yard to grow vegetables, and my mother loved container gardening with flowers. (Actually, I think she liked planning the containers and then looking at the flowers more than the work!) I am a mix of them both. Like my father, I actually enjoy working in the garden. But like my mother, I love flower gardening. Gardening lets me hold onto them a little longer. For that, I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Poetry publications!

I'm happy to announce that four of my poems have been accepted for publication by Poetry Quarterly! The poems: "Written on Rose Petals", "Unknotting String Theory", "Meeting Grace", and "An Autism Fairytale" were part of the book of poetry I wrote for my master's project.

Beyond the encouragement this provides (think Sally Fields--You like me! You really like me!), it puts me one step closer to finding a publisher for the entire manuscript. The process for publishing poetry is a little different than for fiction. Publishers of book length poetry want to see that you have a track record of placing the poems in the collection with literary journals before they'll take a chance on you.

As of now, a little over 10 percent of the manuscript has been published. WooHoo! I'm hoping that by this time next year, I will have found a publisher for the book.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Let’s get dirty!

My red jade crabapple tree last week.

Happy Good Friday! Happy Earth Day! Spend it in the garden! That’s right, it’s time for Friday in the Garden. Oh wait, you thought I meant the other kind of dirty….

Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk dirt. Good soil is the foundation of a beautiful garden. When I started gardening, I’d dig a hole, plop a plant in, and wonder why my flowers didn’t flourish. Now I sit back and shake my head at my young, na├»ve gardening self. Just like people, plants need the right conditions to grow big and strong. If you fed your children a steady diet of gum and potato chips their growth would probably be stunted right? Same thing here.

Good soil does several things. It provides nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It provides the proper ph level for your plants. And soil with the proper texture allows water, air, and plant roots to move properly.

If you have bad soil, you’ll have bad plants. It’s that simple. So, how do you know whether your soil is “good”? It’s pretty simple actually. If you’re just starting out, the absolute best thing to do is have your soil tested by your local county extension office. Most of them offer free or very cheap testing.

Collecting a sample is easy. In the area you plan to plant, collect several (I normally do 5-6 depending on the size of the site) thin, vertical slices or hunks of soil about 4-6 inches deep with a garden spade. You need about one cup of soil. Mix the samples together and transfer it to a plastic container. Take it to your extension office. Then sit back and wait. It normally takes about a month to get the report back so plan accordingly.

Once you get the report back, you can talk to your extension agent and she will help you figure out how to amend your soil. (Adding organic matter, peat moss, compost, manure, etc. It’s different depending on your soil.)

Here’s what I normally do. First, remove the sod. My husband likes to skip this step. He simply tills up the grass and leaves it in the bed. This makes me crazy! I spend all summer yanking grass out of my flower beds. Trust me. Do yourself a favor and Remove the Sod.

I convinced Steve to Remove The Sod from a bed we dug last fall for spring bulbs.

Because I live in Kentucky and have thick clay soil, I till composted manure into the soil to create a nice loamy texture. DO NOT add sand to clay thinking that will improve the texture of your soil. It won’t. You’ll end up with cement-like soil.

Finally, plant your flowers and cover with a 2 inch layer of mulch to discourage weeds. Then sit back and enjoy!

The same bed last week, bursting with blushing lady tulips and grape hyacinths.

It’s a little more work upfront, but trust me, you’re saving yourself a lot of work later. Plus, your plants will thank you!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Introducing Mary Anne Reese!

One of my poet friends on the radio reading her poem, Strangers in the Night.

Mary Anne is a fantastic poet and her recent chapbook, Raised by Water is available from Finishing Line Press. (Scroll down, books are listed alphabetically by the author's last name.) Make sure you check her out! Mary Anne is a poet to watch.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

You might be a writer if...

So. Tired. From. Storms.

Last night some severe storms rumbled through the area. At around 1:00 am the storm sirens went off. When I turned on the TV the screen was black. Large white letters said, "TORNADO WARNING." So, I did what any writer/mother would do. I grabbed my laptop and kids and headed for the basement. The kids because, well, they're my kids. The laptop because I couldn't stand the thought of losing my work. Yet more proof (as if you needed it) that writers are a little weird. The part about the laptop--not the kids.

The writers out there are probably nodding to themselves thinking: Of course you brought your laptop.

The thought process for the nonwriters goes more like this: You stopped to get your laptop?? Are you crazy?!

To steal a line from the great philosopher of our day, Charlie Sheen, "Duh!"

As you can tell, I'm a little tired. We stayed down there until the warning expired. Luckily, nothing happened.

(And yes, I made sure Darby the Wonderdog and the two cats were down there with us. Oh, and Steve of course. Can't forget the husband!)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Fun!

First things first. Master's project has been successfully defended!!! I am now finished with my master's degree. WooHoo! Now on to more important things. Because I believe that every once in a while you need to stop and refill your writing well, I'm going to do something a little different on Fridays (at least through the summer). Drum roll please....Announcing Friday's in the Garden.

A tiger swallow tail (AKA The King Butterfly according to my son) stops by for lunch. You can't go wrong with butterfly bushes (Buddleia). I've had this one for six years. It was transplanted from my mother-in-law's house.

Ahem. It was much more impressive in my mind. Confetti. Fireworks. Balloons. Some cake...

Anyway, some of you may know that I write for Kentucky Gardener. One of my favorite things to do is work in the garden. Don't let this scare you. For most of my life I had a black thumb. Everything died around me. Then we bought our first house and I started gardening. Everything still died. Really. It was like the Black Death for plants. Horrible.

But slowly, I got better. (I was also smart enough to begin gardening in the back yard where no one could witness the destruction.) I learned if the little label on the plant says "full sun", don't plant it under the shade-dense canopy of an oak tree. I know, seems simple but like I said, I had a Black Thumb. I kept at it, and soon my plants started thriving. Eventually, I took courses to become a Master Gardener.

Since I'm a writer, it seemed only natural to combine writing and gardening, which is how I came to write for Kentucky Gardener. (In fact, if you hurry I have one of the cover stories for the April edition. On newsstands now!) Which brings us to today. I truly believe that to be a better writer, sometimes you have to step back from your work and do something else that refills your soul. For me, that's gardening.

Two days ago, my oldest daughter asked why I liked gardening so much. That was easy enough to answer. Watching my flowers bloom makes me happy. That's all. It just makes me happy.

So, on Fridays I'm going to offer garden tips. If you have questions about gardening, post a comment and I'll do my best to answer. Since this post is already long enough, today's gardening tip is simple. Try it. In the beginning you might have a black thumb, but trust me it will get better.

Gardening is not just about growing plants, but it's also about cultivating patience and growing joy. There's something about sitting back in April and watching bulbs bloom that you planted in November. Start small. Pick a spot in the back yard if you don't want your neighbors to witness your trials and tribulations. But just try it. I don't think you'll be sorry.

An ant crawls along hydrangea petals. This one was also transplanted from my mother-in-law's house.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Today is the big day. I defend my final project at 4:30. Until then, I will be biting my fingernails up to my elbows...well, actually I'll be weeding in the garden. Have to put my nervous engery somewhere.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

And now for something completely different...

Now that the semester is winding to a close, I’m finally able to get back to reading through submissions for Echo Ink. The past few months have been crazy (surgery, finishing my master’s project, kids, kids, kids…you get the idea) and I haven’t had enough time to devote to reading your submissions. For that, I am truly sorry. I’m a writer first and I know what it is to wait to hear back on submissions. Not. Fun.

Anyway, I want to do two things with today’s post. Bear with me, they are connected. First, I want to tell you what type of short story I DON’T want to see. Then, I’m going to tie that into a brief review of Stephen Leigh’s, The Woods. Remember a few posts back when I mentioned Steve’s adventures in self publishing? Well, here’s the follow up!

So, this morning I read through several short stories for EIR. They were good. Well written. No big grammar, spelling or tense issues. But I’m going to pass on all of them. Why? Because there wasn’t anything at stake for the main characters. For some reason, everything I read this morning centered around teen angst. You know what I’m talking about. A Miserable Teen who’s parents don’t understand him/her. Blah.

Maybe it’s because I have my own Miserable Teen right now, but really haven’t we all read this story before? If you’re going to write about teen angst, make sure you have a unique perspective. Don’t just jot down a slice of life where we see a teenager moping around and his/her parents ignoring their pain.

I’m not sure why this story line is big right now. Maybe it’s due to the popularity of YA literature. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, it really doesn’t matter. Unless your story presents a different perspective on the whole Teen Angst thing, put it on the shelf and come back to it in a few years when you can make it unique.

Of course, what I’m saying here flies in the face of traditional publishing. What I’m saying is send me a story that doesn’t fit neatly in a traditional category. Sort of like Steve Leigh’s, The Woods. (You see what I did there? You thought I couldn’t tie the things together didn’t you? Cool, huh?)

Simply put, The Woods doesn’t fit. That’s why Steve self published it. His publisher didn’t know where to put it. After reading the book, I can see why. The main character is a teen boy (yet his adult self narrates the story). The book itself is about those in-between places. Between childhood and adulthood. Reality and Fantasy. There are some delightfully creepy scenes in the book. (My favorite involve a dead dachshund named, Kitty, Kitty.) Yet, in spite of the creepiness & fantasy, The Woods is also a coming of age story. Sort of The Body (movie title: Stand by Me) meets Bridge to Terabithia. Sort of.

I loved it because it didn’t fit. Because it was different. Recently, I read an article about Laurell K. Hamilton and why her books were successful. In the article, the author said it was because at the time, Hamilton did something no other writer in fantasy was doing. She created a strong female character who grapples with real life issues in addition to hunting vampires, etc. Hamilton reached a new group of readers this way. Women who grew up reading fantasy but who turned to other genres when fantasy didn’t seem relevant to their lives.

The Woods does the same thing—not with female vampire hunters, but with breaking the mold.

Thinking about this and Steve’s novel and the short story submissions I read has me wondering if publishers aren’t missing the boat. I grew up reading fantasy, yet as an adult, I’ve turned to genres that feel more relevant to my life. I want more stories like Steve’s. More stories that step outside of the “traditional” publishing boxes. I think we’re leaving an entire generation of readers behind when our writing doesn’t evolve as we mature. Let’s look outside of the box and create something new. Who knows what we’ll find.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I can see the finish line!

On Thursday, I defend my final project for my master’s degree. In addition to inspiring nightmares in which I show up late, forget the room number, drop my papers all over the floor--well, you get the picture I’ve been reflecting on my time in the program.

I know there is some debate about the value of an advanced degree for writers. What I can say is this: No, you don’t need a degree to write. You just need to write. But that’s not why I entered the program. I had been writing for years before I went back to school for my master’s degree. My undergrad work was in English. I’ve been a reader my entire life. I have several shelved novels gathering dust under my bed.

So why did I go back to school? Well, aside from being the kind of person who actually enjoys school (I’ll pause now for the requisite nerd/geek jokes), I wanted a time in my life that was dedicated to improving my craft. I could have found an online or local crit group (in fact, our library has a Fantastic writer’s group that I belonged to) but I wanted the pressure of deadlines and assignments. I have four kids and in the day to day grind, setting aside time to write was often the last thing I felt like doing.

Being accountable to someone made me work. I needed this. It has made me a better writer. And, it’s made me a better mother. Having something for me—just for me—has helped me balance my life. My kids will eventually grow up and leave (well, 3 of them will anyway—Gracie, it’s you and me forever!) When they do, I’ll have something to hold onto.

The time I spent in NKU’s program was a gift to myself. I was lucky enough to find a program where the professors encourage students to find and develop their own voice. (A rarity, let me assure you.) You want to write graphic novels? Go for it! You want to write sci fi? Good for you! Literary fiction? There’s a place for you here also.

No, I didn’t need a master’s degree. But if a life is built out of your experiences (and I believe it is—both good and bad) then my time at NKU will always be one of the highlights of my life.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago today, my father died. It still seems like yesterday, and yet somehow, enough time has passed that I’ve now spent ¼ of my life without him.

He died about two months after Steve and I told him doctors said we couldn’t have children. He never met any of my children and I that’s one of the hardest things of all. I want my kids to walk through the woods next to him and have him point out which plants were edible and which plants were toxic.

I want him to tell them about the time he was camping with his future brother-in-law and a cougar appeared on the other side of the campfire. My dad got away without a scratch, but the other guy wasn’t so lucky! He caught a paw-swipe across the chest.

I want him to name the constellations for them and explain that a quark is an elementary part of matter. I want him to tell them of the time I was nine and he bought me a book bag with “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” When I told him some of the boys in the class were upset, he laughed and smacked his knee. “I bet they were,” he said.

I wish he could see how much, Zach, our only biological child is like him. Most of all, I wish my kids had the opportunity to know what a wonderful grandfather they have. I still miss you, Dad.

Friday, April 1, 2011

On Autism

Wow, two posts in one day. The end of the world must be near!

I can't help it, I just have to share this post by Kim Lionetti from BookEnds, LLC. As you know my daughter, Grace, is on the autism spectrum. Therefore, I have a special place in my heart for other mothers of special needs kiddos. Kim's son is autistic. In honor of World Autism Awareness Day (tomorrow, April 2nd), Kim wrote this beautiful piece about what she has learned from her son. (What a Cutie! Check out his picture on the front page. Love those eyes!)

More than likely, someone in your life is autistic or has special needs. Check out Kim's post and then leave a note on the Good Things that have come into your life through that person.

I'll start. Even though Gracie is a handful (those of you who know her, know what I mean!) I smile just thinking of her. I'm more exhausted, more worried, more stressed since she came into my life. But I'm also happier. Who wouldn't be? She laughs when the wind blows in her face!! She flaps her hands and pushes up on her toes when paper crinkles. She plops into my lap and signs "music" before she nestles into my chest.

Grace changed the way I look at life. She is one of the happiest children I know. She taught me to make my own joy even when everything seems dark. Now it's your turn. How has someone with special needs touched your life?

An Experiment

With all of the talk about self-publishing ebooks my friend and teacher, Stephen Leigh, is self publishing his novel The Woods. The really cool thing about this is that Steve is going to chart and report his sales to you and to me. I think this is a Great Idea. We've all read the stories about (the 1 or 2) authors who have skyrocketed to fame and fortune through the miracle of self publishing.

Steve has been a published author since the 80's. He writes fantasy and science fiction and it's really good stuff. The worlds he creates grab you by the neck and pull you in (especially his Nessantico Cycle). (You'll find a link to his site on the right--Farrell Worlds. Check it out!)

So, what am I asking you to do? It's simple. Hop over to Steve's site and follow him on his blog as he reports on sales for The Woods. Also, I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you download a copy & read it yourself! I'm buying my copy as soon as I finish this post, and I'll report back with a review after I've finished the book.

Should be interesting!