Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past

It's only just topped 20 degrees this snowy, frozen mountain morning. I am a-sit at my fireside desk, considering the end of 2010. The passage of time like this has always seemed to me a cosmic joke, a bittersweet reminder of the nature of being wonderfully human--a treatise on the rare and precious nature of life.

For me, one of the loveliest, and at the same regrettable, aspects of time passing so lightning-fast is not the new wrinkles around my eyes or my daughter morphing into a literal little girl, or even my dog growing more gray about the muzzle: it is, instead, my inability to connect with old friends in a real way.

Certainly, there are the things that separate us: age, different lives and responsibilities, new ideas and cares, state lines, even continents. But though we are no longer children, teenagers--or even tanned, carefree twenty-somethings--what we share are memories of experiences that glitter momentarily in the mind, a Christmas ornament catching the light. And memories of time spent with friends, however ephemeral, cannot be lost no matter how old we grow or how much we change.


For My Friends at Christmastime

I miss you.
I miss the days spent lakeside, fireside, schoolside--
the quick flash of laughter, the raucous freedom of being wild,
the stories and the trust and the secrets.
Know that if you wonder on me, I wonder on you--
that ours is a snow globe shaken.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ode on an Extraordinary Professor

Here's a link to a short piece I wrote for the Fall 2010 issue of College of Charleston Magazine. (Click the title of this post.) It's on the last page of the print issue, in a section called "My Space." And it's about a professor named Joe Harrison, who was my independent study advisor, and with whom I spent a summer study abroad in Italy in 2003.

On another note, College of Charleston Magazine is an impressive publication: by far the best alumni publication I've ever read. Even if you're not an alum, the whole thing is a good read.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Steady as She Goes

It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand.
~ Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, 1474-1564

Sitting at this desk in a brown-tiled room, a fire blazing on a chilly—but not yet cold—November morning, it becomes apparent to me that I am a Spurter. One-who-spurts. Better yet, I should say: One-Who-Does-Things-in-Spurts. I’m certain that this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me; so indeed, it’s not really a surprise even to me. Recognition, however, comes a little slow for my mercurial and somewhat exhausted brain.

But it’s true: almost anything I’ve ever done—and done well—has been in a great spurt of inspiration or information or necessity: writing a college essay (night before, cram cram), reading a book (all in one sitting, no matter the tomb), writing a novel (I’m a sixteen-plus pages at a time sort of writer), cleaning the house (flurry of activity, Windex, Lysol, vacuum, oh my!), hiking a trail (turn around now, are you kidding?!), catching up with friends (all of them, all in one day), and even deciding to have a baby (okay, maybe I won’t go there.) “Slow and steady wins the race” has never been my adage of choice, and perhaps it should be. Perhaps those plodders, the successful, steady-as-she-goes types, are onto something. Maybe there’s a potion.

It can’t be easy to live with, this spurting tendency of mine. Since we dated for three years before becoming engaged, I think my husband may have had some sort of idea what he was getting into. But then, we’d never lived together before, so the day to day reality of this odd aspect of my nature may still be an annoyance… even after six years of marriage. Yeesh. As we’ve grown together, we try to plan, to budget, to make lists. These are all practical antidotes for the spurting. They help at times; at others they’re just stop-gap. My fifteen month-old daughter doesn’t seem to mind the spurting, though she may be too young at this point to recognize that Mama is a little nuts. Or maybe, heaven forbid, she’s a spurter, too. Maybe there’s a potion.

The dog is definitely a spurter: this I knew the day I brought her home from the breeder and she went skidding full-tilt around the hardwood floors of the beachhouse I was renting at the time; or, when she bounded—at all of six weeks old and about the size of a loaf of bread—into the rough Atlantic, only to be pummeled by a monster wave. She’s still that way, gazelling up steep trails in her late-middle-age, high on joy, then crashing on our couch for hours after. The lulls between spurts, for both of us—my dog and me—are getting longer. This does not bode well for future productivity.

At times I long to be one of the plodders, those whose houses stay clean for months on end, the ones who train for marathons a year away, whose lives are clear and unworried and neat, those steady, accomplished people. Michelangelo was steady. It took him four years each, give or take, to both sculpt the David and paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. During each of those times he was also commissioned for, and completed, other works—including architectural projects and paintings. Inspired? Surely. But also determined, prepared, steady. Most would say that Michelangelo was a master, a true genius. He felt differently: “If you knew how much work went into it,” he would say, “you would not call it genius.”

So there’s the goal: to marry the inspired, the passion, with the steady, the deliberate. In the meantime, I bow to you, Plodders. Keepers-of-the-schedules. Master Buonarroti, always. My elderly, across the street neighbor, who raises her American flag every morning at 7:35 a.m. You are the producers. That I may, one day, be one.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why I Write: Or, Why I Will Write Soon

Writing is like making love, but it's also like having a tooth pulled. [And] sometimes it's like making love while having a tooth pulled. ~ Dean Koontz

Exactly eleven months and two days after I'd given birth to our daughter, my husband and I were arguing. We were growing louder and more immature by the second when out of frustration and self-preservation, my husband took his head briefly in his hands and then shook them at me like a saner version of Kosmo Cramer. "You have got to write!" He shouted.

It had the same effect as a concerned friend begging lowly to an addict, You've got to quit drinking or You've got to get some help. Not writing was making me curt, ornery, and even a bit depressed.

Three years earlier, I'd attended a writing conference in South Carolina with a mere ten pages of an historical novel--the product of an idea that had been brewing in my brain for years. At the end of my sit-down with a reputable editor (formerly with Algonquin Books) he set my pages down on the table between us and looked at me directly. "Have you got more?" He asked.

"No," I answered, embarrassed. "That's it."

"Well, a year from now, when you finish it, you need to start shopping for agents. I think you've got a really publishable work here."

A year and a half later I finished the novel and followed the editor's advice. I did my research, and within six months I was choosing between four literary agents who'd offered to represent me and my fledgling novel. I went with the older agent: a man whose success and longevity in the business I'd admired, and whose name often popped up beneath the word "Producer" in the credits of several blockbuster action films. I didn't expect for my novel to be bought quickly, of course, but I'd been on such a lucky streak with the whole thing--my first novel, several offers of representation, the rarity of it all--that there was a tinny voice in my head whispering It'll happen. You're on a roll.

Six months passed. Then another six months. Then a year. The publisher rejection letters I insisted my agent send me poured in. Despite the occasional compliment, it was the negative that stuck with me: "Not right for my list." "A little old-fashioned." And my personal favorite: "We could've done a great job with this a few years back." Merely the stuff of experience, I told myself. I began new work, tried somewhat unsuccessfully to shore up my confidence, to take strength from the many failed-then-finally-published writers before me. Everyone goes through this, I reasoned.

Then, in the Fall of 2008, I got pregnant... and shortly thereafter lost the power to write. Whatever you want to call it--the creative spark, the Muse, my literary mojo--was simply swallowed up by Baby Brain Freeze. All the supportive comments from my writer friends who were already parents, the "Just think about how much you'll have to write about!" and "Your creativity will blossom!" did nothing to rouse my creative will. Though it was arguably the most important physical and emotional transition of my life, I felt no urge to write about the experience. I pushed aside my literary life and immersed myself in reading and thinking only about baby. Or at least I tried.

So when my husband shouted, I stopped. I didn't even have to take a breath. "You're right, " I told him. And he was--I needed to write like I needed to take my first shower in days or to sit down and eat a proper supper. Not doing so was making me mean.

I began by writing letters to my infant daughter, and no matter how sporadic, it is the act of channeling thought to fingertips, fear and hope and love to the page, that has brought me back from the abyss. Started the thaw. Revved my writer's engine. In doing so, I'm not making any great strides. God knows I'm still a bit paralyzed by the fact that my novel may never get published, that as the mother of a now one year-old, it may be years before I again have the opportunity for totally unencumbered writing time.

Today, my literary agent finally returned an email message I'd sent him over a month ago, and then re-sent two weeks later, just to be sure he'd received it. An apology: He's got several unfinished manuscripts due at the same time. He's having surgery soon, a hip replacement. He'll call me some time next week.

And what will I tell him? That the only writing I've accomplished in the past twenty-one months has been an occasional blog posting, handwritten "thank you" notes for baby shower gifts, and the random-yet-inspired letters to my daughter? Maybe.

Or perhaps I'll tell him that I've written this piece. That I'm coming back. That no matter the life change, the anxiety, the exhaustion--I have got to write.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Dog is a Toddler

My dog is a toddler.

This has been a slow emergence; she's only recently morphed. But a toddler she is: she's suddenly got an infintismal attention span, and is so slow to respond--it takes her three or four times to obey a command--that I'm starting to feel like one of those "yelling mothers." We've all heard them, screeching at their children over... and over... and over again to do something they so desperately want.

Over the past weekend, which happened to be our daughter's first birthday and subsequent party at my family's lakehouse, my dog, Scout, (a 90 lb black lab) insisted on barking at every passing boat, stealing towels and t-shirts, begging for food: all the things she knows she's not supposed to do. Everyone in my family--and we're an opinionated lot--seems to think that this behavior is a result of not getting enough attention from my husband and me, the parents. And it's true: our world has been picked up like a coin jar and shaken, all the coins flipped. Our once fantastic dog, who used to get taken on several hikes, trail runs, and walks each week, and who used to come when called at most by the second try, has been consigned to second place.

It pains me to even write those words--second place--especially as I never thought I'd see the day. But if I'm to be honest, it's true. Everything, not just the dog, has been reshifted. The only runner in the lead is our daughter, and we're okay with that for now. But Scout, I'm afraid, is still a toddler.

She does, however, redeem herself in small ways. There was a human toddler, a little girl, at the birthday party: our friends' daughter, who was wandering the dock. Our friend reported that Scout put her body between the little girl and the water, and continued to do this every time the little girl ventured to the edge. And I can't forget that in the months after our daughter was born, Scout sat faithfully by my chair as I nursed, head regal, on the lookout for danger. Today, on our morning walk, she trotted faithfully to the left of the stroller, glancing repeatedly at our daughter, keeping between her and the street. On a downtown street corner, an older gentleman stopped his car, rolled down his window and called, "It's nice to have an old friend helping out."

I couldn't agree more.

Maybe in time, as my husband and I relax and reshuffle, organize and purge, Scout will settle into her new role with the ease of an old pro. She has endured my many moods and changes--from hermit graduate student to itinerate college professor to first-time mother--and she certainly deserves the same consideration and patience, the same faithful presence.

So when she leaps over my crawling baby on the way to find a place, any place, of peace in our tiny house, and knocks said baby in the head with her giant paws, I will deal with it. Pick up the baby, pet the dog.

Surely we'll all grow up together.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Coming back to writing, and to working on something new, after a time away is akin to being a swimmer caught in a riptide: you must make many repeated attempts to get to where you want to be... and patiently, ever so patiently, hold steady.

I grew up spending quite a bit of time on the South Carolina coast, even lived on a sea island for a while, and I know all about riptides and how you're supposed to free yourself from one. I was even a lifeguard for a decade. But none of this seems to matter when it comes to my writing life, and the analogy I'm attempting to make: I am caught in a writing riptide, I have the tools and resources to set myself free, but I'm impatient and worn out from fighting my own daily life to get there. I know I should lift my feet, float on my back and let the current take me a ways first, but who has the time for that sort of release?

During the last week of April I worked like I haven't worked, writing-wise, in years, all in order to get my historical novel ready in time to be submitted to the 2011 Novello Press Award. The award is for N.C. and S.C. writers, and it's through the Charlotte Mecklenberg Library. Past winners, like Ron Rash, have gone on to publishing success--regionally and beyond. It's a great contest, and a wonderful opportunity to get your writing in front of the right eyes. Since my literary agent has been unsuccessful for the past almost three (gulp) years in finding a publisher for my novel, he gave me the go-ahead to submit. I do not think, for one moment, that I will win.

This is not an attempt at false humility: I really don't have a chance. Past winners have written, for the most part, modern fiction, the only "historical" winner a novel set in the early 20th century. Genre fiction was not allowed, "genre" including horror, romance, western, mystery, etc. And since my novel is possessed of several different "types" (which I loathe to even type)--adventure, romance, historical, literary, popular--I thought, What the heck? Maybe the judges will at least read until the end.

Finding time to write has become almost impossible. I have a 9 month old at home with me, and she is not fond of napping. If I'm lucky, I get 45 minutes to myself in the morning. (This, I know, is punishment for all the times I rolled my eyes pre-pregnancy at the mothers of one child who complained at lack of personal time. God is a woman, and She is enjoying my idiocy.) Said 45 minutes sometimes include getting my allergy shots at the doctor's office, paying bills, making a phone calls(s), doing laundry, or--but less often--cleaning the house. So, for a week while working on my manuscript, I worked and wrote new pages late into the night and many nights into the wee morning hours.

I had not, necessarily, put off getting my manuscript ready for the contest until the last minute. I only learned of it two months before the deadline, and a maelstrom of events conspired to keep me from it: an almost three-week bought with a cold/sinus infection that I thought would simply go away, several weekends out of town or with guests, and a nice little sparring match with food poisoning... plus a teething baby. I suddenly turned around and I had a week left to rework a vastly researched, painstakingly and lovingly written, 430+ page novel.

Since I wanted to make a few changes several of the big-time NYC editors who'd read my novel had mentioned to my agent, and since contest rules stated that manuscripts had to be, at most, 400 pages long, this meant much work and stress on my part. By adjusting my story, making these changes, I altered the plot quite a bit. And so the week before it was due--also the same week before my in-laws were coming for a
visit--I wore myself completely out.

I'd taken on the challenge of the contest for two reasons: 1) to get my manuscript in front of a regional publishing professionals, who are perhaps more open to a story like mine; and 2) to get myself back into a writing schedule--to work with a deadline. And as exhausted as I was with caring for a baby all day and writing all night, I was happy. (My husband, maybe not so much--as he was sadly ingnored, but he was supportive as always.) Writing again, and even getting back to this work I'd spent two and a half years researching and writing (and even more working with an agent and suffering the tightrope walk that is waiting while editors at publishing houses take a look and judge, judge) was like coming home. I felt, more than I had in a long time and in the midst of being Mama, a role I happen to love, that this was me. Well, look at that... here I am.

But now the riptide. I have no novel to rework, no deadline to meet. What I have are three unfinished novels (one historical, a far sequel to my first; one modern; the third an amalgom of past and present), one finished novel that simply CANNOT SELL, a teething baby, a sadly neglected husband, a terrifying amount of weight to lose, and a desperate, yearning need to do and work at all of these things in a way that leans heavily on perfection. In the midst of it all, I ache to be extraordinary.

Experienced swimmers, strong and able, drown in riptides each year. The urge is primal: fight. Only those with an unerring patience and sense of permanence are able to let the current take them out to sea, knowing that when the time is right, they will swim at that curving parallel, a tang of saltwater in their mouths and a burn in their eyes, the swells rising--to finally arrive at shore.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nior bhris focal maith fical riamh

"A good word never broke a tooth," so sayeth the Irish wise ones. And in honor of the Irish, I am sharing the following Irish blessings, poems, and adages. May the humor, joy, brewing, and luck of the Irish be in us all today.

Eirinn go Brach!

~ Katie

There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.
~ Thomas Moore, Irish songwriter (1779-1852)

I will arise and go now, for always
Night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low
Sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on
The pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
~ W.B. Yeats, Irish writer & statesman (1865-1939)

May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head by always strong.
And may you be in heaven half an hour
Before the Devil knows you're dead.

May your home always be too small to hold all of your friends.

May the blessings of light be upon you,
Light without and light within.
And in all your comings and goings,
May you ever have a kindly greeting
From them you meet along the road.

She is a rich and rare land,
Oh, she's a fresh and fair land;
She is a dear and rare land,
this native land of mine.
~ Thomas Davis, Irish poet (1814-1845)

O dim delicious heaven of dreams--
The land of boyhood's dewey glow--
Again I hear your torrent streams
Through purple gorge and valley flow,
Whilst fresh the mountain breezes blow.
Above the air smites sharp and clear--
The silent lucid spring it chills
But underneath, move warm amidst
The bases of the hills.
~ John O'Donnell, Irish poet (1837-1874)

May there be a generation of children
on the children of your children.

May those who love us, love us.
And those who don't love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn't turn their hearts,
May He turn their ankles,
So we may know them by their limping!

Deep peace of the running waves to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the smiling stars to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the watching shepherds to you.
Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you.
~ Gaelic prayer

May you always have a clean shirt, a clean conscience, and a guinea in your pocket!

May the good Lord take a liking to you... but not too soon!

Throughout my journey I did not meet
Another country like the land of O'Neill;
The variegated hillsides bright with dew
The sunny smooth meadows crossed by roads.
~ Padraigin Haicead, 17th century Irish poet

May the most you wish for
Be the least you get.

An old Irish recipe for longevity:
Leave the table hungry.
Leave the bed sleepy.
Leave the table thirsty.

I am of Ireland
And of the holy land of Ireland
Good sir I pray of ye
For saintly charity
Come dance with me
In Ireland
~ Anonymous, 14th century Irish poet

St. Patrick's Breastplate:
Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
~ St. Patrick, 5th century Irish cleric

Were you ever in Tipperary, where the fields are so sunny and green,
And the heath-brown Slieve-bloom and the Galtees look down with so proud a mien?
'Tis there you would see more beauty than is on all Irish ground--
God bless you, my sweet Tipperary, for where could your match be found?
~ Mary Kelly, Irish poet (1825-1910)

Health and long life to you.
Land without rent to you.
A child every year to you.
And if you can't go to heaven,
May you at least die in Ireland.

May you live as long as you want,
And never want as long as you live.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Letting Go

I used to think of myself as an easy person: easy going, easy to get to know, easily satisfied, easy on myself and on others. But the older I get--and the more wise (please, Lord)--the more I recognize my true self. She stares back at me in the mirror every day, and yet only now am I becoming honest with the reflection. Okay: as honest as I can be. Hopefully in thirty years I'll be refreshingly self-actualized.

I've written several posts about this quandry of living in the moment, of embracing life as it is: enveloping the present. I write about it in a cathartic fervor, but I have trouble following through. I say I'm going to do it--live IN my life--and yet I let life whiz by like an L train above my head, clattering the rails and screaming towards a bevy of mult-stop destinations, all neon and light, a flash of soon-forgotten faces marred by a grid of dirty windows. In truth, I'd prefer to be like the elderly couple who ride their bikes every day through my neighborhood, decked in their matching sweatsuits and bike helmets. They toodle along, sometimes shouting conversation to each other, one behind, one in front; at times they ride in silence, smoothly, bike wheels spinning leisurely as they pass bungalows with new flowers, yapping dogs. They let SUVs full of kids and DVD players and harried mothers, or hatchbacks driven by irritated teenagers short-cutting to the nearby high school, wait on them as they round corners or cross intersections. They smile at me when we pass each other, say hello. Personally, I think they've got it made.

People who have the talent of "letting go" are always recognizable. They claim an aura of peace and satiation: there's an otherwordly quality to them that attracts some and leaves others suspicious. At times they are aliens--like they've sold their souls for a chance at figuring it all out. At others, they are angels--forgiving, sweet, present. There was a boy I went to high school with who was like this. His name was Gary, and he was beloved by all. I hope the world hasn't changed him too much.

I'd prefer to be more like these people. Sadly, I don't think I have the goods. I am tempestuous, analytical, sensitive, erratic. I long to be patient, thick-skinned, even-keeled. I don't want to one day realize that I've lived a life of length but not of width: that I wasted time wanting more and forgot to notice that I really had everything.

I want to, instead of worrying over finding work, making money, "contributing," recognize (and be completely satisfied and happy with the fact) that my current job is Mama. My husband is happy with this state of affairs; in fact, he's constantly encouraging me to do less--to let caring for our infant daughter and taking care of things at home be who I am right now. Inately, I know this is a huge contribution to our lives, and I'd like to be happy in it and with it. Instead, I scramble to teach random classes that pay me next to nothing and make my husband rush home from work to take care of our daughter, simply to feel that I'm doing something MORE.

Contentment. That's what I seek. That's what we all seek, isn't it? But I'm coming to realize that being content just might not be who I am. Part of me never wants to be satisfied with everything in my life and in my person. To be satisfied, completely satisfied, is to stop the search. For me, ending the search would be akin to death. Maybe I can find contentment without complete satisfaction--or, perhaps, allow contentment, peace, to seep into my life in little ways: a cool fog sweeping across a mountain trail, refreshing the sweating, aching body, but still allowing glimpses of the view ahead.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Currently, many things about me are in hibernation:

- My naturally blonde hair (which turned much darker while pregnant and is now waiting for the sun to lighten it back up),
- My pre-pregnancy (hell, for that matter, my pre-pre pregnancy) body (which is taking forEVER to return... die, you women who re-morph to a size-freaking-four in two months, or the ones whose nursing just burned that old fat right off in no time),
- My can-do attitude (lately I've felt like I CAN'T have it all. Why would Oprah lie to me?),
- My education (as proven in everything I've just written in crazy Southern-woman speak),
- My writing and/or creativity "muse."

Surely, this hibernation will be like that of a bear's: fruitful and restoring. Right? 'Cause something's gotta give. Writing with a baby on your lap trying to gleefully slap every key, or said baby nearby, crying/laughing/babbling with multiple toys going off at once, just isn't going to cut it.

I find something incredible in every season, and winter is no exception. I love the cold, crisp air--the chance to see breath materialize before my face, proof I am a creation, alive in this world--the way the light is incandescent and unflinching, the bare branches of trees, the blue sky. I find it a time even more important than Spring: a chance to cozy up, talk, drink wine (not that I actually need it to be winter to do that), melt into home, regroup with old friends, write letters, and--internally, at least--a time in which to make anew myself, to make promises to myself and to reevaluate my life in a way that speaks more of renovation than resolution.

In addition to being the most humbling experience of my life, new motherhood, and the attempt to be a creative writer alongside it, is teaching me that though life is short, it's essential to sometimes slow oneself. To accept the moment the way it is, and to be in that moment. "Wherever you are, be there." This is a new challenge for me, because I'm always looking ahead, dreaming of better and of more. But I want to truly live in my life. So we'll see.