Unless You’re Buying an Appliance, Comparisons Aren’t Always Useful

Looking out on Lake Charlevoix in Boyne City, Michigan, December 2022.

A couple of days ago I read “Avoid Comparing Yourself to Other Writers – Even Yourself,” a blog by Finnian Burnett, and as I read, I kept nodding my head in agreement. With the tweaking of a few details, Burnett could’ve been writing about me.

I related to their comparing their 2022 writing accomplishments to their 2023 writing attempts. I, too, have deadlines looming for journals and contests that I’ve submitted to in the past few years but wonder if I’ll submit to all of them again this year. I’ve been working on writing new stories and essays, but it’s harder this year, and what I have is a handful of rough drafts that I haven’t returned to working on yet because I tell myself I need to let them simmer. I’m not sure why writing seems harder this year, but I have some guesses. First, I spent large chunks of time this fall and early winter visiting my mom, who is recovering from major heart surgery. And I’m subbing a lot more, something I did infrequently during the 2021-22 school year. Both of those activities have taken time away from my writing. Also, I had short stories and essays published and a few won prizes in contests during 2022. Now, I wonder if I can write something as good or hopefully better. That kind of thinking makes my fingers freeze over the keyboard.

Like Burnett, I often admire another writer’s work, and say to myself, “Wow, I wish I could write like that!” It’s a little easier to put those comparisons aside and remind myself to be the writer I am and to compete only against myself. But that can be perilous too. Burnett has a point about looking back at our past accomplishments and using them against ourselves as a measuring stick – it’s not too helpful when sitting down to write in the present.

Reading Burnett’s blog made me feel better. It’s comforting to know someone else feels the way I feel. Writing is a solitary endeavor most of the time, and when I do get together with other writers, we often discuss what we’re working on, give each other feedback, and share resources. But if I’m struggling, I don’t want to be the little black cloud in the group raining insecurity, so I’m grateful that Burnett shared their feelings about the times when writing isn’t clicking. It’s wonderful to have a community of writers to share the good times and happy news with, but it’s also wonderful to have a community of writers to share the tough times with. Talking about the boogeyman hiding under my keyboard helps because the pesky monster shrinks in size when I talk about it.

Burnett suggests we be compassionate with ourselves. So, I’ve done a handstand and flipped my viewpoint, and I’m giving myself credit for what I’ve done so far this year. I have three rough drafts that might make good stories. I’m reworking an essay I thought was complete, giving it more depth and meaning (letting a piece of writing simmer isn’t just procrastination). In the last two weeks I finished a 900-word story and a 3,000-word essay, which I submitted a day before the deadline, and I started another short story that has promise. And I write for my blog.

The only cure I know for writing is to keep writing. And I’ve been doing that, just differently and slower. And it’s all okay.

Thank you, Finnian Burnett, for saying so in your blog and reminding us all to be kind to ourselves. And you said it so well!

[To read “Avoid Comparing Yourself to Other Writers – Even Yourself” by Finnian Burnett, click here.]

Book Review: Finding the Bones by Nikki Kallio

[Note: Kallio’s book is being released in February 2023, by Cornerstone Press.]

Open Finding the Bones by Nikki Kallio and buckle up because you’re in for a spellbinding, scary, stomach-dropping, heart-in-your-throat roller coaster ride through nine short stories and a novella, some written in the genres of science fiction, gothic, and speculative. I read Kallio’s page-turning collection in one day.

But ride that roller coaster in slow motion because Kallio’s stories are written with a wonderful literary flare, breaking the boundaries of genre labels. So read deeply and slowly, savor Kallio’s use of language. Study her characters, listen to their conversations, and read their thoughts. Look around at the worlds her characters inhabit, yet find yourself reminded of your own familiar world.

Some of Kallio’s stories launch us into other worlds: outer space, a haunted house, and an Earth where the sun is dangerous. Others are set in the ordinary homes of ordinary people who face extraordinary events. Her stories explore themes of death, isolation, aging, belonging, trauma, and displacement. And while Kallio’s stories transported me far away from my living room couch, they also connected me to what it means to be human during times of tragedy, mental health issues, or environmental devastation.

For example, “Shadow” and “Disappearing” explore grief and loss from different angles, helping readers understand that grief is a deep and complex emotion. “Disappearing,” one of my favorite stories, explores loss from a child’s viewpoint after his mother has gone missing, disrupting the notion that children don’t experience grief like adults do.

In “Geography Lessons” a father and daughter are traveling through space to another planet because Earth has been destroyed, but only a fraction of the population is chosen for the trip. As the former earthlings hurtled through space, I thought about migrants in our world who leave their homes because they are no longer safe, bringing with them only memories and perhaps a few trinkets. Family ties are broken, cultural heritage is fractured, and children drift between two worlds.

Kallio’s collection of short stories ends with The Fledgling, an eighty-three-page novella. It’s a powerful, tightly woven dystopian story with richly drawn characters navigating life on Earth after exposure to the sun becomes dangerous. Her novella is the pitch-perfect crescendo to the end of an amazing collection of stories.

Kallio’s stories entertain, but she also creates empathy for characters and in turn her characters enhance our ability to understand our fellow human beings. Years ago I was told that short stories are meant to be read more than once, and Kallio’s collection invites us to visit again.

Publication Date: February 2023, Cornerstone Press, Stevens Point, WI

[This book review written by me was originally published on the Wisconsin Writers Association Book Review page.]

Bloganuary Post for January 16: Do You Have a Memory Linked to a Smell?

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January. This is yesterday’s topic.]

Nana Kitty in front of her house, 1978

I cannot describe what my nana’s kitchen smelled like because there is no specific scent I know of to compare it to. But on rare occasions, I walk into someplace and unexpectedly inhale a whiff of the same smell that was a constant part of her kitchen. Permanent just like the yellowed-white plastic radio on her burgundy-red linoleum countertop or the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil statuette of monkeys perched next to the acorn-and-pipe-cleaner figurine who played a single bongo drum, both resting on a shelf above the ledge where her princess phone lounged.

It wasn’t the smell of cookies in the oven or bread dough rising because she never baked. Her bankrupt cookie jar squatted in a corner to the left of the sink, tucked next to the toaster. It wasn’t the smell of fried chicken sizzling on the stove or a Sunday roast baking in the oven because Nana never cooked the way most women did in the 1960s. I don’t have a single memory of our family gathering around her kitchen table for a holiday dinner or any other dinner. She had no dining room. My siblings and I often stayed with Nana for two or three days at a time, but I remember little about what we ate.

Her kitchen was a small space with a trivial parcel of countertop, an afterthought of cupboards, a narrow gas stove, and an old diminutive, single-door refrigerator with a miniature freezer box tucked inside. The kitchen was designed to discourage cooking.

Perhaps the distinct smell of Nana’s kitchen was a conglomeration of its tiny world: a tea kettle of water boiling over a gas flame to make instant coffee; a sunny-side-up egg in melted butter, frying in a cast iron pan, basted to perfection; Malt-O-Meal bubbling in a stainless-steel pot; a slice of bread browning in a toaster, then layered with butter or marmalade; tea steeping in hot water, brewed to soothe a queasy stomach; a rose or peony cut from the garden, standing in a vase; shoes or winter boots gathered on yesterday’s newspaper near the outside door; an old oak table covered with oilcloth; faux brick vinyl wallpaper on the front wall; white cotton curtains washed in Fels-Naptha soap; cleanser scrubbed against the porcelain sink; wax applied to the yellow, brown, and orange patterned floor; aging varnish on wooden trim; the metal-lined milk chute, waiting for the day’s delivery; the heavy, dark wooden door, layered with years of oil from the hands of Nana’s grandchildren, children, and her dead husband.

It’s been awhile since I have smelled anything like Nana’s kitchen. Perhaps that’s because many of the smells that lived there are now too old-fashioned, having been made from products no longer used. Perhaps my sense of smell has dulled. Recently, I looked at pictures of Nana’s home on a realtor’s site. The kitchen has been modernized, but it’s still tiny, still designed to discourage cooking. I imagine the smells have been updated too.

Bloganuary Post for January 9: What’s the Most Memorable Gift You’ve Received?

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January. With this post I’m both behind and moving in reverse through the topics. But Merlin aged backwards, growing younger, so there you go.]

Charlie in Turtle Park, November 2022

Choosing anything to label as “the best” or “most memorable” or “the greatest” is difficult. The answer to my most memorable gift would’ve been different last year, ten years ago, twenty years ago, or forty years ago, and if I wrote about any of those gifts, it wouldn’t mean the others were less memorable. So, I’ve decided to write about my most recent memorable gift for a couple of reasons. One, it’s recent, so I remember more details, and two, because, well, it’s memorable.

In December my youngest two grandchildren, Evan and Charlie, came for a sleepover. When they arrived, I opened the overhead door to let them in the garage. Charlie, the four year old, stood in front of me clutching the top of a sandwich baggie in his fists. His dad and grandpa talked to each other, Evan talked to everyone, and Charlie talked to me, keeping a firm grip on his baggie. But his voice is small, and his C‘s come out as W‘s, and sometimes he drops his S‘s. My ears have trouble distinguishing between M‘s and N‘s and B‘s and D‘s. Sometimes in a room of crowded voices, it’s hard for my ears to decipher Charlie’s words. But I figured he was talking about a snack in the baggie, so I patted his head and said, “That’s nice.” I told him to go inside and take his jacket and boots off. Charlie smiled big, and went into the house.

My son looked at me. He knew I hadn’t heard a word Charlie said because I had that look on my face. The look of someone pretending she has heard. “You know,” my son said, “Charlie filled that baggie with warm air from the car. He wants to give it to you for your house.”

I did not know. I had not heard. I followed Charlie into the basement.

“Charlie, you brought me some warm air. Thank you so much.”

“Yeah!” Charlie cooed, smiling even bigger, firmly holding the baggie, making sure none of the air escaped while he shook off his boots one at a time. I offered to hold the baggie of air while he took off his jacket.

I handed the air back to Charlie. “Let’s go upstairs, and you can set the warm air free.”

In the living room, he placed the baggie on the coffee table, opened it, and let the warm air loose. I opened my arms wide. “Can you feel all that nice warm air?”

“Yes, I can,” Charlie said, opening his arms wide, lifting his fingers up toward the ceiling to feel the warmth of his gift, his face filling with the joy of giving his nana such a fine present.

A Quilt, a Painting, and a Connection

An early moon in January

Last week as part of Bloganuary’s writing topics, I posted “A Treasure That I Have Lost.” Sally, another blogger, read my post and liked it, especially the part about the quilt that my twelve-year-old son and I made for his grandpa. It reminded her of a similar story in her life when she and her twelve-year-old son painted a special picture for his grandfather.

Sally wrote a touching essay about the painting and how much her son’s grandfather treasured the painting. When I read Sally’s blog, I broke out in goosebumps, and I had to blink back tears. Both Sally’s father and my father have passed away.

To read her essay and see the whimsical painting she and her son created, click here: “Beep-Beep.”

One of the greatest joys of writing is when a reader connects with something you’ve written.

Bloganuary Post for January 10: Has a Book Changed Your Life?

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January. I’m a day behind. And I missed some days, but I was writing other stuff.]

Yes, all of them, even the books I don’t remember.

The first book I loved was “The Little Engine That Could.” It was my favorite bedtime story. My mother once tried to convince me to choose another story for her to read, but I became Little Blue Engine chugging away, steadfastly keeping the course up the mountain, refusing all other stories until my mother gave in and read it. I finally understood her point of view after I had children and had to read “Green Eggs and Ham” a bajillion trillion times.

Grandma Olive believed in books. She was a teacher and gave us books for birthdays and Christmas. She was also the organist and choir director at the Presbyterian Church, so the books usually had a religious theme. She lived eight hours away, and I think she suspected my parents were lackadaisical in the religious education of her grandchildren. She was right to be suspicious. Before every trip up north, my mother reminded us not to mention that we only went to church when we visited Grandma Olive. But I liked those children’s Bible stories too. On Sunday mornings while my parents slept in, my sisters and I created a circle of books by opening them, standing them on edge, and lining them up cover to cover. We climbed inside, pretending we were “Three Men in a Tub,” and recited the Mother Goose rhyme. Then because it was Sunday, I read Bible stories to my sisters, secretly hoping Grandma Olive could sense our piety.

Nana Kitty believed in books. She had a set of encyclopedias from the 1950s on a petite bookshelf in her doll-sized living room. Those volumes contained the world, from Argentina to Yugoslavia, from Aardvark to Zebra, from Mercury to Pluto. I sat on her sofa and played alphabet roulette, reading about Queen Victoria one time and Canada another time. Nana also had a handful of Little Golden Books. My favorite was Scuffy the Tugboat. After Nana died, I ended up with some of the Little Golden books, including Scuffy, which I sometimes read to my grandchildren.

When I was in elementary school, my mother refused to buy me a pair of black patent leather shoes. I was a tomboy and she believed I would wreck them before I could outgrow them, so she considered them a waste of money. But my mother believed in books. Every time I came home from school with a book order form, which was two or three times a year, she let me order three or four books. She never told me they were a waste of money, even when money was tight. Each time my books arrived and the teacher gave me my stack held together with a rubber band, I smelled their newness then hugged them to my chest. I had wanted patent leather shoes, so I would fit in with the patent-leather-shoe girls. But my shoes were never going to make a difference. The books, however, were great friends who took me to new worlds.

In fourth grade I read biographies. The library at Pleasant View Elementary had a series of biographies. Eventually, I read them all–Marie Antionette, Catherine the Great, Alexander Graham Bell, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell, Jenny Lind, Marie Currie, and others whose names I can’t remember. While I wanted to sing like Jenny Lind, the person I most admired was Madam Marie Currie. She was determined to get an education despite living through political upheaval and at a time when women didn’t routinely attend college. Between the biographies, I read Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mysteries, and Nancy Drew mysteries.

On Christmas morning there were always some books and new pajamas under the tree. My third favorite part of Christmas day (after the unwrapping and eating) was to climb into bed wearing my new jammies and read my new book. When I was in seventh grade, my mom bought me a complete, unabridged, two-volume set of Sherlock Holmes. She knew I liked mysteries. During Christmas break, I sat in a stuffed armchair with a dictionary tucked beside me and Sir Authur Conan Doyle’s wily detective and his sidekick on my lap. At first, I needed to look up lots of words, but before long I could read Doyle’s stories with only an occasional turn to the dictionary. I was Little Blue Engine, chugging away, up the mountain of new words. I felt so proud that my mother bought something so grown-up for me.

I read through high school and college. During most of my twenties, when I read for fun, it had to be a book written by a British author before 1900. I’ve been a reader my whole life, fiction and nonfiction. I always have a book on my nightstand and a book on the end table. I often have a book in my purse, and in a pinch I have a nook app on my phone with some witty, heart-throbbing regency romances by Jennifer Tretheway, books that are so much fun they are worth a second read.

Once I learned to read, I never stopped. I have a lot of books on my to-be-read pile, but that doesn’t stop me from buying new ones. Will I ever get them all read? Well, “I think I can–I think I can–I think I can–I think I can.”

Bloganuary Post for January 6: Why I Write

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January.]

I write because I love words and sentences and paragraphs. I can play with them like a box of orphaned, mismatched Legos, combining them in different colors and sizes and shapes, building something familiar–yet perhaps not quite like anything anyone has ever seen before.

I write because I love to put an idea, an emotion, a story out into the world, hoping it connects with another person. My story in an online journal, accessible by anyone anywhere with a computer and internet. My story in a paper journal on a table in an art gallery in a small town in Minnesota, accessible by anyone who sits and turns a page.

I write because if I don’t, I’m out of sorts, at odds with myself, missing a piece of me.

Bloganuary Post for January 5: What Brings Me Joy

Bogey, my mother’s dog

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January. The words in quotes are from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth. I first read this poem in college, and loved it. It’s still my favorite poem.]

What Brings Me Joy

Fields filled with swaying grasses, splashed with wild flowers, and hugged by trees are my joy. I wandered through those kinds of fields as a child when I lived in southern Wisconsin. And now, I wander along those kinds of fields when I visit my mother in Michigan and walk her dog.

Those fields are to me what William Wordsworth’s “host of golden Daffodils” were to him.

For even when I am absent from those fields, they can “flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude, / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances [not] with the Daffodils,” for those belong to Wordsworth. My heart dances with the swaying grasses, for those belong to me.

[To read “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” click here. To view the slideshow below, click on the square on either side of the picture.]

Bloganuary Post for January 4: A Treasure That I Have Lost

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January. I’m a day behind.]

When my father, who lived in Tucson, died in 2016, there were three things I wanted from his estate: a bed-sized quilt I’d made for him, a lap quilt my youngest son had made for him, and a scrapbook of photos I’d made for him filled with pictures of him and my sons.

I got two out of three.

Dad’s quilt with a white background in the focus fabric and a dark blue border

The quilt made for my father arrived first. Years before, on a visit north, my father had gone into a fabric store with me on purpose. Maybe it’s a cliché but most men don’t follow women into fabric stores. My husband always sits in the car. I had a friend whose husband always sat in the car and sometimes napped while she bought material. But my father wasn’t a sit-in-the-car kind of guy. Once on an afternoon jaunt along Lake Superior, I stopped at a yarn shop, and my father came inside with me. He found something to like in that store–the owner’s dogs. While I perused the yarn, they chatted about their dogs.

After I picked out some lovely woodsy, snowy themed material in the quilt shop, my father offered to pay for it. He didn’t say, “Make me a quilt.” The gift came with no threads attached. But in that moment, I knew I’d make him a quilt out of the material. A few days later, I bought a second set of the same fabric in a different color scheme, and I made two quilts, one for him and one for me. I thought about the quilts as a gift of connectedness: he had one and I had one.

Weeks later the quilt my son made for his grandpa arrived. It was late coming because at first no one could find it. I wanted my son to have the quilt. On his own he’d decided to make his grandpa a quilt. He picked out a focus fabric with an airplane motif because his grandpa had a small private plane, which he used every summer to fly from Tucson to Wisconsin to visit us.

The airplane quilt

The making of the airplane quilt was a joint effort between my son and me when he was about twelve. He selected the material, chose a design, and sewed the squares together. I cut the squares using a rotary cutter. If you’ve ever seen or used a rotary cutter for quilting, you will understand why you don’t put one in the hands of a child. When the quilt top was finished, I machine quilted it and put a binding on it. During one of my father’s summer visits, my son gave his grandpa the quilt, who most fittingly put it in his plane when he left and few it home.

The scrapbook of photos never arrived. No one ever found it. I made it for my father around 2005. I wasn’t into scrapbooking, but I had a friend who made gorgeous eye-candy scrapbooks to memorialize family vacations. When I was a child, a scrapbook had plain white pages and people taped or glued articles, photos, ticket stubs, and other flat mementos in them. I have one I made when I was a teenager after my trip to Europe. But scrapbooking had evolved, and people used decorative papers, elaborate stickers, and fancy stick-on letters to create themed pages, which were slipped into plastic sleeves then inserted into a binder.

I made one of those upscale, themed, gorgeous eye-candy, fancy scrapbooks for my father. I filled it with pictures of him and his grandsons. Pictures of him holding them as babies. Pictures of them fishing with him. Pictures of them with him when we visited Tucson. And, most sentimentally, the pictures I took each year of him and his grandsons in front of his plane, just before we stepped away and he climbed inside. We’d listen to him yell “clear” before he started the engine. We’d watch him taxi to the runway then take off. We’d stand on the ground and wave, and my father would tip his wings back and forth, waving goodbye to us.

The scrapbook is a treasure gone missing. No one is sure what happened to it. One year my father, who lived in a raised ranch, had water damage in the lower level in an area where he stored a lot of stuff that had to be thrown away. Maybe the scrapbook was part of the flood.

I have copies of all the photos, but it’s not the same. In the scrapbook, those remembrances were gathered in one place. I wanted to be able to open the scrapbook and wander through those collected memories of my father with his grandsons. I could’ve made another scrapbook, but I haven’t. I think of the one I made for my father as perfect, something I couldn’t replicate.

But I use the quilt I made for him on my bed. The gift-of-connectedness quilt that I made for myself hangs on the quilt rack in my family room.

My quilt with a tan background in the focus fabric
and a sage green border

Bloganuary Post for January 3: What’s the Earliest Memory I Have?

My sister and me, a few months before our trip to Pulaski Park

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January.]

My earliest childhood memory? That would be the morning my younger sister (2) and I (3) took pity on my sleeping mother, left the house early in the morning, and walked a handful of blocks to Pulaski Park in Milwaukee. Mom was tired. Who wouldn’t be with two busy toddlers around the house? So, we didn’t wake her up and ask her silly questions like, “Can we go to the park?”

We also didn’t worry about getting dressed. My sister and I each wore a stylish combination of cotton training pants and summer pajama tops. During a hot Milwaukee summer, we didn’t bother with pajama bottoms.

Pulaski Park was our favorite because Nana Kitty took us there when she came to visit. She put each of us on a swing and pushed us up, up, up, into the always robin’s-egg-blue sky. And, our best, most favorite part? Nana sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” to us while she pushed us on the swings.

It was my favorite song. And on that morning, it was my idea to go to the park. If my nana couldn’t take us, I would take us. I wanted to go to the park because I wanted to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” just like Nana did, even though I didn’t know all the words like she did.

I held my sister’s hand, and we walked down sidewalks, waited at stoplights, and crossed streets without getting hit by a car. We walked on the path into the park and crossed a concrete bridge over a small creek. I helped my sister into the swing, and I pushed her up, up, up, into the always robin’s-egg-blue sky. I sang some of the words from “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

A woman who was at the park, pushing her child on a swing, asked me, “Where is your mother?”

“In bed,” I replied. “I’m taking care of my sister.” I smiled. I felt proud as I pushed my sister into the sky and sang about Puff, the childhood friend of Little Jackie Paper.

And that’s where my memory stops, and my mom’s memory begins.

When my sister and I were older, Mom told us how our trip to the park ended. She woke up shocked and panicky to find we weren’t anywhere in the house. But she had a good idea where we went. She put our German Shepherd, Fritz, into the car and drove to Pulaski Park. So relieved to find us there, she hugged and kissed us over and over again.

A couple of weeks later, Mom woke up and my sister and I were gone—again. We’d gone back to Pulaski Park on our own—again. Mom and Fritz came to get us—again. But the second time, Mom was so upset to find us there, she gave us spankings!