Friday, December 28, 2012

A Homemade Christmas

Yep...still only the 4th day of Christmas, so don't expect me to jump ahead to celebrating St. Valentine's Day quite yet. :)

And I just can't resist sharing some of the lovely gifts I was given this Christmas:

A Christmas tree painted by Zoe

A lovely box made by Mark...

...which opens into a portable watercolor palette! (Just add paint...)


A wild rose painted (in oils) by Lucy. Isn't that incredible?!

And to round things off, here are some of the gifts I made for them in return:

A tiny stuffed mouse for Lucy.
 I may not be helping my case in the mouse wars...but I earned a giant hug and smile.

Currently, Master Mouse is joining Mary and Joseph in adoration.
They, in turn, seem unfazed by the sudden appearance of a hooded Rodent Of Unusual Size.

Genevieve's Tiny Turtle

Zoe's little clownfish

And a wee olive ornament for Mark, hiding amidst the fir branches.
Yes, a little odd, but we share a passion for green olives. :)
Now that my creativity can refocus on my writing, I'm jumping into revisions of a few set-aside projects. January always seems like a good time to give things a new chance, doesn't it?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Nativity


This will be my last post until after Christmas, so I thought I'd share with you a very brief bit of story I gave Mark as a gift a few years ago... Enjoy--and have a beautiful, blessed Christmas!

***

Nativity

“My love.”

The girl whispered the words to her newborn baby. She watched his eyelids flutter and his chest fill with its first breath of air.


“My joy.”

She marveled at his perfection. Ten fingers. Ten toes. Those eyes were so beautiful, dark blue as the sky above them.


“My hope.”

He grasped her finger with his fist, holding tight. And he looked at her, met her gaze and held it, unblinking.


“My son.”


How wonderful to feel his tiny mouth against her breast. He faltered, his body weak still, his neck so small and his head heavy. She pulled him close, cradled his head in the crook of her arm, guided his lips until she heard the soft suckling.


“My Savior.”

What pain would those tiny hands endure? What weight would crush those smooth shoulders? He was so little, so helpless. In his sleep his eyebrows drew together; what painful prophecy played in his dreams? She stroked his cheek; at once a smile parted his lips, and a strain of music burst through the air. The voices of angels and men blended and harmonized, new notes springing from the others as their songs met. Around the baby, the air shone. Above his head, a star pierced the night's darkness.


“My God.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More about mice

As I was discussing last week’s post about our mouse wars with a family member, I was reminded that perhaps Lucy has mouse pacifism in her genetic make-up.

When I was fourteen years old, my dad had a job five hours away--he stayed at an apartment in Connecticut during the week and then drove back to our house in central New York until we sold the NY house and found a place for all of us in CT. One day, we ran out to the familiar sound of Dad’s Jetta pulling into the driveway. He got out, gave my brother and me hugs, and looked nervously at the house. He had that expression--something involving pursed lips, pulsing jaw, and slightly squinted eyes--that meant he was up to something. (We were familiar with the look after various birthday surprises.) He glanced at the house again and waved Nick and me toward the back of the car.


“Open the trunk,” he said. “Just...don’t tell Mom about it right now, okay?”


Now we were nervous. You couldn’t predict Dad’s surprises-- I mean, this is the guy who once “surprised” our four-year-old sister with a gift of a handful of earthworms. We gingerly opened the lid...and heard squeaking. We peeked into a plastic container and our hearts melted. It was full of mice--there were four adults, two white and two cinnamon-colored, and about seven tiny baby mice nuzzling against their mother’s side. We didn’t tell Mom. We did keep making surreptitious trips to the trunk at least once an hour.


Apparently a group of college kids who lived in the same apartment building as Dad had decided to buy a couple mice from the local pet store. Not for pets...of course not. They bought them to see if they would explode if they put them in the microwave. Somehow Dad discovered their perfidious plan, told them off as only an experienced dad can, and swept the mice away to safety. Well, relative safety--after all, Mom hadn’t found out about them yet.


But it was getting hard to keep them a secret. By the end of the weekend, there were a lot more than seven babies. A week later, they had completely outgrown the container. We all told Mom.


To our great dismay, she didn’t let us keep them. After all, there were a few dozen by now, and we were about to move. So we were given the option of either taking them to the pet store (where they would risk becoming snake food) or releasing them into the wild (where they would risk becoming, well, snake/owl/cat food...but at least have a chance to run). We chose the latter, though I wasn’t the only one teary-eyed as we let them go.


Don’t worry--there’s still a happy ending for all of you (Lucy included) who might be worried about the mice’s fate. Three weeks later, while walking on the path through the little patch of woods near the house, we saw a flash of white and pink dash under a pile of fallen leaves.


So, see, all you mice currently inhabiting the eaves of my house: I was a friend to mice! I was instrumental in saving your distant cousins from a terrible fate! Please, as a small sign of gratitude, stay out of my cupboards. You can have the eaves, if you must, but I beg you not to nibble through any more bags of rice.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Make Good Art

To say that we’re shaken by the news of the shooting in Sandy Hook on Friday would be a gross understatement. Things like that make it hard to go on living...make you feel guilty to be living, or smiling, or doing simple things like putting up a Christmas tree.
I read a beautiful post by author Shelley Moore Thomas, who reminded me that the most important thing right now is just this: Do good. Which is absolutely true. The more evil there is in the world, the more we must fight it with good.
But for those of us who feel a calling to the arts, that goes one step further. After my mother-in-law’s death from cancer this spring, Mark and I were part of a wonderful conversation with a dear friend of ours who is a brilliant composer/organist/music director. He was asked, “How do you deal with the craziness of the world? What do you do on the days when it just seems like everything is all wrong?” And he answered, “I create art. I feel that’s the one way I can bring goodness and beauty and order to the world. Worrying about the bad things doesn’t help... So I just focus on doing what I feel I’m supposed to do.”
Having sung his music in concert and having heard an orchestra play his works, I can attest that he is doing something very important. You can feel beauty when you hear that one violin solo...you can internalize truth when that last chord is perfectly resolved.
My favorite artist, William Adolphe Bouguereau, is an example of someone who took extreme personal tragedy and overcame it to bring goodness to the world. The Pieta above, undeniably one of his greatest works, was painted just after the sudden deaths of his young wife and infant son. You can’t look into the eyes of Our Lady in that painting without your heart moving. I always feel as if she’s asking me--just me at that moment--Why did you do this to him? Yet at the same time I see the peace and resignation in her posture, the way she is accepting the pain in her life, displaying the same faith with which she accepted the joys. You know that Bouguereau’s own pain is coming through in that gaze...yet his own acceptance compelled him to create this masterpiece rather than turn his back on God and the world.
People often speculate on why so many artists have tragic lives. Well, there are a lot of people with tragic lives. But then your have someone like Mark Twain--who lost almost his entire family to sudden illness or shocking, senseless tragedies--who used that pain to bring the world some joy. Lucy Maud Montgomery wasn’t the first woman to lose parents and children, to struggle with depression, or to doubt her faith. But she was the only one who could give us Anne of Green Gables to help us through our own losses and struggles and doubts. Maybe artists are no more tragic than anyone. Maybe they’re just the people who respond to tragedy by creating beauty.
So even though the world is making no sense right now, I’m going to get through the numbness and get up a little earlier to write. Maybe someday my words will give someone a little bit of hope that they really needed.
As Neil Gaiman advised: Make good art.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The eternal optimist

Yesterday afternoon:
The girls were contentedly adorning themselves with items from the dress-up trunk...the housework was "done"...the house was filled only with the scrape-scrape-scrape of Mark carving a violin scroll in the next room over. I thought, "Perfect. Maybe I can get a little writing in."

...

Five minutes later:
Lucy said, "My dress is ripped! Can you fix it?"
Zoe said, "I am Peter Pan! I am Peter Pan! Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama--guess what? I am Peter Pan!"
Ginny ran around and around in circles, singing, "La la la la la la la la la la la....rum pum pum pum....la la la la la... rum pum pum pum...."
And Mark played scales on another violin, trying to adjust the tone.

...

Half an hour later:
The kitchen somehow looked like a tornado had struck. Dress up clothes were everywhere. Ginny had danced into Mark's shop and around the rest of the house, spreading little wood curls into every room.
But I got one sentence written. Totally worth it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Of Mice and (Wo)men


It’s a generally accepted opinion that when faced with the sight of a tiny, soft, fuzzy, pink-nosed rodent, most women will either shriek, jump onto a chair, grab a broom, or some combination of all three. I fall into the shrieking category. I’d like to say I’m not scared of something so little and harmless as a mouse, but I can’t help it. They’re just so....darn....cute. 

That might not make much sense to you if you’ve never been faced with the prospect of either killing one of the darling, adorable things or losing all your hard-earned food to its nibbly little teeth. I’m not scared of the mouse itself, per se. I’m more scared of myself. Perhaps a little frightened of the vengeance that will be wreaked upon my soul if I harm the tiny, helpless creature.

So I let Mark deal with them, and try to keep my shrieks to muted moans, else Lucy will come running.

You see, there’s a battle waging in the Hough household. Not family vs. mice, as you might think--because goodness knows, when you live in a 300+ year-old house, the mice are gonna come out ahead every time. No...it’s between me and my 5-year-old daughter.


Lucy is adamantly pro-mouse. She’s a mouse pacifist. It’s not good enough for her that we don’t use the violent spring-contraption traps...she thinks we should leave food out for them. She wants to make them Christmas presents. She names them.


I try to reason with her. I remind her of the time last year when a mouse nibbled through a bag in the cupboard and ate all her Christmas chocolate, leaving the golden wrappers to decorate our drinking glasses. I give her Exhibit B: my long-beloved ragdoll who now has a hole in her face. She shrugs, says I shouldn’t leave dollies on the floor where mice can get them, and asks why we didn’t just give the mouse his own chocolate.


I think St. Francis has himself a new follower. But the sad truth is that I can only blame myself for sharing some of my favorite books with her. Well, myself and Brian Jacques, Beatrix Potter, Robert O’Brien, and Richard Peck, to name a few.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Oh, the fights that married writers get into...

Reason #147 that it's great to be married to a writer: nothing keeps you going like a little healthy competition. The latest opportunity: Write Club 2012, hosted by the brave and persevering Don Hammons. The outcome: I got creamed.
The rather more specific outcome is that MARK WON! Today, after about 20 weeks of competition, the winner was announced and the finalists' identities revealed. If you've been following, you'll recognize his alias; he was the illustrious Snivvy Crank. The competition in the final few rounds and especially the last one was incredibly fierce, but it's been fun...even through the agony of defeat on my part.
Reason #148 that it's great to be married to a writer: sharing triumphs makes for twice as many reasons to celebrate. Mark took the news in a fairly calm and collected manner, while I squealed and happy-danced around the room. It's so much more fun to be creamed when you don't have to give up the celebratory eggnog... (We're big on eggnog around here.)
If you want to join my squealing, er, calm and collected rejoicing, you can stop over at the Write Club page (here) or Mark's own blog (here) to say congratulations. :)
And now Mark had better watch out the next time we enter the same competition...I'm gonna be bringing it. ;)

Friday, December 7, 2012

What it takes to be a REAL writer

The wonderful and terrible part of querying is, of course, the rejections. Last week I got three. All personal, all extremely encouraging and positive... though during the moment itself, that doesn't seem to help.
It feels something like this:

Girl: Ok...I know I'm really throwing myself out there, but I think we'd be great together.
Boy: Um...yeah. You know, you're really nice and gorgeous and everything, but I really only like redheads so I'm going to say no. But don't worry, I'm sure the right guy for you will come along soon.

As soon as you can remove yourself from the emotional upheaval of the moment, you notice the good bits like "nice" and "gorgeous". But until you have consumed enough chocolate, all you hear is one big, fat "NO!"

So last week with no chocolate in my system and three "NO!"s reverberating between my ears, I headed over to the library. Books are almost as good as chocolate--even better, but they just take a little longer to produce the desired panacea. So I headed up to the desk with an armload. While one librarian checked them out for me, another gave me funny looks from behind the other computer.

I started to squirm. Gosh, I must even LOOK rejected. Finally she said, "Excuse me...you're a writer, arent' you?"

I nodded, even though I wasn't feeling very writerly at the moment. "I thought so!" she said. "I remembered your name from the Tassy Walden Awards!* I was wondering...we have a creative writing group for teens here at the library--would you ever be interested in coming to talk to them, about being a writer, and maybe answer any questions they might have?"

I blinked a few times before saying, "Yeah--I'd love to...but I'm not published yet."

For some amazing reason, her face lit up. "That's great! I think it would be wonderful for them to see how much time and perseverance it takes to succeed!"

I blinked again, this time because all the frustration of the day's rejections seemed to be welling up behind my eyelids. "You don't know how good it is for me to hear that right now," I said. "I, um, actually came here right after getting a rejection, and the whole way over kept feeling, I'm never going to make it...I'm not a real writer."

Impossibly, her face grew brighter. "Oh--you could tell them about that!" she said. "It would be so great for them to learn about submissions and rejections and dedication..." She told me she'd send me an email later in the month as they wouldn't be meeting until after the new year. I thanked her, and just as the first librarian placed the last book on my mountain of a pile, she leaned toward me and said, "You know...you're not a real writer until you've been rejected."

So, thank you, wonderful librarians. You saved the rest of my week from being a complete wallowing waste.
And, while I'm at it: thank you, wonderful agents, for taking the time to be nice to me even though I'm not a redhead...I mean, even though my book's not right for you. Really, you have no idea how much that helps an hour later.


*See my "Awards" tab above for more about the Tassy Walden Awards. If you live in Connecticut, it's a competition you absolutely must enter.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Getting Ready...

Maybe it's an INFJ thing... (You Myers-Briggs fans know what I'm talking about.) But I think I love Advent even more than I love Christmas itself. All the planning! The readying! The glorious lists of dozens of cookies that end up being about two trays! (Just for clarification, I'm about to start my third tray, of which most will be frozen. Personal best!)

Anyways... Here are some of the ways we're getting ready this year....

Our German-style (hanging, with white candles) Advent wreath

An Advent calendar chain...

Every day has a new activity for us to do together, such as: read a Christmas story, make decorations, say a prayer to Baby Jesus, make a homemade present, watch a family Christmas movie, have hot cocoa by the fire...

...and the girls can see the chain getting shorter as we get closer to Christmas!

Lastly, a Jesse Tree!

...with homemade ornaments.

I knew those juice can lids would come in handy someday! :)

Monday, December 3, 2012

MMGM: Summer of the Gypsy Moths, by Sara Pennypacker

My thinking is that if you can have Christmas in July, you should be able to have summer in December, right? Right. So today I’m spotlighting a book I actually did read when it was still warm outside: The Summer of the Gypsy Moths, by Sara Pennypacker.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Stella loves living with Great-aunt Louise in her big old house near the water on Cape Cod for many reasons, but mostly because Louise likes routine as much as she does, something Stella appreciates since her mom is, well, kind of unreliable. So while Mom "finds herself," Stella fantasizes that someday she'll come back to the Cape and settle down. The only obstacle to her plan? Angel, the foster kid Louise has taken in. Angel couldn't be less like her name—she's tough and prickly, and the girls hardly speak to each other.
But when tragedy unexpectedly strikes, Stella and Angel are forced to rely on each other to survive, and they learn that they are stronger together than they could have imagined. And over the course of the summer they discover the one thing they do have in common: dreams of finally belonging to a real family.



I admit, I read this book mostly because of the raving MMGM posts I was reading back then. Contemporary summer stories have to be really good to catch my attention, for the mere reason that there are so many of them. (It’s also a genre that my critique partner Betsy Devaney is very good at, and she’s spoiled me...) But a few pages into this book, I realized why everyone was so impressed. Sara Pennypacker is a darn confident writer. She took the old trope of summer-with-the-zany-old-aunt and made it do backflips by announcing--basically on the first page--that the aunt dies (so it’s not really a spoiler). She didn’t write a story about dealing with death...and yet it did, in a more poignant and powerful way than a book directly about that would have. In the same way, the book wasn’t about finding a friend or missing your mother needing a father or handling fate, yet in a roundabout way it was precisely about all of those things. It was Sara Pennypacker’s masterful subtlety that made every page of her story surprising and gripping...and surprisingly gripping, considering its genre and the small scope of its story.

So if you’re feeling chilly, curl up by the heat register with Summer of the Gypsy Moths and imagine you’re summering in Cape Cod. :)

To find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, visit the blog of Shannon Messenger, the genius behind it all...