The Nostalgia Shelves

The Nostalgia Shelves started with three bins of old books and a stack of tired posters. Many were as old as I am, and the wear showed. They were, literally, loved to pieces. Torn, faded, and stained, none of the items could be saved intact. So I dug out my scissors and bought some Mod Podge.

Shelf 1 July 5

Shelf 1 July 6

Shelf 1 July 6

All of my old favorites found new purpose in the Nostalgia Shelves. Their stories are alive again.

Shelf 2 July 8 Complete

Shelf 2 July 8 Detail

Shelf 2 July 8 Detail

Shelf 2 July 8 Detail

Shelf 2 July 8 Detail

What’s more, the horses have a new home.

Shelf 2 July 31

I don’t have a “before” photo, but the “after” is definitely lighter and brighter.

Shelves July 31

And the unhoarding continues…

Lost Time

Squirrel May 2

Every so often, time slips sideways. One week it’s May, and the next week July scrolls into August. I have photos and bills to prove that June actually happened, but it happened in a blur of travel, home repairs, and unhoarding.

Rabbit May 11

My unhoarding saga began after Mother died, when the extent of her hoarding (and mine) could no longer be overlooked.

Eggs May 14

Mother’s hoard was generational. Parts of it accreted as she raised five children, other parts were passed down from two much-loved grandmothers, a formidable mother, a pair of admired aunts, and a somewhat difficult mother-in-law. With each obituary and burial came new photos, letters, books, furniture, glassware, doilies, and quilts.

Hoverfly May 14

The women who raised Mother had filled their homes with small treasures, and, because each of them had very real memories of hard, empty years, they treasured everything. Everything held a story, and all of the stories were passed to Mother (who had no siblings) for safe-keeping.

Ladybug July 15

Fighting her own memories of hard, empty years, Mother made room for everything, stuffing her house to the eaves with family history. She made room in her heart, too, and genuinely loved this patchwork collection of heirlooms.

Dragonfly July 15

She loved it, that is, until it overwhelmed her.

Swallow May 26

The hoard took over Mother’s house, just as my hoard was taking over mine. In her house, as in mine, cabinets were jammed full, drawers wouldn’t close, shelves bowed under their burdens, one entire room was given over to storage.

Ducks May 11

In the wake of Mother’s car accident and death, as I helped my siblings sort and pack five generations of Mother’s belongings, I resolved to make a change. I didn’t want to carry on this tradition, the death ritual of dividing the hoard. Treasures or not, I no longer needed or wanted most of the stuff I had been hoarding.

Robin May 24

Resolve is one thing, doing is another. And unhoarding is ridiculously hard work. It got even harder after I scraped off the easiest layers — books I was never going to read, clothes I was never going to wear, dishes I was never going to use. Then came the emotional stuff. Tattered childhood books. Scarred toys and threadbare stuffed animals. Memory-laden trinkets and gifts that warmed my hoarder’s heart.

Bee July 16

I spent hours and days and weeks putting off decisions, moving containers from one room to another, painting around them as I dithered. Some days I was tempted to ship them all off to thrift stores, unopened and unsorted. Other days I fought an urge to unpack everything, to binge on dusty memories.

Skipper July 8

But I don’t want to live in a box of memory. To be owned by the past. So this summer I’ve been cleaning and repairing toys and stuffed animals. Some few will stay with me, others will go to thrift stores. What can’t be salvaged will be recycled or sent to the landfill. (After being photographed, of course.) I’ve also been cutting up old books, calendars, and posters for use in current and future art projects.

Clearwing Moth July 16

Some memories I’m voluntarily discarding, others have been lost in the commotion. But the house gets lighter and brighter with each newly emptied container, with each completed project.

Carpenter Bee July 16

And it feels like an even exchange — memories for light. Time for time.

Tiger Swallowtail July 9

I think Mother would approve. I think all of them would approve.

Yard Surprises and Writing Surprises

When the wild rabbits ate multiple sets of coneflowers this summer, I allowed myself one final purchase before freezing the garden budget. I bought milkweed for the monarchs. More specifically, I bought swamp milkweed. Which the rabbits promptly ate.

Rabbit Aug 12

Milkweed is toxic, so I don’t know how the rabbits were able to eat it without getting sick. Far from getting sick, they ate until every last leaf was devoured. Fortunately, by the time the bare stalks recovered enough to put on new leaves, the rabbits had tired of milkweed.

I assumed (such a dangerous verb) that my milkweed’s season had passed, that it would see no monarch activity until next summer. I was wrong, as I discovered on Monday.

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 22

There were nine caterpillars when I found them. One disappeared by nightfall on the first day and another died during the night, but seven continued to gorge on the milkweed’s leaves.

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 22

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 22

On Tuesday, one caterpillar decided it was time for wings. It hung from its back legs all afternoon and evening, twitching every so often, swaying in a storm-front breeze. I waited and waited, hoping to see it molt into a chrysalis, but when night came it was still a caterpillar.

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 23

Prior to finding the monarchs, I spent Thursday evening, all day Friday, and most of Saturday at the 6th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference. This year I went to sessions about the mechanics of fiction and nonfiction, the world of independent publishing, and twitter. (Yes, twitter!) I made new friends and took reams of notes, and on Saturday my poem “The Tracking” won first place in the 2014 Barbara Dunn Hartin Memorial Poetry Prize!

Poetry 1st Place

Then my fantasy short story “The Silvershaper” won third place in the 2014 Frank Lawlor Memorial Fiction Prize!

Fiction 3rd Place

Best of all, the conference brought an epiphany regarding my unpublished fantasy manuscript. A trio of sessions about story openings, plot, and voice uncovered the root of a pacing problem in the first five chapters. It’s a problem I can fix, now that I can see it.

As exciting as awards and epiphanies are, they represent a small part of my writing experience. They’re like finding monarchs in the yard, flashy glimpses of wonder. Most of writing’s surprises are quieter discoveries. Accidental phrases open new perspectives; plots turn slippery and skid off in unexpected directions; sub-plots bloom into stories of their own.

Those are the happy surprises. Unpleasant surprises happen, too. Failed poems, unresolvable stories, harsh critiques (which I’ve found are more common online than in person), lost submissions, and sudden doubts so ferocious that success seems impossible. These are like rodents moving into my wren house.

Rats Sept 21

(When I spotted movement in the wren house on Sunday, I hoped for a late-season nest. I should have been more specific and hoped for a bird nest. Luckily, the rodents didn’t stay.)

Rats Sept 21

Rats Sept 21

Rats Sept 21

Were I allowed to choose my yard and writing surprises, I would always opt for monarchs and awards. There would be no lost submissions, no anxious waves of doubt, and no unwelcome rodents*. So perhaps it’s best that I’m not allowed to choose. Because if yards were made only of monarchs and writing meant only awards, think of all the stories that would never be told.

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 24


* I had a pet rat, when I was a teen, and a pair of pet mice during college. I find it hard to despise rodents, but in my alternate reality the rats and mice would all be free of diseases. And they would clean up after themselves. No more breaking into pantries for food, no more trails of droppings and urine, no more Hantavirus or listeria or plague, nor any of the other devastating illnesses mice and rats carry in the real world.

Review: My Beloved Brontosaurus

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

First, I have to confess that this is not really a review. It’s mostly a chance for me to visit one of my favorite topics. I have been fascinated by dinosaurs for a very, very long time. As I read My Beloved Brontosaurus, my fingers began to itch for the feel of my old plastic toys, the ones that roared through my childhood and paced across my shelves. They are (and were at the time) scientifically inaccurate. However, they were (and still are) great fun.

Dinosaurs April 4

Unlike my battered collection of mismatched toys, My Beloved Brontosaurus is equal parts good science and good fun. Much of it is a journey through paleontology’s growing pains, exploring name changes, skeletal puzzles, and feather mysteries. Chapter by chapter, the book details how Brontosaurus became Apatosaurus, how the upright posture that once defined a dinosaur was discovered in non-dinosaurs from the same time period, and how evidence hints that many dinosaurs had feathers or protofeathers (sometimes referred to as dinofuzz.)

My Beloved Brontosaurus is the most fun I’ve had with dinosaurs in years. Not only is the science interesting, the book strikes resonant chords in each chapter with elements of memoir, personal essay, and travel writing. As I turned the last page, I was filled with a deep yearning to pack a bag and head off on a multi-state museum tour. A few minutes later, coming to my senses and realizing that travel is not my favorite way to spend time, I headed off to the attic in search of a dusty box full of memories.

Dinosaurs April 4

(I don’t know how the woolly mammoth [definitely not a dinosaur] made it into this batch of plastic dinosaurs. Nor the sail-backed Dimetrodon. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I found a blog post, yesterday, explaining how Dimetrodon is #notadinosaur”.)

Dinosaurs April 4

Since I started this post with a confession, it seems appropriate to end with one. I don’t remember some of these dinosaurs. They mysteriously appeared in my collection when Mother mailed off several boxes of old toys as she attempted to de-clutter her house. I can’t say with certainty which of the dinosaurs were mine and which ones became mine as Mother packed the boxes, but I’m happy to claim them all now.

Dinosaurs April 4

(As an aside, it’s somehow logical to me that cats might have had something to do with most of history’s extinction crises.)

Dinosaurs April 4

Poetic Prose: Music

I don’t have a concise definition for music in writing, but I tend to think of it as a pleasing combination of syllable sounds and meaning. It’s heavily dependent on word choice and word order, and the richest music is enhanced by metaphor and imagery. Music is what makes poetry poetic, but there’s no rule that says prose can’t be poetic, too.

Researchers at the University of Exeter recently published a study in which they compared the brain’s response to prose and poetry. The following is from the university’s website:

In a specific comparison between poetry and prose, the team found evidence that poetry activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection. (1)

(I highly recommend reading the brief University of Exeter article in its entirety, because it contains details of how the study was conducted, along with a caution that “This was a preliminary study.”)

A post at Your Universe Online says:

The team also found that emotionally charged writing activated areas of the brain which are known to respond to music. Predominantly on the right side, these regions had previously been shown to give rise to the “shivers down the spine” feeling caused by an emotional response to music. (2)

Perhaps musical writing is music, as far as the brain is concerned. At a minimum, musical writing engages readers’ minds in a more complex fashion than non-musical writing. Does this explain, in part, my emotional connection to books like The Book ThiefThe Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and Shine Shine Shine? And how, as a writer, do I add music to my fiction?

Here’s the first sentence of The White Deer by James Thurber:

If you should walk and wind and wander far enough on one of those afternoons in April when smoke goes down instead of up, and nearby things sound far away and far things near, you are more than likely to come at last to the enchanted forest that lies between the Moonstone Mines and Centaurs Mountain. (3)

The opening lilts through a series of syllables that start with soft sounds and end sharply: “… walk and wind and wander far enough … .” Alliteration is part of the magic, but there’s more than alliteration at work here. It can’t be read aloud without falling into rhythm.

The rhythm changes with “in April,” becoming staccato: “… smoke goes down instead of up … .” Now syllables begin sharply as well. And the words sound like what they mean: “goes down” has a sinking inflection and “up” make the voice rise. The same is true of “nearby things sound far away,” where the words trail off with a train of fading syllables then recover with the crisper syllables of “far things near.”

The images are surreal, setting the scene for the sentence’s eventual arrival in an enchanted forest. Each image is more strange and whimsical than the last, until:

There’s even a tale, first told by minstrels in the medieval time, that rabbits here can tip their heads as men now tip their hats, removing them with their paws and putting them back again. (4)

Intense rhythmic elements continue throughout the book, complete with a few tongue-twisting sections:

“My father and my brothers and I pursued a deer,” said Clode, “which against the wall of Centaurs Mountain underwent a marvelous and mortifying metamorphosis. I am a little touchy on the topic, too, so do not turn your tongue to taunts.”

“He does not turn his tongue,” said Jorn. “He twists your own, to ‘m’s’ and ‘t’s.’ ”

“And ‘w’s,’ ” said the wizard, “as you shall see.”

“Try twice that trick on Tlode,” said the King, with great dignity, “my mousey man of magic, and we will wid these wids of woozards.” King Clode made a royal gesture of arrogance, authority, and austerity, while his sons stared at him in astonishment. (5)

The temptation to read aloud is overwhelming, and the audiobook for The White Deer is the most exquisite recording in my collection.

The White Deer is a masterful example of how word choice and order create music, but the book’s music is not wholly dependent on sound. The imagery is bright and inventive, and the metaphors are layered and slippery. No detail is overlooked. No matter how many times I read The White Deer (or listen to it) I always find something new to love in its pages.

Whenever I get frustrated with my fiction, convinced that too much poetry has crept in, I return to The White Deer. After reading it, I realize how leaden my pages are, how barren of music. My feeble phrases gasp and wheeze. Should I accidentally write a musical paragraph, it looks out of place. I make the mistake of seeing it as “too much.” And, while some stories and genres require more subtle music than others, the problem is never too much poetry in my prose. It is always too little.


1. “Poetry is like music to the mind, scientists prove.” Medical School, News. University of Exeter. 9 October 2013. Web. 29 October 2013.

2. Flowers, April. “This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Poetry.” Your Universe Online, 10 October 2013. Web. 30 October 2013.

3. Thurber, James. The White Deer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1945. Print. 3.

4. Thurber, James. The White Deer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1945. Print. 4.

5. Thurber, James. The White Deer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1945. Print. 16.


Mushroom Aug 21

If you pluck one of the ten thousand toadstools that grow in the emerald grass at the edge of the wonderful woods, it will feel as heavy as a hammer in your hand, but if you let it go it will sail away over the trees like a tiny parachute, trailing black and purple stars. (pg 1-2)

Mushroom Aug 21