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The Halloween Story

Last weekend I finished editing the fourth draft of my novel. Which means two things. One, I don’t want to look at it anymore. And two, that’s good because it needs to cook for a while. I need at least a month between drafts to let the yeast rise—or fall, depending on how badly the revision went.

In between drafts of the novel I usually focus on my picture books. This week I re-read some of the manuscripts I’ve been working on this year. A few months ago I thought they were great. I read them again a few days ago and became transfixed with my own mediocrity. I thought the sudden wave of self-loathing would zap me of all creative ambition, but the opposite happened. I became possessed.

Perhaps because I’m a glutton for punishment, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out This is Not My Hat. I wanted to read something by someone who actually had talent and knew what they were doing.

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Again, if removed from this situation and asked to bet on my reaction, I would have bet that reading Jon Klassen in my current state would have sent me into a pity spiral, knowing I’d never be able to write anything as good, funny, or original. But no, I opened my computer and vomited two new picture books onto the screen. Then I revised an older one. Then the next day I wrote one more. I think they’re pretty good. Don’t worry, in a month or two I’ll think they’re total spit wads. They probably are; I don’t know.

It’s mid-September now, which means I’ve been in Halloween mode for two weeks already. I can never get enough. Bring on the pumpkins. Bring on the scary movies. Bring on the chill in the air. The decorations. The costumes. Monster Mash and Thriller on repeat. Bring. It. On.

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What I’ve really always wanted to write was a Halloween book, but an idea eludes me. Let me preface that by saying that I don’t normally have blocks on ideas for picture books. Perhaps that well will run dry one day, knock on wood, but I currently have a list at least twenty ideas long that I haven’t even touched. Not a spooky one in the bunch.

I think I want it too much. I love it too much, maybe? I don’t get it. This morning I sat down and simply started to write down the things I loved about Halloween. That has turned into a decent poem, which could be a rhyming picture book. Who knows, maybe it will one day see the light of day, but my intention was to write something in prose. Something with a beginning, middle, and end. That, I still can’t do.

I have cherished memories of reading “scary” books in my childhood. I devoured everything from The Berenstain Bears (well, it was Berenstein in my universe), to Goosebumps, to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Stephen Gammell’s illustrations still haunt me in the absolute best way.

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I could actually draw a direct line from my current love of writing back to my childhood love of reading scary books. I would have thought I was destined to write kids horror, but I just can’t get it out of me. It feels stuck. Like I can actually feel it, in my stomach, a big stuck thing.

What do you do when you have a creative block? How do you get unstuck?

Oh and Happy Halloween.

In The Eye of the Hurricane

I know a staggering number of successful people. I often can’t believe it, like, is this normal? I don’t think so. And they’re all people I grew up with in one way or another, meaning I knew them at the beginning of their journeys and have watched their success unfold. High school, college, or right after college. I won’t drop names; that’s not what this is about. I’m not here to brag; I’m here to marvel. It’s just insane. Movie stars. Plural. Broadway stars. Yeah, plural. Novelists. TV stars. Directors. Designers. Comedians. Screenwriters. All plural.

I’ve managed to narrow down a few reasons for this. The first is the potent creative energy of Sacramento circa the turning of the century (it probably continues to this day but I haven’t lived there for many years so I can’t speak to it). Lots of folks from my little theatre community in my little town have gone on to much commercial success. I can’t really explain why our fair city turns out so much talent, except to say that Sacramento is awesome. As a city it is, for the most part, free from industry pressure, which creates a fertile environment for growing creative wings—the only pressure being the desire to one day go out and spread them.

The second reason I can explain. I went to a prestigious conservatory for undergrad. Notable grads include Julianne Moore, Alfre Woodard, Geena Davis, Uzo Aduba, Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Alexander, Marissa Tomei. Lots more. The odds that someone from my class or a surrounding class would go on to join this list was always high. The time has come, and now that’s happening, and again I marvel.

The third reason is living in L.A. If you live here long enough and have even a peripheral relationship to the industry, and you’re not a jerk, you will eventually either become or befriend greatness.

I’m not jealous. Merp. Sniff. Sigh. No really, I’m not.

No seriously, I’m not. I’m amazed. I’m proud. I don’t know if it’s normal for a little gal like me to be surrounded by so much greatness. I stand here, still, as all this creative success swirls around me. My jaw drops and I’m smiling, and yes I fluff my feathers a little bit that I happen to know these people.

But I’m so still. I’m watching it all happen around me, and I don’t seem to move.

In the eye of a hurricane
There is quiet
For just a moment
A yellow sky.

I wonder what’s coming for me? Will I continue to walk along in the middle of the storm, quietly, admiring its madness from my calm seat in the center? Will I be pulled in at some point? Sometimes I dip a toe in to see what it feels like. Sometimes it feels good, and sometimes it feels overwhelming. It does look like fun, though. One helluva storm. I like rain. Will I be pulled in or will I have to jump? It’s not my style, jumping into things. I wait for windows. I tiptoe in and let the wind help. Then I fly. That always works out better for me.

I’ll keep sitting here, amazed, and I’ll keep writing. It’s a really very nice place to write, in the eye of a hurricane. Quiet. A yellow sky. One of these days, when the winds are right, I’ll write my way out.

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Becky’s Favorite Picture Books

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I really do love making lists. Lately I’ve been so tickled to share picture book recommendations with friends that I got the idea to compile a list of my all-time favorites. This list could go on forever, so let’s see if I can limit the number to fifty—for now. It should be noted that I haven’t included any Dr. Seuss books here, as the Doc really deserves his own list. Also not listed here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which falls somewhere in between picture books, chapter books, and middle grade, but just know that no matter what, Winnie-the-Pooh is always on the top of my list.

I do so deeply love picture books, and not just because I write them. I love them because they introduce human minds to the concept of reading. How weighty is that? I love them because they are a perfect marriage of the written word and visual art. We don’t get that enough in the “adult” world. Much of the art you’ll find in picture books is daring and experimental. I love them because when you condense storytelling into such short form, you often can’t help but end up with myth and fable. To read a brilliant new picture book is to witness a fairy tale being born. It’s exciting.

If you’re wondering about my taste, okay I’ll tell you. I like books that pull on specific strings in the old heart. I like books that make me cry hard, laugh hard, or feel weird inside. It’s like I’ve got these book-shaped holes in my heart and my favorite books are the ones that were meant to fill those holes. I’m not one for lukewarm books. That sounds negative, but I don’t mean it to be. There are plenty of books in the world that are solid from beginning to end and I read them and I didn’t necessarily cry or laugh or question much, but I liked it a whole lot. Knuffle Bunny comes to mind. It’s a great book. It’s charming. It’s lovely. It’s solid. You should read it. I just wouldn’t put it on my fifty list.

Here they are, in some particular order but certainly not in any sort of scientific ranking. My favorite picture books:

  1. Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett illus. Jon Klassen
  2. Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood illus. Don Wood
  3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  4. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett illus. Jon Klassen
  5. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  6. Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard illus. James Marshall
  7. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown illus. Clement Hurd
  8. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
  9. Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick illus. Sophie Blackall
  10. A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers
  11. Penguin Problems by Jory John illus. Lane Smith
  12. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  13. Dream Snow by Eric Carle
  14. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  15. Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman illus. Adam Rex
  16. This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
  17. The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown illus. Christian Robinson
  18. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  19. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka illus. Lane Smith
  20. Waiting by Kevin Henkes
  21. Egg by Kevin Henkes
  22. Tough Boris by Mem Fox illus. Kathryn Brown
  23. Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley
  24. The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt illus. Oliver Jeffers
  25. Flotsam by David Wiesner
  26. The Friend Ship by Kat Yeh illus. Chuck Groenik
  27. A Letter for Leo by Sergio Ruzzier
  28. Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett illus. Adam Rex
  29. Otis by Loren Long
  30. Lon Po Po by Ed Young
  31. This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary illus. Julie Morstad
  32. Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett illus. Christian Robinson
  33. The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin illus. David Shannon
  34. The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson illus. Diane Dillon
  35. The Snurtch by Sean Ferrell illus. Charles Santoso
  36. Clever Jack Takes the Cake by Candace Fleming illus. G. Brian Karas
  37. Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds illus. Peter Brown
  38. Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett
  39. Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds illus. Matt Davies
  40. Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto illus. Ed Martinez
  41. Old Bear by Kevin Henkes
  42. Tea Rex by Molly Idle
  43. The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli
  44. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch illus. Michael Martchenko
  45. Aberdeen by Stacy Previn
  46. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett illus. Chris Van Dusen
  47. Journey, Quest, and Return (Journey Trilogy) by Aaron Becker
  48. The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski
  49. Teeny Tiny Toady by Jill Esbaum illus. Keika Yamaguchi
  50. Guess Again! by Mac Barnett illus. Adam Rex

Oh goodness there are many more, but I promised to stop at fifty. There are lots of books that I love for specific reasons, e.g. how they address a certain issue, but for this list I tried to stick to my general favorites. What do you think? Any big ones that I missed? What picture books would you add to the list?

 

top illustration from A Child of Books, by Oliver Jeffers

Chrysalis: a preparatory or transitional state

I look into my tea leaves and what I choose to see is the life of a writer. A quiet house by the sea or in the country, a child playing in the living room, a husband editing in the study or rehearsing for an audition, and me in a nook with a computer diving deep into other worlds. In Maui we dove down to 120 feet at Molokini Crater—the deepest we’ve ever gone. I swam at the bottom of the sea with eagle rays and octopus, but writing feels deeper. In a marathon writing session the real world melts away and suddenly I am through the sea, on an adventure with Niguel, Iris, and Gus, trying to escape the vengeful Callum before he gets to Iris’ father, Peter Applegate.

94fac0ae1d47570c0ffb191c99cf4bc8You have no idea what I’m talking about, I know. These are characters in my book. They’ve become close friends of mine, and I know they feel neglected.

Nymphalidae_-_Danaus_plexippus_ChrysalisThe neglect is making my wings hurt. I feel them pushing hard against the chrysalis that has protected them for 32 years, and if they don’t make it out soon the bones will break. I know this to be true, so why am I making it so hard to break free?

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In writing the first draft of my novel, several challenges emerged, one of which was knowing when to finish a chapter. Often, it was clear. The chapter finished itself and I sailed on into the next. Sometimes, though, sometimes, I’d want to stay in a chapter for reasons that were perhaps unclear, but what was clear is that I knew it was going on too long. The third chapter of my novel was such a one. I kept writing and writing, knowing that nothing about the chapter was helping to move the story along. I loved the characters in the chapter. I found the action of the chapter humorous and charming (if I do say so myself), even though I knew it was irrelevant to the ultimate motor of the book. In my heart I knew I should end it, perhaps even cut out the whole thing, but I liked it too much. It was comfortable. It was clever (if I do say so myself) and it had the desired effect of distracting me from making the book truly great.

I wonder if I’m a bit stuck now, in my life, spending precious time in a chapter that is comfortable and full of clever characters. It’s hard to know when to move on.

That’s not true, I suppose. Knowing is the easy part. It’s the moving on that is hard.

1af9d0cd9c6a6ed51e786e33437282b6Growing up makes moving from chapter to chapter effortless in a sense, because the pages were turned for me. I was born. I started school. I twirled baton. I survived middle school. I went to high school. I got into college. I studied in London. I graduated from college. I moved to L.A. The outline was all there, and then—suddenly—the outline stopped. Suddenly it was up to me to structure the chapters. I’ve done pretty well so far. Chapter 10: Rebecca gets a job. Chapter 11: Rebecca joins a theatre company. Chapter 12: Rebecca gets married. Chapter 13: Rebecca works at jobs and produces plays and spends a lot of time on Facebook and watching Netflix.

Chrysalis Emerging 3In revising the third draft of my book, I got wise and removed the chapter that was gumming up the action, but I didn’t delete it. I moved it to my “Some other time” folder. I’ll bet the characters and the very humorous dialogue (if I do say so myself) will appear in a future book, but they will only find their right place and time if I let go of them for now.

My wings hurt. Soon, very soon, I need to decide how important it is for me to fly because wings can break and wilt. Of course I know how I feel. Flying is the only thing I’ve ever truly wanted to do. If there is a heaven, I know it involves flying.

monarch-in-flight-1024x576It’s time to write the next chapter. Like a mystery shape on the horizon, I’m not sure yet if it’s a ship, a whale, a lighthouse, an island? Time to grab Brad’s hand (Brad is in every chapter you see), and swim out there to find out. Time to let go of this chapter that I’m in—turn the page. Come back perhaps “Some other time.”

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Chapter 14: Rebecca, author 

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A Familiar Beast

I have questions about rejection. I do hope you’ll bite and share your thoughts in the comments. As a student of the arts, I met rejection at a young age. I’ll never forget silently weeping in the back seat of our car when I found out that I wasn’t cast as a Von Trapp child in The Sound of Music when I was 12 years old. I was relegated to the chorus of nuns—or, rather, novices. Not even a full-fledged nun. The dealer of rejection in that instance was the director, aka my mom. I don’t blame her. She was my director and she made the best casting decision for the show. In hindsight that was a very important lesson for me to learn as an artist; nothing has ever been handed to me. But yeah, rejection was personal from early on.

We’re told repeatedly that rejection is an unavoidable element of our artistic lives, like a smelly beast with whom we must learn to live. I get it, but man, some days that beast is smellier than others. On those days I stop and ask myself in earnest, why? Why am I doing this? Will the glimmers of success or artistic satisfaction make the years of rejection bearable? I mean really, this is haaaarrrd. Will it be worth it? I don’t know the answer, but I theorize that even with “success” the beast will not leave me alone. I imagine it will change shape, change color, change smells, but the rejection will continue at every level in different forms, won’t it? In the form of bad reviews, higher stakes losses, chronic self-doubt, disappointing second novels, etc. So why? Why the torment?

Then I started asking more questions. Is this beast unique to the arts? Is there something about artistic fields that lend themselves to more rejection? Or does rejection exist equally elsewhere? Do my friends in STEM fields, or law, academia, business, entrepreneurs—do you experience the same frequency of rejection as my friends in theatre, film, TV, visual art, music, publishing? Are you as well-acquainted with the beast? Maybe you’re just better at keeping him on a leash. I’m genuinely curious because I’ve been so entrenched in the arts for so long that I fear my field of vision has become quite narrow. I also want to feel less alone. I want affirmation that I should not abandon my art for another path because a new beast will in fact be waiting for me on the “easier” roads. Is that true? Or is there a less painful but equally gratifying way to walk through life other than that of a perpetually rejected artist? My non-artist friends, enlighten me.

He shouts and hogs the bed. He never bathes. His claws are sharp. No I’m not talking about Brad! Brad is an angel and takes very good care of his nails. It’s the beast. My invisible housemate. On the other side of my horrible beast is a tiny promise of glory. Is it real? A trick? If it’s not a trick, is it worth it? I don’t know, but beasty and I know each other so well at this point, even without the taste of glory . . . I’d probably miss him. And that, my friends, is the true madness of the arts.

 

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Patience, not-so-young Grasshopper

I’m too impatient to think of a clever way to begin this post. Gah! So impatient! The cat is out of the bag. I’m impatient. It’s a toxic state of mind. The overwhelming desire to have something extraordinary happen overnight often thwarts the possibility of that extraordinary something happening over time. This is why it’s essential to enjoy and take meaning from the journey. Not because it’s so wise, because it’s 95% of the process. You may as well enjoy it. You can’t drive from California to New York overnight, so if you don’t find pleasure in staring out your window at the Oklahoma prairie or Missouri’s rolling hills, it’s going to be a long and painful drive. Learn to savor the journey; something I’m discovering about my endeavors as a children’s book author.

Earlier this year I actually, truly, really, actively, once-and-for-all began taking steps toward becoming a published children’s picture book author. I’d dreamed of such a thing since I was 6 years old, but other than a library of ideas messily cataloged in my brain I’d never pursued it. All that changed with the new year. Knowing NOTHING about the publishing industry I began with as rudimentary a step as possible. I bought Writing Children’s Books for Dummies. Hello, dummy. *Proudly points to self*

Not even knowing how to format a manuscript properly, I needed the basics. It’s actually quite a good book. I recommend it for publishing preschoolers like me.

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I read this book. I joined Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I launched a personal website. I finished my first manuscript. I researched publishing houses accepting unsolicited material. I wrote a cover letter. I signed up for my first conference. I’m ready now! Do you hear me universe! I’m ready, so can this happen now? Oh universe, I know YOU waited patiently for 30 years for me to accept this as my life’s calling, but now that I’m ready let’s do this thing.

I don’t know if writing for children has led me to think like a child, but I am impatient with a capital I. Impatient. IMpatient.

So what has led to this impatience? Well I’ll tell you. Obstacles. There are numerous itchy realities that have put a little bee in my bonnet since I started actively writing. Here are the discouraging things I’ve learned since I’ve gotten myself in the game.

On average it takes 3-6 months for a publisher to respond to your manuscript submission. Most responses will be a rejection.

Many publishers require an exclusive submission so while you’re waiting SIX MONTHS for them to read your three page manuscript you can’t really even submit it to anyone else. This isn’t always the case but SOMETIMES. SOMETIMES!

If and when a publisher wants to buy your manuscript, which you can almost guarantee won’t happen with the first submission, it will then take 18+ months (at least) for your book to be paired with an illustrator, art directed, produced, and published. It can and does take years.

Once your beautiful book baby is born and there you are on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, unless you’re among the incredibly rare breed of New York Times bestselling picture book authors, your book will probably go out of print in 2 years and you’ll net maybe $5,000 of royalties once you make back your advance. It will most likely be 10-15 years before you’ve published enough books to quit your day job and write full time.

So here I am, eager as a little beaver for my life to begin, and all I see are obstacles and “Turn Back Now” signs. I’m not old, but I’m not young either. I’m considering children in a few years. I’d like to start saving for a home, and for kid’s education, and for retirement. I want my life to begin NOW. Now, do you hear me universe? I’m ready! Do I really have to wait years for my three-page manuscript to make it to bookshelves, if it ever makes it at all? There are no guarantees. This could all be for naught. I could be a hack. I could be delusional. I can’t wait years to find that out.

I’m realizing I’m at this point in the story:

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There are many things I don’t know but I’m fairly certain of one thing. For the first time in my life I feel that I’m on the right path. I’ve started my journey down that path feeling prepared and enthused, only to now come across a chasm of unknowns, of long periods of waiting, of inconveniences and obstacles. There are signs that say “Wait here for 6 months, then proceed… maybe,” and others that read “Please pay $500 to advance,” while still others read “Congrats, you’ve earned $5,000! Now make that last for three years!”

A famous actor can indeed make millions. As can a famous author. However the majority of actors are not famous. They work. They struggle. They hustle to make $2,000 for one week on a show they don’t even really like that much and pray they’ll make enough money in their careers for health insurance and maybe a pension. It’s hard. For most, it’s very hard, so if you don’t love it, if Jiminy Cricket isn’t whispering in your ear, “Yes, this is right,” then maybe don’t do it.

Who knew writing would be just as challenging? Well, probably everyone who ever tried to be a writer, but hey I’m new at this. The difference now is Jiminy Cricket is talking to me. I’m starting to sound a little crazy but you know what I mean. It’s there! Some sort of warm omniscient speaking heart telling me that it will all be worth it somehow. This is my story. This is my path.

Okay. I accept. I will wait. I will make the leap. I will stay on the path no matter how hairy it gets. I will employ patience by enjoying the view from the window of this moving train. And while I wait, I’ll keep writing. I’ll see what I see out the window and it will inspire me and I’ll write it down. Even if I’m never published and they line my coffin with rejection letters from Random House, someone will one day clean out my desk and they’ll find what I wrote and they’ll say “Hey, look what she did.”

Hey, look what I did. Look what I’m doing. All you need is patience, young grasshopper.

Or should I say… cricket.

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Changing Seasons

In the land of eternal summer I long for things I can’t have. Things like red fall leaves and the sound of brown ones crunching under my feet on a crisp autumn day. I see glimmers but let’s be honest, the mercury hit 70 at the beach last weekend. Fall is mostly a fleeting hallucination here in L.A.

I feel the need for change so acutely and can’t help wonder if my yearning for a change in weather is a misplaced yearning for a change in my life, one that I’m too afraid to face so I keep complaining about the heat and lack of rain. It’s possible.

This post is going to be intentionally vague, sorry. Until I suss things out I don’t want to be too specific. To clear one thing up, no this change has nothing to do with my personal life. I’m still a madly in love newlywed and couldn’t adore my husband, home, kitties more. This isn’t about my hearth and home. If anything the solidity of my personal life has afforded me the freedom to muse of change elsewhere. I know my husband is there to catch me if I make a bold move.

It’s true that certain things come into your life for a moment, a season, a lifetime, and always for a reason. We know this. The hard part is determining what’s what. Let me rephrase that. The hard part is accepting what’s what. My heart knows when to let something go but my brain gets in the way. “Maybe if you just hold out a little longer things will turn around.” “Maybe you’re over-thinking/over-reacting/over-obsessing.” “Maybe by letting go you’re going to miss out on a huge opportunity.” Fear-based thoughts. The truth is I have a feeling that opportunities are in fact being missed by not letting go of patterns that distract me from what I’m capable of accomplishing. My potential is anesthetized by fear.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. Fear of change. Fear of regret. Not new concepts, and so very human. No doubt if trees had feelings they’d be terrified of spending half the year dry and naked, wondering if the birds and sunshine would ever return. Tree wouldn’t shed a single leaf. But it does. Every year. It’s a good thing trees don’t have feelings or we’d never see the spring.

Then there are the trees of Los Angeles. I’m onto you trees. You’ve reflected our collective fears. We look around and see your hoarded green leaves weighing down your branches and we hold on ourselves, because it must be best. It’s what we see.

My land that never changes, Los Angeles, you mystify. I love you but your sunny perpetuity has tricked me into thinking I’ve nowhere to go. You slippery city you. I’m going places. I’m going to force change if not in you then in me, and I’m going to terrify you with my falling leaves. Don’t let the sun fool you into complacency. It’s a trick. An illusion. We must make way for the spring.

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But wait, new thought.

 

Perhaps this constancy in my environment is a gift. Yes, trees, I get it! You give me no swirling changing world to distract me from a swirling change within. I think that’s it. My gaze outward for change fails and fails, so what then? The gaze turns inward. Isn’t that what’s happening right now in writing through this? No harsh winters to freeze my thoughts, no scorching summers to melt my concentration (people of the Valley, I hear you, you scorch), no romantic autumns to lift me off to dreamland where nothing happens but nostalgia and swoons. No. I’ve called you the land of eternal summer but Los Angeles by the sea you’re something more like spring, a time when life is born and the world is new. Is that what you’ve been trying to tell me, trees? Eternal spring? That’s much nicer. You give me a constant fertile playground for my own creations, my own forms of change. I can accept that. I can paint on your springlike blank slate all my new ideas and dreams. I’ll still long for sparkling white snow and the smell of fresh rain. Maybe someday when we’re through with changing, we’ll retire to a sleepy little town and let nature do the work. Let the world change around us as we sit there and just watch. For now, no more time for waiting and watching. Time for changing. Time to sprout.

Growth concept