NaNoWriMo

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Yes, I’m doing it again, participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. My first NaNoWriMo was in 2011, when I met the challenge of writing 50,000 words in the 30 days of November.  NaNoWriMo was launched in 1999 when a group of 21 writers got together and decided to each try to write a novel in a month.  The idea has been growing ever since and last year over 300,000 adults and almost 90,000 young writers participated.  Clearly, deadlines and a sense of community, even if virtual, works for writers. One of the best reasons the website listed for writing a novel when I took part three years ago was that finishing a novel allowed you to change your “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” line at parties to “I wrote a novel.”  True, I’ve used that line.

I didn’t completely finish my novel in November 2011, though I wrote over 50,000 words, and I finished the novel a month later.  And it wasn’t exactly a novel either.  I wrote a very marginally fictionalized account of a family situation that had happened the summer before.  It felt more like transcribing an experience, with different names for the characters, than imagining and writing a story.  I suspect it’s not a particularly compelling novel, because I’ve never even read it myself.

Now I’m writing a novel that is completely fiction and it’s more fun than I could have imagined.  After the fairly soul-wrenching work of the memoir I spent much of the last six months pulling into shape, I needed a break.  A decent draft of the memoir is waiting for me to make the next set of edits.  But before I go back into the sad and anxious time in my life the memoir recounts, I wanted to write something like the well-crafted but decidedly not-heavy novel I read just as I was finishing the last draft of the memoir.  “That’s what I want to write next,” I said to myself when I finished The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Before I left for Europe, I had the idea of writing a novel about a young woman traveling, visiting the places I went on my recent trip.  My idea of working on the novel while I was traveling and able to recount details of the places I stayed quickly fell aside in favor of just experiencing those places.  As a friend said to me in Europe, “You don’t need to be writing now.  You’re doing your research.”

That was a good enough excuse for me, and actually, it wasn’t an excuse.  Now as I’m writing, when I need facts and real experiences from Normandy or Amsterdam or Provence, my research brain is there to provide the details.

What’s fun about this novel is experiencing the delicious excitement of writing fiction, not fictionalized fact.  When I sit down at the computer every day to write the next few scenes, I don’t know what’s going to happen, what new secrets are going to pop out, what my characters will do and what they’ll say.  In fact, I’m just getting to know my protagonist and I’m 36,000 words in to the novel.  But that makes sense, right?  You don’t get to really know someone when you first meet her.  It takes awhile, like 36,000 words worth of awhile.

Being already 36,000 words in to the novel, does that mean I’m only going to write 14,000 words in November?  No, my plan is to write another 50,000 words, because that should be enough for me to finish the novel.  I want a first draft of the novel done by the end of December so I can get back to work on the memoir.  Trying to work on both isn’t working. My head is firmly in this novel — I think about the characters as I move through my day, plot ideas drift through my mind (though very rarely translate in to what actually happens when I sit down to write), and when I go in to my study and shut the door for my uninterrupted hours of writing, finding out what happens next to Cecelia and her friends Nina and Sally is all I want to do.

So, I’m doing it.  Fifty thousand words in 30 days, starting tomorrow.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

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The View From Here and Now

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My study is a room with a view, full of light.  Three big windows face south and one faces west, all looking over pastures and the remains of a dairy farm, with the mountains of Epsom as a backdrop.  When Eric was alive, this was his favorite room, with the TV in the corner and his stylish Danish recliner positioned for a view out the windows or at the television screen. When Eric was dying this is where we put a bed for him to spend his last weeks.  That was partly because of the television so he could watch Red Sox games or his favorite movies, but it was also because this was, essentially, his room.

It remained his room for years after he died.  No one spent much time here during those years.  A new, large, flat screen TV had been installed in the family room, part of the finished upstairs of the barn, and the “tower room” as we called it then, the second story of the tower we built to connect the upstairs of the house with the rooms over the barn, served as a passage between rooms, not as a place anyone hung out.  There was still too much sorrow in the room, too much weighted memory.

Six years ago, when I first started to think about moving my study in to this room, my friend Marsie was over for a visit.  I brought her upstairs to show her how I might change the room in to a study and she stood by the western window for a few moments.  “There’s still a lot of Eric’s energy here, but Eric is getting ready for this to become your room,” she said.  “Talk to him about it and the energy will clear.”

Even though I’m not sure what I believe about how the energy of loved ones who’ve died manifests in this world, Marsie’s advice made sense to me.  I spent time in the tower room, thinking about Eric and all the changes in my life since he’d died.  I let him know I was going to transform the room, and six months later I did.

Now I have a glorious study with a view of trees snapping in a brisk wind and a hillside of russet and ochre oaks.  As I sit at my desk, I’m less than a foot from where Eric died.  He sits here with me and I sit here by myself.  I look out the windows and then look at the fall of sunlight in to the room.  I’m grateful and warm and reminded not to take any moment of this day for granted.  I’m here now.

Posted in Home, Light, Moving On, Writing | 3 Comments

Back At It

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Returning from long travels, there are many ways in the last three weeks that I’ve thought about being back at it.  Back at my desk, writing.  Back in the yard and garden, pulling out wasted plants and tidying the beds.  Back in the car, going to visit with family and friends. Back on familiar streets and dirt roads as I continue training for the NYC marathon.

And back to the always surprising beauty of autumn in New Hampshire because the trees are back at it too.  My favorite is running down a road transformed into a tunnel of color by the crowns of trees, yellow and orange and red, leaves knocked loose by wind showering down around me.  Even though I know this pocket of glory means the trees will soon be bare and I’ll be back in a gray world, with little light and color, I relish it while it’s here.  Maybe even more so because I know it’s passing on.

Here’s a poem from 15 years ago, which makes it clear I really am back at something I’ve written about before.

Center

The bluejays are busy
in the diminished sunflowers,
flopping over bent heads,
flapping as they gorge
on blisters of seed. Crows

cross the yard, ceaseless
feeders. Cricket shrill
encases the globe of air
where we sit, trees
in their revised colors

ringing this kernel
of glory. We stay still
for many moments, daring
to let time pass, to let
what unfolds also uncrease.

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Yom Kippur #9

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Life has been full of dailiness since my return home from our European travels.  There was mail to sort, arriving in piles for days after we got back — hardly a personal piece in any of it — plants to water, laundry, shopping and cooking, driving to visit all the family we’d missed, spending time with friends we’d missed, watching the trees turn and turn again to bare, meetings to attend, dump runs, doing dishes, running and recovering from running.

Staying present to all this dailiness, in the way I was to the unfolding amazement of traveling in beautiful places, when my only occupation was to see and think and absorb, has been easier than I’d expected.

I’d actually been surprised I was able to be so present during our trip — there was hardly a moment of overthinking about the luxury and privilege of comfortable travel or worry about someone back home.  Not that I didn’t think about how lucky I was to have the time and resources to enjoy Europe for weeks, or worry about friends and family back home. But those thoughts didn’t turn into feelings of unworthiness and my worries, mostly, didn’t get in the way.  I let myself sink in to the experiences: drinking wine on a leaf-shadowed patio in France, hiking in the Alps, sitting around a breakfast table in a garden in Italy, drinking coffee and chatting with European friends.

Really, what I’m saying is that I haven’t been anxious, the most common reason for me to lose track of my connection to each moment.  Was it the magic of travel that kept my anxiety at bay?  Meditation?  Medication?  Whatever the reason, I’m thankful my ability to be present to myself and what’s before me hasn’t shifted, even now that much more of what’s before me is the routine maintenance of life.

This is a long way of explaining why I’m several days behind in my annual Yom Kippur post.  Services were lovely — good sermons and outstanding music — and connecting with friends was sweet.  As usual I thought a lot about forgiveness and the knot of unforgiven hurt that still comes up for me every year.  I thought a lot about Eric — this is Yom Kippur #9 without him — and could picture him beside me through both services.  David and I told each other what our intentions were for behaving closer to the ideals we pray about on Yom Kippur.

Now it’s a bright autumn afternoon and I’m enjoying the light gleaming on the leaves of the plants in my study’s tall windows.  I know time is passing because otherwise nine years couldn’t have gone by.  But I also know there is stillness in the center of time, in the center of everything, and somehow I’m getting better at living in that stillness.  Centered.  Maybe it’s just a function of slowing down as I get older.  No matter.  It’s a pleasure to be here.

Posted in Family, Home, Life Changes, Moving On | 2 Comments

Training

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My son-in-law Matt is also training for the NYC marathon, but he’s using the Novice 2 training program by Hal Higdon, while I’m using the Novice 1 program.  Mostly what that means is he’s running a mile or two longer on long run days, so he did 18 miles two weeks before I did.  He told me when he finished he thought, “Yeah, I could do another 8 miles,” (which would bring him to the 26.2 miles of a marathon).

I did 18 miles last Saturday and when I finished I thought, “Yeah, I could throw up now.” Not encouraging.  What is encouraging, is that my 5 mile run yesterday felt like nothing, and my 9 mile run today was relatively easy — I even did an extra .4 mile.  Nine plus miles easy?  This is new for me.  The longest I’d ever run prior to this training was the 13.1 miles of the five half-marathons I’ve finished, and my training runs were never longer than 9 miles or so.  I didn’t follow any training program.  I’d just start adding a mile to my longest run on weekends for a month before the half-marathon, get up to 8 or 9 miles, then go push myself through the 13.1 I needed to run to finish the half.

But, as the orthopedic doctor I saw about my sore knees pointed out when he advised me against doing a marathon, a half-marathon is half of a marathon.  Right.  Which means it needs serious training.  So I’m training and I’m serious about it, which I need to be or I’d stop.  It’s really hard.

So why am I doing it?  Why did doing the NYC Marathon end up on my bucket list?  I’m not sure, I just know myself well enough to know that once I set myself a challenge, I’m going to keep moving towards the finish line unless there’s a serious reason not to.  Feeling stiff and depleted and nauseous after my last long run isn’t serious enough to stop.  It just makes me more determined than ever.

This weekend will be easy — only 14 miles for my long run, though how that’s going to fit in to observing Yom Kippur on Saturday and then traveling to visit family on Sunday I haven’t quite figured out yet.  But I will.

And then the next weekend is the longest run I’ll do — 20 miles.  I’m already planning my weekend around it, which is what following a marathon training program takes — lots of planning around the running, rather than fitting running in around the plans.  I’m planning to be ready to run (and most likely walk some to, which according to Hal Higdon is perfectly fine) 26.2 miles on November 2.

Posted in Running | 2 Comments

Attenzione! Silenzio!

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The Vatican Museum was mobbed, and I don’t mean just crowded, I mean Extreme Tourism in the number of other human beings moving through room after room of frescoed walls and ceilings and gilded moldings and marbled walls.  As David and I by-passed the thousands (it seemed like that many) of people waiting in line to get in to the museum, having bought tickets ahead of time online (a must for many of the museums we visited in Europe), we were thankful we at least didn’t have to wait.

But being inside, with all those thousands who had already gotten through the line, felt suffocating.  The crowd was so thick it was almost impossible to do anything but move from room to room with the mass, streaming along and then backing up and getting stuck at narrow doorways.  The museum map was the worst I’ve ever seen, so it was difficult to know where you were or how you might exit the mess.

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But we wanted to see the Sistene Chapel and the rooms of Raphael frescoes, so we kept moving.  The art was extraordinary, and we especially enjoyed the room of geography, mapping ancient Rome, as we could see the cities we’d visited in Provence.  And the Raphaels and Sistine Chapel were as terrific as we expected.

Except, because the Sistine Chapel is supposedly a sacred space, as determined by the Catholic Church, every five minutes or so, as the hum of thousands of people crammed into a small space would start to rise, a stern male voice would announce, “Attenzione!  Silenzio!”

Really?  The Catholic Church is letting this many people into a “sacred space,” and then expecting them not to be human?  To be totally silent?  For all the reasons I’m sure you can imagine yourself, I found it difficult to be told to be silent by the Vatican, after touring the on some level obscene riches of the Vatican.  Who was silenced to build the wealth of this church? How can they honestly reconcile inviting this many people into a chapel and then expect them not to make any noise?  How much money is the church making off this museum?

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On a positive note, the Borghese Galleria was outstanding.  Again, it’s a museum showcasing the riches of the privileged, in this case the Borghese family, which extended its wealth in part because a member of the family became a Pope.  The smaller scope of the museum made it easier to take in, and aren’t all museums, to some degree, showcasing what the rich have collected?  Our advance purchase tickets gave us two hours, strictly timed, in the museum, so there were never too many people.  The Bernini sculptures were astounding, and the frescoes and decorated rooms and Caravaggio paintings were well worth a visit.

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And afterwards you can walk in the Borghese Gardens, a wonderful green space in Rome. Tomorrow I’ll be walking in my own garden, not an unwelcome thought.

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Umbrian Gardens

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Garden in Panicale

Enough of Tuscany?  There’s always Umbria, where I went almost every day last week.  I’ve been continuing my marathon training on this trip (marathon training while traveling in Europe is certainly interesting), and had two 4 mile runs, an 8 and a 12 to do last week. Cetona is on the border between Tuscany and Umbria and running across the valley from the farmhouse where we were staying to Umbria was my best option for a flat route.   I’d walk down the steep, gravel road from the farm, then follow Via del Gore across the flat farm land of grape vines, corn and sunflowers until it ran into the bottom of the Umbrian hills we could see in the distance from the garden of the farmhouse.

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Roof Top Garden, Overlooking Umbria

On Friday David and I decided to explore a bit more of Umbria, especially the town we could clearly see as a long smudge of reddish buildings on the ridge directly across the valley from us — Citta della Pieve.  A lovely town of old brick buildings, winding streets and cafes that had at least as many locals as tourists, we found it delightful.  We’d visited some of the more popular Tuscan cities earlier in the week — Montepulciano, Pienza, Sienna — and found plenty to enjoy, but also bus loads of tourists.

As we walked around Citta della Pieve, I looked for gardens created in the stone streets and around the brick buildings.

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Garden on a corner in Citta della Prieve

We drove on to Panicale, and again I took note of the many gardens created from potted plants or in tiny pockets of green between or on top of buildings.  I’d been enjoying potted gardens all week as we walked through many ancient hilltop villages, such a contrast from the large gardens and sprawling yard and pastures of the farmhouse where we were staying.

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Vertical Wall Garden

The most stunning gardens I saw were at the Monastery de San Francesco, a few kilometers up in the hills behind us at the farmhouse.  Now a rehabilitation center for young men with substance abuse problems, the church and former monastery is beautifully landscaped with cypress trees and hedges of rosemary, flowering pots of plants strung along the side of the road, and large vegetable gardens terraced on the hillside below.  We were given an enthusiastic tour of the church with frescoes that date from the 1400’s by a young Spanish man.  I marveled at it all, especially the peaceful and beautifully created landscape.

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Exterior of Monastery de San Francesco

Of all the cities and towns we explored during our week in Tuscany, we didn’t find any place we liked better than Cetona.  It’s charming, authentic, surrounded by a beautiful countryside, and, for me, has some good flat running routes outside of town.

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Cetona

Now we’re in Rome, the hills and gardens of Tuscany and Umbria behind us as we immerse ourselves in three days of frenetic antiquity before heading home on Thursday.

 

 

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