Monday, September 22, 2014

Off to Indiana

I leave today for a week in my beloved Indiana. I'll spend four nights in Greencastle, staying with my former housemate Julia and her darling little boy Alex (who used to be three and in preschool but is now FIVE and a big, savvy kindergartner!). Then I'll spend three nights in Greenwood with my sister and her husband, who moved to Indiana last fall for Cheryl's job in the tax department at Eli Lilly.

I'm going to sink back in to the life I loved so much during my two years at DePauw. I'll write by the fireplace at the beautiful Prindle Institute for Ethics where I had my office.


Or else I'll write in the Bartlett Reflection Center overlooking the abandoned quarry that is now a nature park.




I'll have breakfast with the Prindle's Assistant Director, Linda, perched on the counters in the Prindle kitchen. I'll take breaks to walk the rim trail around the quarry. I'll attend a luncheon talk by Mona Bhan of Sociology, I'll give a talk myself during the week-long tenth anniversary celebration of the Women's Center, I'll meet with the the Prindle's new director to see  if there is anything useful I might do for the Prindle in the future. I'll sit my favorite chair in the philosophy department lounge in Asbury Hall. I'll see as many friends as humanly possible, including driving down to Bloomington for dinner with our former graduate fellow who is now a law student at Indiana University.

Then: sister fun with Cheryl! Actually, the main sister fun I'm longing for is to help Cheryl finish organizing her enormous library in the new house on her 25 floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed full of books and bears. That is the sort of project I adore. I want to see her new house, explore her new town, and check out the dairy she's told me about where you can see the friendly cows getting ready to produce the milk to made the home-made ice cream.

So that is my plan. I like my plan. And then I'll return home to figure out how to keep that Indiana joy here in my life every day.






Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Ten Times Better than Anything"

Last weekend I was up in Silverthorne for my annual writing group retreat. Our group has been meeting together for 22 years. I joined when I moved to Colorado in 1992, when Gregory was just turning 1; next month he will be 23.

We go away on a retreat together every summer. This year we chose a weekend in early fall, as for the first time ever I had the luxury of not having to teach during the autumn semester. So this year, for the first time ever, we were there as the aspen were beginning to turn.

The house we rented had some flaws. It wasn't the one we had signed up to get; there was some confusion over a last-minute switcheroo. The couches weren't comfy, and there were no coffee tables on which we writers could rest our piles of manuscripts, books to share, and abundant snacks and glasses of wine. But resourceful as we are, we re-purposed a couple of our coolers as coffee tables, topping them with extra pillowcases from the linen closet for a lovely effect. And the lack of coffee tables was more than made up for by an extra-relaxing hot hub, stunning views of Lake Dillon, and proximity to dozens of hiking trails. Leslie, pictured here with me, declared our first glimpse of the trails to be "ten times better than anything," and that became our unofficial slogan for the retreat. (Official slogan, chosen ahead of time during our retreat planning: "Break Through to Bliss.")

The heart of the retreat is having unstructured time to write and then sharing what we've written. I try to bring something extra significant each year: the first chapter of a new book or the concluding chapter of a book long in the making. This year, despite my supposedly having all this new free time to write, I had been scrambling before I left to finish up revisions on the second book in the Nora Notebooks series and to deal with the proofs and index for my edited collection, Ethics and Children's Literature. But during the retreat I did get something written on Friday to share on Saturday: chapter 2 of the third and final book in the Nora series. It was sweet to remember that I had shared chapter one of book one at the retreat last year.

We also eat, heaps and heaps and heaps of lovingly prepared food. This is becoming more of a challenge as nowadays everyone has so many special diets. There is always someone who doesn't eat gluten, or soy, or shellfish, or nightshade vegetables, or all of the above. It's hard to break bread together when everyone (except me, it seems!) is swearing off carbs. But once we sit down at the table together, none of this matters. We laugh, we cry, we talk and talk and talk and talk. We remember the years we've shared, toast recent joys, commiserate with ongoing concerns, dream of the future.

Being in a writing group like this one is ten times better than anything.


Friday, September 12, 2014

"So How Are You Liking Retirement?"

This is what everyone keeps asking me. "So how is it, being retired?"

My first impulse is to shriek, "I'm not retired! I didn't retire! I quit my day job to follow my dream of being a full-time children's book writer!"

But I can see how other people would think I'm retired. After all, I took an early retirement package from the university; as a benefit of retirement, the university still pays for my health insurance until I'm eligible for Medicare; and they gave me a lovely retirement sendoff and gift.

Moreover, I have to admit that since I've been "retired" or "transitioned" or "become a full-time writer," I really haven't gotten appreciably more writing done than I did when I was on my hour-a-day system that structured my entire thirty-year, fifty-book writing career and that gave this blog its name. I'm still having a lot of trouble figuring out what to do with the rest of my time, once I write my early morning hour and take my early morning walk. And what I have been doing looks a lot like what retired people do: have lunch with friends, go see the Chihuly glass exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens for a second time, read a lot more books (currently I'm adoring Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame), and log thousands of additional steps on my new Fitbit (over 20,000 a day sometimes).

But I want my new post-professorial life to be more than that. What I want it to be, of course, is amazing, stuffed full every day with creative joy, with artistic bliss, and in a pinch, creative suffering and artistic angst will do. I want to feel that I left my job to fill my life more fully with something else, not just do the same kinds of things I did before, but minus my salary (though also minus certain inescapable irritations that come from any workplace and most recently came from my workplace). I want to live my new life in bigger, brighter colors. Not have it dinge to drabness.

So how am I liking "retirement"? The answer is that I'm still trying to figure out how to make "it" -- whatever "it" is -- work for me. I have two trips coming up, one to Indiana to visit my sister and dear DePauw friends and one a week of school visits in Texas. Both of these are things I would have had a hard time doing during the term if I were teaching. I've been trying very hard, and recently with some success, to write for TWO hours a day, which means doubling my lifelong rate, a not insignificant increase in both input and output.

Basically, now, I would say that Act III of my life is a work in progress. I'm not ready to open this show on Broadway yet. I'm trying in out in New Haven first. No, I'm trying it out in community theater, with an amateur cast consisting chiefly of me.

But that's okay. It's a lovely challenge, to have the time and space to figure out how one wants to live one's life. It's a beautiful gift that I've given myself, to have this conundrum before me.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Stick with What Works

I am dating the official start of my new life as a full-time children's book writer as this past Monday. That was the day that classes began for the fall semester at CU, and I was not there handing out my syllabus and greeting my students. I celebrated this huge life change by heading out early with my friend Rowan and my little dog, Tank, for a hike on the Shanahan Ridge trail, followed by seriously facing the revisions I have to do on the second book in the Nora Notebooks trilogy. Hooray!

But exhilaration lasted only a short while, alas. I got two good hours of work done on Monday, one good hour done on Tuesday, and yesterday, a grand total of nothing, no work at all.

What did I do instead? I did amazing amounts of walking, logging steps like crazy on my new adorable Fitbit, which I bought myself as a big 6-0 birthday present, It's basically just an extra-small and extra-cute pedometer, but it also syncs with your computer, keeps track of all your walking activity, and allows you to compare results with any friends who are Fitbit fanatics, too. I started using the Fitbit mid-day on Monday and racked up over 10,000 steps by the end of the day. The next day I walked all over town on errands and racked up over 20,000. And yesterday I came close to 20,000 steps, too.

Go, me?

Well, not really. I didn't leave a well-paid, satisfying position as a philosophy professor just to be able to brag to my friends how many steps I take. Fitness is important, yes, but it's not everything to me. And in all honesty, I've been logging fewer minutes on my feet than I have on Facebook. I've felt sadder and sadder about myself as the days passed, until yesterday I found myself Googling "inertia" and "stuck" and other similarly dispiriting search terms.

But then I realized: I already know what to do to make things better. All I need to do is the same things that have worked for me my entire life.

1. Get up early. Even if I have all day to work, in theory, I now know that I won't get any work done at all if I don't face it first thing. So this morning I forced myself out of bed at 5, even though I now know the joy of luxuriating under the covers until 6. I did good work BEFORE I walked at 7.

2. Don't think of yourself as having all day. Think of yourself as having, yes, one hour. This morning, I turned over my cherished cherrywood hour glass once again and clocked one sweet productive hour as its sands slipped away.

3. Give the hour to what you love best, or at least, what most needs doing so that your spirit won't be utterly crushed under the misery and dread of having to do it. Today I didn't give my hour to my Nora revisions (what I love best), but to writing a last-hurrah tenure/promotion review, a leftover obligation of my professor days. That has been hanging over my head all summer, and now it's done, done, done, oh, joy, oh, rapture, a full four days before the September 1 deadline.

So I need to do what works. Different things might work for you, but for me, all I need to do is to get up early and spend ONE HOUR doing what's most important to me for the day.

It's a bit deflationary to realize that my new life is going to be built on the exact same principle of my old life. I was already devoting an early morning hour to what I love best over the course of the last thirty-five years of writing around the confines of my day job. If the new life isn't going to be appreciably different, why did I walk away from the money, prestige, and satisfaction that my other career brought me?

I don't know the answer to that yet. I'll have to figure that out as Act III of my life continues. For now I know to start by sticking with what has always worked for me. My early morning hours have to stay unchanged. I can reinvent myself all I want during the rest of the day. But tomorrow at 5 a.m., expect to find me lying on my couch, mug of hot chocolate by my side, writing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Curtain Rise, Act III

Today is my 60th birthday.

Today is the day the curtain rises on Act III of my life.

Act II ended when I turned in the keys to my philosophy department office at the University of Colorado on the final day of May and ended my 22-year tenure as a professor there. This summer has been one long sweet intermission leading up to this milestone birthday and to this coming Monday, when classes begin again at CU and I won't be there. And now Act III begins, the best act of all.

I started a new little Act III notebook to write my goals for Act III and little bits of wisdom to guide me along the way. Much of the wisdom came to me via my sister, Cheryl, who posts a wonderful quote every day on Facebook from some famous person in honor of his or her birthday. Of late, so many of them have been perfect nuggets of Act III wisdom.

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is give us." Tolkien

"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year." Emerson

"Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming." Alice Walker

And this one I clipped from the most recent issue of the Oprah magazine:
"On the day I die, will I be glad I did the thing I'm doing now?"

The theme for Act III is the awareness of mortality and how it increases the preciousness of each moment and gives a new urgency to the question of how we spend our days. I no longer have any time to squander.

Now, it's important to be clear on what counts as "squandering." An afternoon spent reading in a hammock is not a wasted afternoon. An evening spent walking with a friend or a dog is not a wasted evening. A morning spent gazing out at the mountains is not a wasted morning. At the end of my life, I'll be glad I did all those things. My four pillars have always been the same, the four things that make every day a joyous one for me: writing, reading, walking, friends. Those will be what structure my third act as well.

But Act III is also a last chance for even bigger adventures. If I'm going to live in a garret in Paris, or go on a walking tour of children's literature sites in England, or write the best book I've ever written, I'd better do it now.

Of course I know that Act III will also bring with it the challenges and undeniable losses that come with age. In case I had forgotten, I got a birthday email this morning from the Boulder Institute for Sports Medicine, where I had my broken foot treated this past spring, a seeming reminder that they're standing ready for my upcoming wrenched shoulders and fractured hips. Thanks for the nudge, Boulder Institute for Sports Medicine, to savor every single day that I can walk unaided, to savor every night that I can sleep without pain. And without challenges and losses, what would be the plot of Act III? Any writer knows that the ending is only sweeter for some struggles along the way.

At least that's what I'm telling myself on this beautiful morning of my 60th birthday, as I await with the excitement of a small child (and the hard-earned wisdom of a woman no longer young) for what the next thirty or forty years will bring.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Honey Pie

The fourth book in the Franklin School Friends series is going to be a spelling bee book, starring good-at-everything Simon Ellis, who offered keen reading, math, and running competition in the first three titles. Now Simon has to wrestle with the dark side of being such a gifted kid: what if in winning the spelling bee he loses his best friend?

A recurring character throughout the series is Franklin School principal Mr. Boone. He promised to shave off his big, bushy beard as a reading contest reward in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen. He let himself be dunked multiple times at the school carnival in Annika Riz, Math Whiz. He sprained his ankle on Field Day demonstrating hoppy ball prowess in Izzy Barr, Running Star. So of course he's the all-enthusiastic cheerleader for the spelling bee in Simon's book. This time he's offering a pie buffet to all the champion spellers, where the crowning glory of the pie selection will be his famous honey pie. (Bee, honey, get it?)

I sent the book to Margaret Ferguson for her editorial suggestions and received plenty of brilliant comments to strengthen the book in revision. She also asked, "Should we include Mr. Boone's honey pie recipe?" Why yes, we should. The only problem was that I didn't have Mr.Boon'e honey pie recipe. It was my own authorly fabrication. And now I needed to find it.

Hooray for Facebook! I put out a call for honey pie recipes and had a lovely selection of them within an hour. Best of all, one came from author extraordinaire Lisa Graff, also a baker extraordinaire, who includes amazing, fabulous, mouth-watering cake recipes in her hugely acclaimed recent middle grade novel A Tangle of Knots. 

I tried baking Lisa's pie yesterday. Here it is in all its splendor:

The honey/sugar in the pie caramelized, giving a pleasing creme brulee effect. I didn't use her home-made crust, of course, as I am not a baker extraordinaire myself. But it was fine with a refrigerated ready-to-bake crust from King Soopers, sweet and creamy with coarsely ground sea salt sprinkled on top. Now I'm going to try one more Facebook offering, a Greek honey pie with ricotta cheese in it. Then I'll let my family vote on which recipe, tweaked a bit, will become Mr. Boone's specialty in the book.

Sometimes it's hard to live with an author, I'm sure. But sometimes it can be quite tasty.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Home from Hollins

I'm back now from my blissful six and a half weeks away, first presiding over the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association in Columbia, SC, and then teaching my chapter book writing class for six weeks at Hollins University in Roanoke. I was a tad apprehensive about my homecoming, the return to real life after so long in the enchanted world of children's books, what one friend calls my "Betsy-Tacy bubble." But it turns out that home is pretty sweet, too.

Nowadays, with daughter-in-law Ashley in residence, I return to a sparkling kitchen, well-stocked fridge, and elegantly lettered message on the dry-erase board saying WELCOME HOME, CLAUDIA! Now, with grandbaby Kataleya in residence, I return to this:

Need I say more?

I've already been back to church for a wonderful guest sermon by the chaplain of the campus Wesley Center and exhilarating music from a world-class trumpeter who plays in the summer Colorado Music Festival orchestra and uses our church as practice space. I've attended my writing group and toasted one member's just-signed screenplay contract. I've laughed and prayed with our church's summer women's book group: we're loving Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith by Michelle DeRusha. I've taken little dog Tank on daily walks; he writhes with rapture at the sight of me approaching leash in hand, or even at the sight of me with hat and sunglasses on. I've eaten cherries by the pool with my friend Rowan and celebrated her birthday at a delicious breakfast outside on the terrace at the Buff (where I also enjoyed one of their 99-cent mimosas). I sent last comments to my Hollins students, faced the copy-edited manuscript for my Ethics and Children's Literature collection, wrote a blind journal review for an article on The Hundred Dresses, and started on final revisions for the Simon spelling bee book.

I even dealt with a leaking upstairs bathroom shower drain and a ruined downstairs bathroom ceiling, with two visits from a plumber to deal with the former and two from a carpenter to deal with the latter.

It's a little more than two weeks now to my 60th birthday, when the curtain will go up on Act III. I've been calling this summer "intermission," but now I'm starting to hear the distant strains of the pit orchestra tuning up for the overture. And I like what I'm hearing.