A Birthday in the Age of COVID-19

As I wrote the title of this post, I thought about books like The Diary of Samuel Pepys, excerpts of which I read back in the Dark of Ages in my undergraduate years (Da Vinci was one of my classmates; that guy knew his way around a painting), A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, which I also read at some point, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez which I have not read, but probably will someday. Others have probably mentioned these books lately, particularly those by Pepys and Defoe, who wrote about the Bubonic plague back in the seventeenth century (though Defoe’s book was historical fiction).

So anyway, this is how I celebrated my birthday this past Sunday in these days of social distancing. First, my fellow island villagers threw a surprise birthday party for me in the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which I’m playing on the Nintendo Switch Lite. I just wish my character had been allowed to change out of her night wear before the festivities began. Oh well. Back in college, birthday ambushes with me stuck in pajamas used to happen every year. But in these social distancing days, many people are using the game to have birthday parties, not just with NPCs (non-player characters, if you’re not into gaming but were curious) but with real-life friends who visit their islands to celebrate.

 

That was just one way of celebrating the day. Before I get to the rest of the Sunday festivities, let me add that the day before, friends dropped off breakfast, lunch, and dessert. There’s nothing like someone showing up in a mask to hand you a cup of coffee and a restaurant meal that says, “Celebrate good times, come on!” (By the way, the knight’s helm-looking hat on the sign in the first photo above is one I’ve worn while heading out in the world. The visor fits over my nose and mouth perfectly.)

  

Back to Sunday, I received a phone call from a friend (one of the pastors at church) who instructed me to come outside. Days earlier, she’d told me she wanted to drop something off, so not suspecting anything, I went out, expecting to see her standing by the front door. Instead, I was greeted by a line of people in cars honking their horns and shrieking “Happy birthday!” These are just a few.

 

So that’s how birthdays are celebrated in these virus days. I received some great gifts, part of the tradition of celebrating. Here are a few:

   

 

One of the above books was given by a friend who showed up with dinner on my birthday (not pictured due to having been eaten before I remembered that I needed to take a picture). The other came from my brother and sister-in-law. Speaking of books, one of the gifts I received that was not pictured was an Amazon card which I promptly used to purchase the book below, which is a must-have for the socially conscious person, especially parents looking to enhance their children’s understanding of classroom etiquette.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because you can receive what I received—a tradition around this blog. I can’t show up at your house even with a mask on to hand you a meal. But I can celebrate you, even if it’s not your birthday. So I am giving away TWO $25 Amazon cards or the rough equivalent at Amazon UK (easier to email).

That’s right:

Two $25 Amazon gift cards!

Comment below to be entered in the drawing.

Photos by L. Marie.

What Is My Song This Season?

Anyone else feeling the timey-wimey-wibbly-wobblyness*** of the passing days? Hours seem like seconds. And if I don’t check my calendar, I lose track of days. (Feels like tomorrow already.) Anyway. . . .

Whenever we’re not bombarded with snow in my area (which has happened a few times lately), and the temperature is reasonably warm, I hear birdsong throughout the day. Lately, the various songs and sounds of birds have seemed so plentiful and joyous. Which got me to wondering , ..

Can you identify the bird based on each call? (Pretty sure you can.)

1.

2.

3.

(For answers, check the **** below.)

Some bird calls are more recognizable than others. I’ve enjoyed hearing the birds’ songs and conversations. Such normal, happy sounds. Maybe they’re happy, not only for spring and mating season, but because they don’t have to think about viruses or masks or long wait times at the grocery store.

But hearing them caused me to wonder what my song is in this season. Some days, it is the sound of irritation, frustration, and fear, like raucous notes banged on a piano. My inner territory is too narrowed by circumstances, my song too one note. I want to change the tune, even if circumstances don’t change anytime soon. The best way I know how is to pray and to look outward instead of inward, to lighten someone else’s load if I know how, or brighten someone’s day. One way I can do the latter is to give away stuff.

With that in mind, onto the winner of The Edge of Anything by Nora Shalaway Carpenter. Go here for the interview.

       

And that winner, according to the random number generator is Nancy Hatch!

Nancy, please comment below to confirm. Thank you to all who commented.

Sparrow from Orange Free Sounds. Loon sound from Archive.org. Robin call from SoundBible.com. cloudcentrics.com. Bird silhouette from clipart-library.com. Other photo by L. Marie.

***If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, you recognize this.
**** The sounds are (in order) Robin, loon, sparrow

Check This Out: The Edge of Anything

With me on the blog today is another of my awesome Secret Gardener classmates from VCFA: Nora Shalaway Carpenter. You might remember her from this post. She’s here to talk about her young adult novel, The Edge of Anything, which debuted on March 24. It was published by Running Press Teens/Hachette Book Group. Click here for the synopsis.

  

Nora is represented by Victoria Arms Wells of Wells Arms Literary in association with HG Literary. Now let’s talk to Nora!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Nora: 1. My favorite food is watermelon.
2. I am a certified yoga teacher.
3. My favorite imaginary creature is a phoenix.
4. My hair is often blue.

 

El Space: The Edge of Anything is very powerful and moving. How did it come to be? What came first—the characters or the plot?
Nora: Thank you so much, Linda. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The characters definitely came first. I’ve always wanted to write a volleyball character because I played volleyball growing up and it was a huge part of my identity. However, I never found any books about teen volleyball players while I was growing up, and I wanted to change that. That’s how Sage got her start.

Len evolved because I wanted to write a character who was unknowingly suffering a mental health crisis. This happened to me in early adulthood and it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever experienced. I had no idea what was happening, and even though I had a supportive spouse and good health insurance, we had an incredibly tough time not only figuring out what was happening, but then finding the right care. I remember thinking I was going to die. I also remember feeling so incredibly alone, like no one else had ever experienced anything like what I was going through. I later found out that wasn’t true, of course, but there’s so much stigma and misinformation about mental health conditions—and the people who suffer from them—that many people don’t talk about it. I wanted to open a conversation. The Edge of Anything is the book I wish I’d had during that awful time in my life, a time when I doubted if things could ever get better. I wanted to create a book that showed a character struggling authentically and that depicted the hidden internal battles a person goes through daily. Most importantly—I wanted to show that Len—like all real people struggling with mental health—is so much more than this condition that is terrorizing her brain. She is a regular person, worthy of love and respect and dignity.

El Space: What were the challenges of bringing personal issues to light?
Nora: I talk about this a bit in the author’s note, but the biggest challenge was dealing with any lingering shame I had about my own experience with severe OCD. Over the years, I found that the more I talked about having OCD, the more people connected with me about it and offered their own experiences, and the less shame I felt. Still, writing a book is a whole different level of opening up. But I wanted to. Communication can be life saving when it comes to mental health conditions, and if my story could help someone, then I wanted it out there. It’s also important to note, though, that The Edge of Anything is not autobiographical. I used my own emotional experiences to inform Len’s, but the story is fictional.

El Space: Why was the setting important to you?
Nora: Place always plays a big role in my stories. A number of important scenes in The Edge of Anything take place in the forest surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway, so it was super important that the book be set somewhere where the characters had easy access to such a place. There are also hiking scenes, and as I live in the North Carolina mountains, I drew on my own experiences hiking the area.

Blue Ridge Parkway

El Space: I love the emphasis on female friendship. Please tell us why that was valuable to you.
Nora: I’ve always been fascinated with deep friendships—why they form and how they last. Female friendships have been incredibly important in my own life, and so I wanted to really dig into what puts one of these life-changing friendships on a different level than an average friendship. How is that bond established?

El Space: As you wrote your novel, what craft advice, if any, helped you along the way?
Nora: I struggle with perfectionism, which is basically the antidote to productive writing, so while writing The Edge of Anything I adhered to the mantra “write shitty.” It might sound silly, but my writing flows much better if I have permission to write badly at first. I even have a sticky note on my laptop that literally says, Write shitty, Nora. It makes me laugh, and it also makes writing much more manageable for me. I want my work to end up beautiful and cohesive, of course, but if you set out trying to write a finished product from scratch, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

First drafts are always bad, unless you’re the kind of writer that revises while you write, which can take a long time. But when I see my note to myself, I relax, because the pressure is off. I know I can write shitty, and so the words start flowing. Then, after I get the story out on the page, I can go back and see what themes my unconscious has put into the book, and start to tease those out. I can revise and re-vision and make the words beautiful. That mantra got me through drafting the book, and I recommend it to writers constantly. One of the biggest challenges for many writers, I think, is getting to the end of a draft when you know there are lots of things you want to fix in the beginning and middle. Of course there are and there’s time for that. But you have to get to the end so you can see the whole picture.

El Space: Did you read YA books growing up? How do you feel being part of the community of YA authors now?
Nora: This is an interesting question because there weren’t that many books designated as YA when I was growing up. At least I didn’t know they had that designation if they did. I feel like I jumped pretty quickly from reading the Berenstain Bears to middle grades like Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia and then Lord of the Flies and Fahrenheit 451. I do remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and freaking loving it. In fact, I’m a little afraid to reread it as an adult because I’m worried I won’t enjoy it as much. It’s truly a life-long dream come true to be part of the author community now.

El Space: What inspires you as you write?
Nora: Other books and nature. Whenever I’m feeling creatively stifled, I always start reading a ton and I spend as much time as I can outside and away from my phone and social media. For me, there is nothing like soaking up great books and reconnecting with the earth to get those creative juices flowing.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Nora: I’m currently writing another contemporary YA. This one is set is rural West Virginia. But my next book is a mixed genre anthology called Rural Voices: 15 authors Challenge Stereotypes of Small-Town America, out October 13, 2020 from Candlewick Press.

El Space: Thanks, Nora, for being my guest!
Nora: Thanks so much for having me on the blog, Linda!

Looking for Nora? Click below:

            .

Looking for The Edge of Anything? Check out your local bookstore, Amazon, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. Barnes and Noble, or Indiebound.

One of you will receive a copy of Nora’s novel in your very own mailbox. Just comment below! Winner to be revealed next week sometime.

 

In these days of social distancing, the book club had to meet on Zoom. But they were on the same page when both said they wished the characters in The Edge of Anything were friends of theirs.

The Edge of Anything book cover and author photo courtesy of the author. Chip Bryan took the photo. Cover illustration: Fabio Consoli. Cover design by Frances J. Soo Ping Chow. Other book covers from Goodreads. Volleyball from cliparts.co. Blue Ridge Parkway map from blueridgeparkway.org. Watermelon image from download.com. Yoga clipart from 101clipart.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

String-Pulling Bees and Other Things I Didn’t Realize I Needed in My Life

I don’t know about you, but I crave a bit of normalcy, a bit of adorableness. And what’s more normal than scientists getting some bumblebees to pull strings? (Those bumblebees must have some influence if they’re pulling strings. Am I right? . . . Okay, I’ll stop.)

Anyway, I ran across this video at the SciNews YouTube Video and a follow-up—scientists teaching bees to roll balls—and was mesmerized. If only they could teach wasps to be kind. (If somehow the video disappears, click here for it.)

See? You needed it too, didn’t you? (For more info on the bumblebee experiment, conducted at Queen Mary University of London, click here.)

Recently, a friend sent photos of her newest acquisitions, which turned out to be something else I needed:

  

As I looked at the photos, I could feel my blood pressure drop and something broken within me starting to mend. Maybe you feel the same way.

This also made my day (photo below). Chalk art courtesy of the kids who live in my apartment building.

Also, I saw these at the grocery store. Maybe they’re not as essential as water or toilet paper, but they’re essential in a soul-building sort of way.

  

What have you seen this week that helped lift your spirits? Please share in the comments.

Farm animal photos by Colleen Yang. Other photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: WordStirs

With me on the blog today is another of my awesome VCFA classmates, the delightful Laura Byrne, who is here to talk about her news website, WordStirs, which she maintains with her son, Tim.

     

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Laura:
• I’m a former sports editor and writer, whose athletic son had to remind her that there is more at stake in the world than the score of any given football game.
• Tim is a former finance student and current consultant, who plans to drown the world in unbiased, simple news so we can stop beating each other up at family dinners, and get back to arguing about important things, like whether or not ketchup should be refrigerated.
• We are a mother/son partnership that somehow works, despite a few notable differences. Example: Tim lives in Manhattan in an apartment the size of an elevator, with no car, and eats food the names of which most people can’t pronounce, from countries he’s never visited. I live in rural New Jersey, on 25 acres, and make my own bread, which is usually white.
• We bring two worldviews together to model how differences can be valued, and information shared through simple, unbiased articles.

El Space: What’s your process for choosing news stories? How do you keep track of trending news and still sleep and keep your sanity?
Laura: You know how some dogs will chase a ball forever? You toss one down the driveway for my Barney and he won’t stop retrieving it—a thousand throws, some day—until you take that slobbery ball away. That’s Tim and me with news. A thousand stories, and then we take Tim’s slobbery laptop from him. While retrieving all that news, we try to determine, given our readers’ limited time, what single story will help them to understand the world a little better.

Barney and Fred (yes, they are brothers)

El Space: The articles are so engaging! How did you come up the format?
Laura: How WordStirs is organized: Every article set is developed from one topic that is summarized in a paragraph or two in our News Made Simple. Then, that News Made Simple article segues into three additional articles, which continue to explain the topic:
   • The Geek. Want more background on the News Made Simple topic? You can click on the Geek.
   • The Debater. Want to understand two sides of the News Made Simple topic? You can check out the Debater, which is often a discussion between Tim and me.
   • The Runner. In a hurry? The Runner can get you out the door with just enough information about a current event to make you feel informed.

We take a subject, say, the coronavirus relief package, and look at the Fox News perspective. Then, we consider The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—and more. We also go to original documents, including Congressional records and World Health Organization guidelines. We look at fact-checking sites like PolitiFact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org. If we’ve done our job, somewhere in the article set you should see your perspective. But, if we’ve done our job, somewhere you’ll also discover something that makes you think, that challenges you and your prior beliefs.

  

El Space: How has the advent of COVID-19 affected your news coverage?
Laura: The coronavirus has dominated the news, including our coverage, and it carries with it additional concerns. For example, correct information is critically important and yet harder to get than ever as so many people are armchair-epidemiologist-ing the cures, courses of action, and predictions for the future. We’re trying to be even more critical of our sources and careful with our work.

El Space: Who inspires you?
Laura: The Secret Gardeners, my graduating class from Vermont College, are the most talented writers in the world, and their voices are always in my head, reminding me of the power of words.

El Space: Yay! What’s next for the site? What else are you working on?
Laura: Tim and I are working on a podcast. We’ve tried a few practice recordings and, so far, haven’t gotten past teasing each other. We’ll get it together, hopefully soon.

Thanks, Laura, for being my guest! Click here to access WordStirs or follow on Instagram.

Check out this video at Tim Byrne’s YouTube Channel:

The unicorn helps Henry get the point about social distancing.

P.S. The winners of the next two child Yodas are Charles and Marian. Again, I had to let them know ahead of time because of the fluctuating times we live in. I am working on yet another Yoda, so it’s not too late to put your bid in for one. 😀

Author photos and logo courtesy of Laura Byrne. Breaking news image from freepik. Washington Post logo from Wikimedia. Other logos found at various places on the internet. Other photo by L. Marie.