Friday, October 23, 2015

Writing about empty pockets and park benches

As I've mentioned before, my writers' group usually takes time at each of our biweekly meetings to do a freewriting exercise for ten minutes, using a simple prompt for inspiration.  (I've posted some of the results of these exercises before: here, here, and here.)

I find that rather than using these prompts to reflect on my own life -- though I do that sometimes -- I more often use them to explore fiction ideas.  Here are a couple of recent examples (unedited) of what I came up with. Hope you enjoy them!

For this piece, the prompt was "empty pockets."

Every day when dad got home from work, he would empty his pockets. He put his keys, his wallet, and any loose change on the table near the front door. Sometimes I would go and count his change and maybe he would give me a dime or even a quarter to put in my piggy bank.

One day he came home and put his keys and wallet and coins on the table, and also a card with some little holes in it.

"What's this for, Dad?" I picked up the card and held it up to my face so I could see his shirt through the tiny holes.

"That's my time card," he said.

"Why did you bring your time card home?" It was my mom, who was standing in the hallway.

"Because I don't need it anymore," Dad said. "I won't be going back. They let a bunch of men go today, and I'm one of them."

My mom put both hands up to her mouth. I knew something was wrong but I didn't understand my dad's words. "What's let go, Dad? Who let you go where?"

My dad never hid the truth. I knew that when I was six years old and I still do. "I don't have a job anymore, Lucy. I'm going to need to get a new job so I can make money to pay for food and clothes for us. Where's the newspaper, Margery? I need to start looking at the help wanted ads."

My parents went into the kitchen and I could hear the newspaper rattling and my parents' voices -- my dad's quiet and calm, my mom's high-pitched and quick. I carried the time card around all that evening, amazed at how looking through it changed everything I looked at.


For this piece, the prompt was "something left on a park bench."

Dave left the office and walked down the 11 flights of stairs to ground level and outside. Like he did every day, he walked a block to the park and quickly looked to see if his favourite bench -- the one near the maple tree -- was empty. Good, it was. It was always stressful when he saw "his" bench occupied and had to decide which other bench to sit on.

But when he reached it, he saw that it wasn't empty. A Nexus 5 android phone with a glittery purple case was lying there.

Dave looked around. Only a girl would use a phone like that, and he didn't see any girl in the park: just an old lady feeding the squirrels some bread. She shouldn't do that, Dave thought irritably. Making wild creatures dependent on the generosity of humans disrupted the cycle of nature.

Dave sat down and picked up the phone. He touched the screen and the name Angie popped up.

Either "Angie" was one of those stupid airhead girls who didn't secure their phones and used 123456 as their password, OR an emergency or traumatic event had caused her to flee, dropping her phone.


Suddenly it rang. The ringtone was the theme from "Angry Birds." A more annoyingly catchy ditty had never been composed, thought Dave.

He pressed the phone icon and lifted the phone to his ear. "Hello, this isn't Angie," he said.

"Hello Angie, is that you?" said a girl's voice.

Apparently Angie was an airhead, and so were those with whom she communicated, thought Dave.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

October 2015 "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly "Quick Lit" post to share what I've been reading.  I enjoy everything Modern Mrs. Darcy writes on her blog, but I especially love "Quick Lit" because it gives me so many great ideas for books to read. Here's what I've read this month:

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen.  American society girl Madeline, her husband Ellis, and their friend Hank travel to a small village in Scotland in 1944 in hopes of sighting the Loch Ness monster and getting Ellis back into his parents' good graces.  As Madeline befriends the locals -- ordinary people whom Ellis looks down on -- she starts to discover the truth about her marriage and what she really wants from life.  This is fairly light fiction, and the general premise does sound pretty far-fetched at first; but it's a very good novel with an interesting WWII backdrop.

Friends for the Journey by Luci Shaw and Madeline L'Engle.  A collection of reflections, interviews, and poems on the theme of friendship by writers and longtime friends Shaw and (the late) L'Engle.  The book feels a bit dated, but it was interesting to read the writers' perspectives on their own relationship and other friendships, particularly in relation to friends' shared faith in God. I loved the poetry, too, especially Shaw's.

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women - eds. Jay Allison and Dan Gediman.  This book, originally based on a 1950's radio program, presents several dozen short essays on the theme "This I Believe." It includes many well-known figures from Helen Keller to Leonard Bernstein to Bill Gates, and many people who are not famous as well. It has an "America is great" undertone that I found off-putting at times, and not all of the essays are equally interesting, but it's a thought-provoking book; my book study group read it and it sparked an excellent discussion.

A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey: Seasonal Celebrations, Traditions, and Recipes by Jessica Fellowes.  I chose this one for sheer pleasure, and it didn't disappoint. Each chapter focuses on one month of the year and has a different theme, such as The London Season, Farming, The House Party, The Sporting Season, etc.  The book combines photos and behind-the-scenes descriptions of the TV show with information about the time period, including recipes.  (For other Downton Abbey books by Fellowes -- who is the niece of Downton creator and writer Julian Fellowes -- see The World of Downton Abbey and Chronicles of Downton Abbey. If you're waiting for season 6 of Downton like I am -- and I know you are -- these books may help tide you over.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Checkout-line encounter 4: taking the risk

This is the fourth in my series of "checkout-line encounters" posts: see the others HERE, HERE, and HERE.  

I didn't really expect this to become a series, but when I'm just going about the mundane task of grocery shopping, I always seem to observe people and incidents that make me stop and think.


I was in the express checkout line at Loblaws the other day when I heard "Oh, my goodness!" "Will you look at that!" I looked over to the next line, and a young man was standing there holding a tiny bundle in his arms. This was the reason for the fussing and cooing by his cashier and pretty much every other woman in sight.

I don't even know if the baby was a boy or a girl; I do know it was "one month and one week" old because the young dad kept giving that very specific response to those who asked.

What struck me most was the young man's face. He was absolutely glowing with pride and happiness. He was in an express lane too, so maybe there were just one or two essentials that he had to go out and pick up. But I think even if he hadn't had to go to a store, he probably would have wanted to be somewhere where other people could see him and his baby, where they could ask questions and fuss and coo and he could bask in the attention.

 The sixty-something man in line behind me said dryly, "Glad it's him and not me."

I laughed and said, "Yeah, I'm not sure I'd want to go back to that stage now. But it's awfully sweet."

"He'd better enjoy it now," the man said, "They don't all turn out good." 

He was right: there are no guarantees. And maybe he was speaking from painful personal experience. 

But I don't think it would have worked to tell the young dad, "Don't get too attached. This kid might grow up to break your heart." It was too late for that. I don't know what kind of challenges he might be facing as a father; he was awfully young. But at that moment he was taking the risk of loving. It was written all over his face.

photo from

Friday, October 09, 2015

So many things to be thankful for (and a poem by Mary Oliver)

Last night I went for a walk with a friend.  We parked  downtown and walked along the lake as evening descended.

The air was cool and calm.
The sunset was spectacular: long ribbons of bright pink and gray and black.

In the gazebo down by the waterfront, a man and woman were ballroom dancing and talking quietly together while classical music played in the background.

My friend and I talked about books, about our kids, about struggles we or those we cared about were facing.

Then we stopped at a cafe and had pumpkin latte and white hot chocolate.  The warm, creamy drink was comforting on a fall evening.

 Afterward I found myself feeling thankful:  for friendship, for stimulating conversation, for health and strength to walk, for the beauty of music and nature, for things that taste delicious and warm the body. 

There are so many things to be grateful for if we just take a moment to stop and experience them.

So because it's Thanksgiving weekend, I'm sharing a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver:  "The Place I Want to Get Back To."

The place I want to get back to
is where
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
the darkness
and first light
two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named

Mary Oliver
Thirst (Beacon Press, 2006)

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Changing seasons: holding opposites together

It was 3 degrees C when we got up this morning -- a rude shock to the system! It may be a cliche (or just a coping mechanism) to say it, but it is nice to live in a country where there are distinct seasons. I don't think the green profusion of spring would seem quite so glorious if it didn't come after the long, cold, dormancy of winter. And it feels both bracing and comforting to snuggle up in a sweater and pull on warm socks in the fall, after the slothfulness of muggy summer weather.

Writer Parker Palmer has some interesting things to say about the cycle of changing seasons, and how they invite us to embrace, rather than fight against, extremes:

In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other – they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter, and the Faustian bargains we make fail to sustain our lives. When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result: artificial light that is glaring and graceless and, beyond its borders, a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try to hold it off.  Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation.  But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.  - Quoted from "Seasons: A Center for Renewal" (Parker Palmer)

I hadn't thought of the changing of seasons as an exercise in "holding opposites together," but it makes sense. It's also an exercise in embracing change. After all, the coldest winter day may be diametrically opposed to the hottest summer one, and bright noontime sun is opposite to middle-of-the-night darkness -- but in fact the transition from day to night, season to season, doesn't happen instantly. It's a gradual process.

I don't really like change; I like what's familiar and comfortable. But the cycle of seasons forces me -- or maybe invites me is a better phrase -- to embrace change. It also  reminds me I'm not in control (as if trying to make a little boy eat the breakfast he ordered and is now refusing didn't tell me that already). 

Seasons are one of the most significant signs of God's providence of "wholeness and health" in the world. So I guess the best thing to do is to embrace and enjoy them -- and keep the gloves handy.

(photo courtesy of