Winter On … and On and On and On

I grew up in a house where the winters were long, the springs were greatly anticipated, and the summers were scheduled for one week somewhere around the middle of August. Fall was lovely, but it really was just “introductory winter,” if I’m speaking frankly.

Heat was a commodity no one took for granted. You needed it for a good solid nine months of the year, and it had to be reliable. The thermometer was a device you trusted not just to tell you how to dress for the day, rather we used it to determine whether you should even step outside the front door.

One January morning, when I was seven or eight years old, my family piled into the car to head to church services. It wasn’t an unusual day per se, as despite it being incredibly cold with a nose-numbing ice fog sparkling all around us, one was never encouraged to indulge with the obvious complaint existing within everyone’s head as to just how unhappy one was. My dad had drummed one phrase into us: Your being cold is not a personal experience, therefore, suck it up.

This particular morning, we arrived in the church parking lot and pulled a standard move—something that was considered fairly normal for this time of year—we kept the car running.

It was only once we’d finished the service and loaded back into that car that we heard the radio announcer report that as of today, our little town was the coldest one in America, registering a balmy sixty degrees below zero.

Apart from the obvious danger to skin, other more unusual things begin to happen at temperatures that frosty.

Cars’ tires will freeze to the road surface in a somewhat flattened shape, and now it will be like driving with square wheels.

Heating oil turns into jelly.

Storm windows shatter, and nails pop right out of house siding, whizzing like bullets.

And of course, there are a few extra children’s tongues tethered to flagpoles. *shrug*

For most of us, that was just another day growing up in Wisconsin. And those long, cold winters meant time to chop and haul wood. If you heated your house with a wood stove, like we did, it meant you’d be chopping and hauling at least four cords of timber. You take on a special appreciation for trees at the beginning of the season when you cast your eyes across the tremendous sacrifice they contribute toward one family’s wellbeing, or maybe more accurately, survival.

And although I no longer endure those formidable winters having moved to Virginia, I do currently live in a log cabin and rely upon a large fireplace for mostly the physical sound and visual tease of heat. My wood needs have shrunken considerably, but each year I dutifully have a cord of hard oak delivered, and I stack my treasured logs in a way so they will be seasoned, and I will have access.

Except this year I noticed I still had several layers of split logs filling the bottom third of my main wood rack. It was agreed by me and the well-seasoned logs that moving them to any other location would simply be an exothermic exercise and a waste of precious heat, therefore, the newly dumped truck full of split wood would have to find a home somewhere else.

I eyed available space and assessed my resources. Oftentimes, once you run out of room in your ideal location, you simply look for cooperating trees—solid trunks that will stand as sentries on either side of your neatly stacked row. But mine stood on hills and a good way from the house, and most folks tend to disappear when the general question of “who wants to fetch more wood” is asked, and they see it will require hiring a Sherpa for assistance.

Reaching back into my brain for any latent engineering skills that may have been deposited there via a freak of genetics, I remembered occasionally seeing an oddly-shaped wood pile during my youth in Wisconsin—a state liberally sprinkled with Scandinavians looking for weather just as cold, but a language less annoyingly mimicked.

With renewed vigor, I went about planning my new wood stacking design—the Norwegian Roundhouse. I know this sounds like some sort of kickboxing move, but in truth, if it’s made well, it looks a bit more like a giant wooden gumdrop. And no one has ever had to defend themselves against pectin.

I took apart an old whiskey barrel and used the metal rings as a base, then I placed a layer of thick metal lattice on top to create the “circulation” layer. If there is one thing I have gleaned from my youth, it is that being just cold is much more survivable than being both cold and wet. And everyone who has ever gone camping in the rain knows just how soul-satisfying cryogenically preserved baked beans eaten out of a tin can be.

Wood must not get wet and stay that way.

The whole point of the Norwegian Roundhouse is to build a wood stack that wind can whistle through, mice can scramble through, and no eight-year-old boy can kick down. Breezy, yet sturdy, like the Titanic if it simply encountered an eight-year-old boy.

Layering the wood is a process of intense focus with choice, placing every log facing inward in a large circle the size of a four-person hot tub—or an amateur Florida sinkhole. Each piece of wood is a puzzle that must fit perfectly into its slot. The sides, as you build, must never bulge, never move outward and overlap the piece beneath it. Instead, each one must lay the tiniest bit farther into the center, eventually creating the appearance of a beehive, or a gumdrop, or a pyramid built by a guy following directions provided by IKEA.

As I did not know these last bits of direction before getting about chest high, I spent the next several hours hammering pieces into place. After two full days of choosing the perfect logs, hammering them into their ideal spaces, wedging in supporting structures, and bandaging the hammered and wedged fingers that got in the way, I was finally finished.

It looked awesome. It looked perfect. It looked like a mix of true engineering and art. It looked like I was going to need to call the lumberjack back for another load of wood because ABSOLUTELY NO ONE WAS GOING TO BE ALLOWED TO TAKE WOOD FROM MY “ART IN PLACE” PROJECT.

And so it begins again. The constant pursuit of warmth … and perhaps a small dose of sanity.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Wandering Off with Profound Purpose

There is a trail I’ve grown to love. A roughly kept path, both rutted with roots and covered in cobwebs, it’s a weekly venture I now refer to as six miles long and two hours deep.

I’m the only one on this stretch, just me and my hound. It feels abandoned and forgotten—or perhaps never discovered. As if prepared for footfall but neglected of promotion.

 

It’s divided into neatly portioned passages, each segment unique with temperament and attitude. To enter one is to be enrobed within that identity, where changes, both subtle and of magnitude, shift your focus and your vigilance.

A spread of one mile bears a perfect canopy, deciduous arms reaching to embrace and braid, the rustling sounds of leaf brushing leaf and branch chafing branch.

Another offers the heat of sun and great crunch underfoot, as in this landscape, only those forged in a fever can cope and thrive.

Along the route there are dens and burrows. Fallen trees extend the invitation to any fauna weary of their old abodes to nestle somewhere new, a chance to peak from behind still rooted tubers and discern if this view will suffice.

There sits a sanctum halfway through where modern day has not been given permission to bloom. A small, grassy clearing dotted with the remnants of those who lived on it first—or died on it last. A lichened crop of chimney stones resist the urge to collapse, to follow those who built it toward a soft grave of repose.

The surreally green colored moss floor muffles all that travels across or through it, a lush weighted blanket keeping history quiet, but comforted.

Three corner stones, the vestiges of walls, invite the visitor to conjure the past and evoke voices long suppressed by the quelling power of isolation. They still whisper though. But only if you listen.

And I do.

I listen more, hear more, breathe more, smell more. I feel the gnarly rough-skinned barely buried roots that spread beneath my feet, catch my shoe, stub my toe. I feel the sponginess of rotting trees as I traverse across them, the pliable composition of their cells. The crack of their forgiving nature resounds across the hollow or the hilltop, upsetting the status quo soundscape and thrusting a hush upon the busy conversation of all woodland tongues.

There is an unraveling that takes place when walking unencumbered. When untethered from manmade sound, sights, and people. This is a forum for the memory reels to unspool, for the strolling narrator to develop his tale, for soliloquy in all its unpracticed inelegance to gush forth without restraint.

This trail is where I find rebalance. Where presets are over-ridden, and recalibration transpires. It is where rejection is handled, malfunctions are tackled, and failures owned. Insight is sought—if one hopes to move forward—for there is little benefit to a walk such as this if deep and soulful pursuit of the truth is ignored.

Emerging on the other side is transcendent and electrifying. Revelatory in that the accomplishment of such a trek was as feasible as hoped, and wondrous with the fresh new mental space now unoccupied.

The trail stays with me only fleetingly, the feel of crushed pine needles beneath me, the scent of forest floor decay, the melody of life as it exists in that treasured space.

So, I soldier on until next time. I muddle through the concrete days, the desk-filled hours, the mundane and must-be-dones.

The path waits there for me … or for no one.

But it is there, and I have felt its wonder.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Nature’s Turducken

Photo by Mike Bird on Pexels.com

Last year, I had a gazillion bunny rabbits gather on the lawn both at sunrise and sunset every day through the three beautiful months of spring—nibbling, lounging, fattening.

This year, I have been hard-pressed to see even one dash out in front of my car as I trundle down the mountain to run a few errands in town.

Where did they go, I wondered?

This morning, I watched a brawny and brutish red fox prance along the woodland’s edge, patrolling the perimeter, his ears and swishy full tail twitching with anticipation at any movement or sound from the grassy border.

Ah. Now I know.

There were a few brief, tense moments when the world virtually paused, my breath suspended, when with lightning quick speed, the fox sprung into the air in the direction of a fat rabbit, dashing from the safety of her brushy compound, making a run for it—out in the open.

Now, I know you’re all wondering what happened to that fat little bunny, and I could be cruel and tell you that’s not the point of this essay, but for the sake of keeping friends, I’ll relieve your suspense.

She made it.

But it won’t be for long, so let’s not grow accustomed to her furry little face.

Because bunnies are accidental survivors. Countless times, I have taken walks and come across one of them on the side of the path, and their method of life management is nothing more than freeze.

If they find they’ve fooled you into believing they’re actually a painting or statue, well … bully for them. They live another day of blissful clover grazing. If you are a predator and make your raptorial move, then their only hope is to outrun you, or “under-size” you by fitting in somewhere you cannot.

Not much to be impressed by.

A fox, on the other hand, is a planner. A plotter, a schemer, and wholly opportunistic.

Unlike a bunny, his nose is not focused solely on the floral fragrance of the tender shoots from the genus Trifolium, but also notes whether or not those herbaceous patches carry the scent of lucky rabbits’ feet.

Lucky for him, anyway.

Treading the path once or twice during the gloaming hours, he notes their playground and their warren holes, then takes a quick kip till just before the time sparrows fart and the sun’s rays creep over the dewy grass.

He positions himself in their familiar Don’t mind me, I’m just a figment of your imagination style crouch when muddle-headed bunnies womble out of bed and head to the clover cafeteria, and then waits until …

Gotcha.

Breakfast and exercise all in one fell swoop.

Nothing to do but sleep off the meal.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And possibly be surprised by a sharp wake-up call in the middle of the night, as he is now surrounded by a ring of coyote—canines recognized for their ability to utilize deception and cheekiness to their benefit.

Obviously, our fox sees little comedy in his demise, but I can certainly appreciate the turducken style gallows humor and feel compelled to view life outside my window through these optics.

To do anything less would have me lamenting about the woodland hills, the smell of death thick in my nostrils, and an overwhelming feeling of despair and fatalism cloaked about my shoulders.

I cannot live life like this, mostly because I was raised on a diet rich with despair and fatalism, but wrapped up in a puff pastry crust of Monty Python humor.

I know some of you might be wondering where I’m going with this whole essay, and it would be crystal clear if you saw the books and articles scattered across my desk:

How to Write Better Bad Guys

Six Tips to Scandalous Scoundrels

Superheroes, Supervillains

This is a time period (in between books) I designate as “The Gathering.”

The collecting of ideas, the generating of plots, the reviewing of old writing habits that no longer serve and need to be replaced.

Like that of writing antagonists.  

We are surrounded by them in our everyday lives. They are the people who we intermingle with often and repeatedly: the guy who cut you off in traffic because he saw an opening and took it, your boss, who criticizes your work in front of a roomful of your coworkers which leads to you pull an all-nighter to prove her wrong, your ex, who tells every handyman in town that you don’t pay your bills on time and sometimes not at all.

Yeah, they’re evil, heinous, and diabolically sinister people in our minds.

But … not in theirs.

In their minds, they are doing what’s right. What’s right for the flow of traffic, the result of the project, and the protection of the local business owners who don’t deserve to get burned.

In their minds, why would they choose to do anything else?

A fox is never going to pass up the bunny buffet. The coyote would be harebrained to skip out on the freshly prepared “foxbunherb.” And the only thing missing now is what follows to bring down the sharp-toothed pooch.

I vote Monty Python’s Foot of Cupid. As there is nothing more satisfying then seeing your enemy squished by an animated sketch, followed by the juvenile sound of ripping flatulence. And truly, this is the Universe’s way of saying enough is enough.

It is an effortless exercise to read about creating great villains on paper, and then see the perfect example of them right outside my window. The thing that makes them perfect is that they are all relatable. We understand them. Their motivations. And can empathize with their actions.

They are not evil for the sake of being evil.

Photo by Wendelin Jacober on Pexels.com

Some of them, in the case of a humongous, hand-drawn heel are just evil for the sake of being hilarious.

And I can live with that.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

The Magical Tale of a Tail

The world is full of random flukes, right?

We’ve all experienced a flush of good timing, poetic justice, or quirky happenstance. Something we look back on and say, yeah, that was weird, but seriously, how cool.

As a writer of fiction, I know I can drizzle a bit of curious coincidence into my stories, but I treat it as though it was a ghost pepper hot sauce—a little goes a long, long way. And too much will kill my reader’s appetite for any more of my story.

I mention all of the above because my life would never be considered believable fiction.

My editor would toss it back and say it was filled with way too many unexplainable flukes. Events that appeared for no reason, simply to push the narrative arc along. It’s too farfetched, too fortuitous, too implausible.

And yet … this is the contents of my life.

I write about magic in some of my books. In one it is simply sprinkled about, in several others it is the main focus, widespread and thoroughly researched. As authors we are encouraged to write what we know. But I wouldn’t say I know magic per se, I’d instead phrase it as I experience magic—or what some would define as magic—nearly every day.

And I don’t mean magic in the sense of ‘wand-casting-turn-you-into-a-toad’ type magic, nor would I lessen it to the side of the spectrum which might be confused with abundant gratitude. As in the warm rush of excitement at seeing a rainbow, or a water funnel, or a squirrel escape unharmed from the opposite side of your moving vehicle as it dashed out in front of you.

No. My magic is more the serendipitous kind and mostly the unexplainable. Unexplainable, as far as science is concerned. And I do believe science will one day have an explanation for my wonky situations. That chapter just hasn’t been written yet.

I don’t have rational answers for why, when visiting religious sites, or landscapes of great historic relevance, I am overcome with a physical dis-ease so great it can send me to my knees. Someone theorized that perhaps the pseudo-science stating the correlation between ley lines and magnetic fields might be an influence—and my body simply has an abundance of iron that interferes.

*shrug*

I have no reasonable explanation as to why I am forever running into self-proclaimed witches, soothsayers, mystics, and wizards. This week alone the tally is already up to three.

Surely, you think I jest.

I certainly would.

And it’s not like I belong to any covens, Wiccan moots, or regularly visit Renaissance festivals. These individuals just find me. Or, as I have heard explained to me numerous times, I find them. But I take issue with this declaration, as the last one I “found” was literally fifteen minutes ago—someone who marched up to my front door to say hello as I’ve been working on this article.

*sigh*

I know. It’s supremely absurd.

I feel like erasing this entire confessional essay, except that I’m writing to tell you about one of my most beloved repeating serendipitous occurrences: meeting my favorite people.

(The reveal is coming up, so hang tight.)

I was recently away at a massive book festival in Tucson, Arizona. Over one hundred and thirty thousand people attend this three day event each year, and I was lucky enough to be invited to participate.

A bazillion flights, ubers, panels, and tacos later, I lug my bags across the threshold of my home, my luggage filled with the contact info of countless authors, publishing reps, moderators, and book sellers.

I toss it all up on the kitchen counter and glance out the porch door where movement catches my eye. A wretched face glances up at me, curled up upon my swinging rocker. Two large chocolate colored eyes effortlessly convey the message of I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m lost.

Unlike the countless other things up on the mountain where I live, this animal has no desire to fight me back for territory taken, and only wishes for a quick solution to his mounting problems.

I rush out to greet the sweet and gangly-legged hound and usher him into the warmth where aid is in abundance. “Sammy,” as his tags indicate, is one of the most grateful tail wagers I’ve yet to lay eyes on.

He tells me, in a way that only animals can, how the water has never been so thirst-quenching, the food has never been so filling, and yes, please scratch right there until I tell you to stop. I adore animals and their gratitude for simple needs met. I wish more people were so.

I quickly make contact with Sammy’s owner—a doppelganger of me, had I been on the receiving end of the phone call: thrilled, desperate, relieved. She is on her way.

Sammy and I find the warmest, sunniest room in the house to await her arrival, and many attempts at my poor human-to-dog speak message of, “I promise, she’s rushing here to get you,” prove unsuccessful. His eyes still say, Make my two-leg appear, please.

And minutes later when she does, I can see in her eyes the same urgency as was in Sammy’s, and my “chatty Cathy” habit is getting in the way of reunification.

Paula is clearly a perfect match for her companion—warm, gentle, intelligent, personable. It’s almost as if she was a …

“What do you do for a living?” I ask her.

“I’m a school librarian.”

I drop all pretense of politeness and inhibition. I hug her.

“You are my favorite kind of people!” I look at her hard. “Did you somehow know that I run a campaign to erect monuments to all librarians? Because I write that on the jacket flap of all my books!”

She shakes her head. She did not know. And eyes the door.

I thrust three of my books into her hands. “For your school, if you want them.”

We will be friends. I’m sure of it. I will make it happen. And I will try to tone down that unnerving affection.

But it comes naturally when you’ve been surrounded by all this wonky magic your whole life. I may look askance at all the other lunacy that regularly shows up, but I will never question fate or the three siblings in charge of it.

And if Clotho, Lachesis, or Atropos—the three Sisters of Fate—should toss a librarian onto my front door’s welcome mat, I will treat her the same way I would any lost and loved puppy: with open arms and great goodwill.

Also a big spoonful of peanut butter.

~Shelley

Sammy was lost in the forest for two long winter days. And because of his perseverance and suffering, I suggest he receives a spot at Paula’s feet within the mold of her bronze cast—once her school raises enough money from bake sales. Come on, Western Albemarle High School. Get baking!

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

 

 

How One Dog’s Bladder Changed my Life Strategy

“Hurry up!” I shouted off toward the edge of the woods where my hound was having a pre-pee before getting in the car to go someplace he was going to unload his truck-like gas tank-sized bladder. “Why do you always have to pee before we go? The trail is literally a few minutes away.”

Haggis trotted back to me and the rover before easily leaping inside of it.

Vigilance, he said, settling down in the back. Anyone nosing around will note this place is well patrolled—and often.

I rolled my eyes, but put the rover in drive and started the two of us toward the four mile stretch of woodland path we regularly navigate about four times a week. It is a county park, but to me, it is a sanctuary.

Which is utterly ridiculous when I reflect on where I live, because where I live is as “sanctuary-like” as one can get and not actually inhabit an island, or live in the hut of a polar expedition, or within the capsule of a manned mission to Mars.

Yet, I feel this deep desire to go somewhere that isn’t home to do some serious pondering on all jumbled thoughts at the end of a day.

When I first discovered the trail, I was insanely excited—nearly matching the frenzy of joy Haggis expressed, as he too was beginning to mutter about the same dreadful slog up and down our homestead hillside, and craved the scent of other animals that hadn’t already been categorized into one of three tiresome classifications.

Hey, he’d say with a glance back toward me as he stood over a patch of tall grass. Newly discovered fresh death, or Meh … newly discovered old death, and lastly, Wherever this guy is, he’s about to keel over because I can smell death in his pee.

My excitement was generated more from the “new scenery” situation and although new scents were part of it, none of them, I assure you, emitted the odor of anyone’s demise.

The “Deep Creek Thinking” trail is a moniker given to my hikes of how I wish those treks were, but cannot truly claim to be representative of the actual experiences themselves.

In truth, the trail has proven to be a doppelganger topographical map of my life, and during the last four years, as I have governed a new straightaway section of independence, this trail repeatedly surprises me with its dead-on accuracy depicting all that I face, embrace, and fall flat with.

Yes, literally, a face full of dirt is a regular occurrence.

Like the landscape of my life, the terrain I was now exploring was not the proverbial “walk in the park” I was hopeful it might be—all philosophical and Walden-like. Tree roots leapt from the ground to snag at my feet continuously, new rocks were pushed to the surface of the trail in new places every day, and branches reached out to hinder hikers like an impatient toddler grasping at the pant leg of a parent, determined for attention.

It was impossible to look anywhere but down. Well, it was possible, it just wasn’t safe. I figured out that little pearl after my third sprawl.

“Hey!” I’d shouted farther up the trail, spitting out a mouthful of decomposing leaves still too crunchy to be called dirt. “Little help here, please?”

I waited and counted to thirty and focused on assessing any concerning bone or muscle damage as I lay with my cheek pressed against the earth.

A thin, eight inch femur landed inches from my nose. Look what I found, Haggis had said.

That was enough to have me leap up from my pity party position. “Eww, is that human?”

Haggis raised his brows to signal a shrug. You’d know better than me. Hurry up. I’ve cornered a rabbit and treed a coon. Time is of the essence.

Our early days were filled with these exchanges, and now, four years later, whenever I’ve taken a flying sprawl, they’re more representative of:

How did you not see that root? It’s been here for … Haggis would glance up to access the tree, sixty—seventy years?

“It was covered with leaves,” I’d barked back at him.

I have a mental map of the landscape. This never happens, he’d said with a roll of his eyes.

“Bully for you.”

Don’t you have a mental map by now?

“Don’t you have some dead deer’s carcass to roll in somewhere?”

But he was right. After four years, this trail remains just as challenging, as there seems to be something new continuously thrown into the mix that precludes me from getting too comfortable. For instance:

I’ve started running every uphill stretch because … ugh, exercise.

One day of solid rain turns the entire path into an exhaustive, cumbersome mud pit that will repeatedly suction my shoes right off my feet.

Fat trees with boundless branches fall upon the trail and need scrambling over, under, or sometimes the very long way around.

A swarm of thirty or forty bikers will suddenly come crashing around a curve, an unbroken swarm of brightly colored, helmeted bees relocating from one hive to the next, wholly unaware of the odd hiker and hound they’ve sent flying into the thorny bushes off the path.

The above obstacles on my footpath are perfectly mirrored by the impediments on my life’s path. They’re not unlike my grasp on healthcare—which is a never ending uphill marathon, or general home maintenance costs—which are exhaustive, cumbersome money pits that will suction the coins right out of my bank account. They’re nearly identical to all the hurdles that fall in front of me—testing to see if I have the meddle to maneuver my way around them. And are as stunning as the fast-paced, pitches and curve balls that send me diving for cover—usually one that can be identified as a quilt.

But as a result of a long ago developed mulish and stroppy mindset, I force myself to see the trail as an invaluable experience. The path is not so much a trail as it is a training ground.

I suppose as my “mental map” grows, I will stop playing offense and pick up more of a protective “I’ve got this under control” type of attitude like Haggis enjoys, peeing on vulnerable areas that need to be defended. And like it or not, anyway you look at it, his method somehow always provides relief.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.