Sunday, December 31, 2017

Keeping a Promise I Made to Myself

It is now the last day of 2017.

On the first day of 2017 I made a commitment to myself: to submit something somewhere every single month. I worked out some rules. It had to be something new - I couldn't just submit the same manuscript twelve times to twelve different places. But it didn't have to be something completely new: it could be a significantly revised and resubmitted version of a previous manuscript. The project specified nothing about having any of these submissions accepted. I was giving myself a grade on effort, not results. But I wouldn't count something as a submission unless I thought it had at least a chance of being accepted. I couldn't just scrawl a four-line ditty and send it off to The New Yorker.

Here is my report on the first eleven months of the year.

JANUARY: sent a grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries for travel funds to spend a week in Minneapolis doing research on Maud Hart Lovelace, author of my beloved Betsy-Tacy books  - VERDICT: I got it! And spent a most happy and productive week there in May.

FEBRUARY: revised an old and never-submitted philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity," my last-hurrah as a now-retired philosophy professor, and sent it off, without much hope, to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism - VERDICT - accepted (!!!!) conditional on major edits.

MARCH: revised and resubmitted my paper on Pinky Pye and Ginger Pye of Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly - VERDICT: accepted and now in press.

APRIL: spent the month writing poetry and sent one poem, for children, to Highlights Magazine - VERDICT: after a wait of many months, rejected.

MAY: revised a children's literature paper I had delivered at the Children's Literature Association conference a few years ago and sent it to Children's Literature - VERDICT:  revise-and-resubmit, which I plan to do.

JUNE: short article ("The Most Underrated Line in Your Book") to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin - VERDICT: accepted and published, to some nice responses.

JULY: did the "major edits" on the "Artistic Integrity" paper and sent it back to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism - VERDICT: accepted and now in press.

AUGUST: sent a story pitch to an educational publisher that had approached me as a possible contributor - VERDICT: rejected.

SEPTEMBER: sent my 15,000-word chapter book (already under contract) to my editor Margaret Ferguson at Holiday House - VERDICT: she pronounced it "darling" but of course has lots of revisions for me to undertake in the new year.

OCTOBER: sent in my proposal for a paper (on child poet Hilda Conkling) to be delivered on a panel at next year's Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio in June - VERDICT: still waiting to hear, but this one is practically guaranteed to be accepted, as the other panelists are all academic super-stars.

NOVEMBER: sent another story pitch to the educational publisher, and then, with their encouragement, sent the full story - VERDICT: rejected - WAH! - but with a generous "kill fee" of $1000.

Then came December.

I was tired of submitting things. I was discouraged by the last rejection. My heart was heavy with family woes and stressed by Christmas preparations. I had hoped to have the energy to revise-and-resubmit the children's literature paper (May submission) sent back by Children's Literature, but couldn't face the additional research needed. Maybe it was enough to have done this submission project for eleven months? After all, as a result of it, I had already gotten my grant to go to Minnesota, published my article for SCBWI, and had both a major philosophy paper and major children's literature paper accepted in good journals - plus wrote an entire children's chapter book. Wasn't that enough?

No, it wasn't. I had made a promise to myself in the bright new morning of a fresh new year. Now I had to keep that promise.

So yesterday, with just 48 hours to spare, I unearthed some of the poems for grownups I had written back in April. I liked them! I researched places I might send them, by looking at places that had published work by poet friends who also wrote "accessible" poems drawing on their own life experiences. I picked one journal, looked at its submission requirements (maximum of three poems sent in one MS Word file), chose my three best poems, and sent them off. I have little hope for this one - but I also had little hope for my last-hurrah philosophy paper.

It feels SO GOOD to keep a promise to myself. I sometimes think that I owe any success I've had in my long career to one thing only: the ability to follow through. In the waning hours of 2017, I followed through on this January commitment, dear readers, and I'm so grateful to myself that I did.

Now I have to decide: what commitment to myself will I make in 2018?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Solstice Celebration: Sewing on a Button

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, little by little, minute by minute, light will return to our part of the world.

I've been in my own season of darkness for the past two months, for reasons I'm not ready to share in this public forum. But I made my own small Solstice celebration.

I sewed on a button lost from one of my sweaters.

It fell off several weeks ago, and every day since I've been meaning to do this, but not getting around to it, instead sitting alone in my sad state, endlessly playing Sudoku on my I-pad (the addiction I invariably return to when times are hard) and endlessly scrolling through Facebook on my I-phone (addiction number two).

But today, in honor of the Solstice, I put away the I-pad and I-phone. I was lucky enough to find a spool of lavender thread in my sewing box, just the right shade to match the stitching on the other buttons. I luxuriated in gratitude that my sweater, a yard-sale find, had a spare button tucked into an inner seam: how fortunate! First I reinforced all the other buttons. Then I sewed on the missing one.

Buoyed by this success, I called a repairman to come fix the garage door that would no longer open; he came and replaced the motor, and now the garage door works again. I made cinnamon rolls from my mother's recipe for us to have on Christmas morning, a family tradition made more poignant by the fact that Christmas was also my mother's birthday. I read an engrossing book for my judging of the Children's Literature Phoenix Award.

Christmas is coming in four more days. My little granddaughters will be with us from the 23rd until New Year's. My younger son, Gregory, will be home from Chicago. We'll attend two worship services on Christmas Eve: at the morning service, my older son, Christopher, will play the beloved carols on the piano; at the evening service, our church singing group, The AnthemAires, will sing the hauntingly beautiful "Fall on Your Knees" by Pepper Choplin.

Anne Lamott quotes a friend of hers who says, "It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born."

Today was dark, snowy, and bitter cold. And then I sewed on a button.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Seasonal Joy/Seasonal Stress

Why is it invariably true that the more we give of ourselves to the world, the more the world gives back to us? 

Each Christmas I'm reminded of this, as I take on various holiday tasks for my church and my family, stressed by each one and silently vowing, "Never again!" Then each task turns out to be so rewarding that I remember, "Oh. That's why I do this." And so I sign up to do these things again the following year, and the exact same scenario (anxiety, despair, relief, gratitude) plays itself out in the exact same way.

The task that stresses me most is organizing Christmas caroling for our small congregation, where we try to visit all of our members who are no longer able to come to us for Sunday worship but value being remembered at this special time of year. It's a daunting jigsaw puzzle of geographical logistics, with various retirement communities and care centers spread out over several nearby towns, and temporal logistics, with the need to accommodate residents' mealtimes, nap times, and other constraints imposed by each facility. Worst: I never know who from our congregation is going to be able to show up to sing with me. It's a busy time of year for everyone, with competing commitments for all. What if I promise to come a-caroling, and I'm the the sole caroler, stumbling through each tune by my pitiful lonesome with my thin, quavery soprano? 

At church this year, one friend, impatient with my all-too-familiar morning-of-caroling desperation, snapped at me, "Claudia, you worry about this every single year! And it always turns out just fine!" Okay, but what if THIS is the year that it doesn't? 

But this year was perhaps the loveliest yet. The first person we visited had lost her beloved husband three Christmases ago and was so touched to have us come to her. Our second stop was to our church's honorary Jewish member, next-door-neighbor to the parsonage, who has befriended so many of our pastors over the years, and who happens to love Christmas music (and knows more of the words to the songs than we do). We sang to her outside on her deck, in the balmy December sunshine, as passers-by turned to smile at us. 

Our third stop was an actual "performance" at the nearby Meridian retirement community, where my son Christopher played the piano for a full half hour of a rousing sing-along of every beloved carol. Here we were joined by a few adorable members of a local Girl Scout troop. Our final stop might have been the sweetest of all. The resident we were visiting had made a flyer inviting others to come join us, so Christopher played for a good-sized group here as well. One attendee replied to every single song with a heartfelt sigh of appreciation: "Oh, that was beautiful!" "Oh, that one was REALLY good!" "Oh, that one was the BEST!"

I have to find some way to have faith that each year the Christmas obligations WILL work out, some way to skip the needless stress and just go directly to the joy that always follows. But maybe the stress has its own role to play. This year it was because I was so stressed that I made special efforts to recruit singers and took pains to schedule a very-welcome five-minute grace period between each visit so I wouldn't have the terror of running late. Maybe holiday stress can be a salutary kind of stage fright that is energizing rather than depleting.

Or maybe I just need to trust the Holy Spirit a little more. My favorite verse of all Christmas carols is the third stanza of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear": 

O ye, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

The glad and golden hours come each Christmas. And each Christmas, despite all those painful steps along the weary road, I hear the angels sing.