An Epic Tree

Battered oak with huge gall, blasted branches, lost bark and holes that shelter who knows what.
My husband visited this awe-inspiring oak thirty years ago. © Jan Decher, 2017

This weekend, my husband and I went looking for a half-circle of oaks he knew from thirty years ago. (No comments from the peanut gallery 😉 He said their group held hands around it because it was so big (nearly 8 meters around and 24 meters tall!). It’s gotta be old: 600-800 years!

We found six or seven oaks, but this one was the ruler of them all. There were hollow spaces big enough to house a small boy, like the one in Jean Craighead George’s middle-grade classic, My Side of the Mountain. I always thought the living in a tree part of the story was a bit of a stretch, but this oak could easily house a boy and a hawk. For all I know, it does.

A bumblebee flew into the boy-sized hole in the base of the tree and something brown and fluffy was in another large hole way over our heads. One of the huge, sawn-off branches was a hollow tunnel, like a giant elephant trunk.

Tragic, mighty, grotesque. An epic tree.

Even on a brilliant sunny day, you could feel the power and past destruction pent up inside this tree. Maybe it houses a million bees or will be struck by lightning and burst into flame or throw a few mighty branches down in the wind. It’s clearly a survivor waiting for the next adventure. And a refuge for all kinds of living things.

Note for writers: If places inspire you with story ideas, you might enjoy my post about Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s  The Rural Setting Thesaurus at The Winged Pen.

Oak with big hollow high up in the tree.
A refuge high in an ancient oak. Hüinghausen, Germany. © Jan Decher, 2017.

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Limit Yourself

White trails from planes in the evening sky over black tree silhouettes
Airplanes making EtchASketch patterns in the sky. © Laurel Decher, 2016

A blank EtchASketch makes it pretty clear that I’ll be doodling around in squares because the drawing dot only moves in four directions, each at right angles to the other.

National Novel Writing Month is about throwing off the limits that keep us from creating. (If you’ve just finished 50K, congratulations!! Well done!! May I respectfully suggest you do this and save yourself ten years of re-writing?)

But it’s not the only option. You can also choose a form that’s so restrictive it gives you something to push against. The most powerful stories I know are about people overcoming their own “limitations.”

What if you had to choose only one thing to make? What would it be? What if you were only allowed to give one gift?

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The Joy of Exploring Your Writing Territory

Black peppermill like machine with sliders around the body and a crank on top
The first hand-held calculator was invented “after hours” in Buchenwald concentration camp by Curt Herzstark. If creativity kept him going there, what’s my excuse? Image: Arithmeum, Bonn.

I’ve been reading Susan Kaye Quinn‘s Indie Author Survival Guide (Second Edition) Crafting a Self-Publishing Career Book 1). In spite of the title, the book covers topics that are also interesting to traditional novelists. All writers struggle with figuring out a target audience, creative freedom, and how to keep from “stopping too soon.”

Susan Kaye Quinn highlights an especially intriguing idea about how to escape comparisonitis from Steven Pressfield:

There are many nuggets of inspiration in War of Art by Steven Pressfield (I highly recommend it), but I’m going to highlight the section where Pressfield describes dealing with writerly competition in Territory vs. Hierarchy (I’m paraphrasing):

We (as humans and writers) define our place in the world either by Hierarchy (a social pecking order) or by Territory (a turf or domain). For the artist/writer, Hierarchy is that destructive urge to compete against others, to evaluate our success by our rank within the hierarchy of writers, and to write based on the effect it produces on the hierarchy. Pressfield insists the writer must operate territorially: to do work for its own sake, inwardly focused. Territorial work provides sustenance—the writer puts work in and receives back well-being; similarly the territory of our creations can only be claimed by the work we put into it. The artist who commands their domain is satisfied by the creation itself; the work is its own reward.

This goes beyond the “work is its own reward” trope. Staying focused on working territorially keeps the debilitating effects of hierarchical thinking from beating you down.

The Arithmeum museum in Bonn has the world’s largest collection of “calculating machines” which honestly sounded a bit boring until I went on a tour there last week. Inventing a machine that could carry over to the next place (from 9 to 10 or from 999 to 1,000) is a work of the imagination.

Our mathematician and tour guide demonstrated a beautiful, grandfather clock-like calculator whose inventor, Poleni. It made a lovely ratcheting sound while it added up numbers. Unfortunately, Poleni committed suicide after a contemporary’s calculator achieved the next coveted milestone.

This second calculator apparently didn’t work reliably but was a great prestige object for the Viennese Emperor. Even in mathematics, there are many milestones and many ways to solve the same problem. To me, Poleni’s story looks like a classic case of stopping too soon.

Fiction has easily as much inventive territory to explore. We’ll never get through the possibilities of plot, narration, characterization, dialogue, structure, imagery, language, rhythm, or metaphor in our lifetimes.

There’s so much to discover. Let’s encourage each other to keep on keeping on.

Happy Writing!

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The question that moves my work forward

Fountains, square tower with crenelated edge on top, small palm trees in the foreground, huge one in the back, stone-edged path, green grass and blue sky.
What can you do when everything seems so complicated? Image: English Gardens, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

What’s the simplest solution?

This is the question that moves me forward when I get stuck. I’m not sure why it helps. Maybe it’s what my friend and writing mentor Susan Graham calls “making a decision.” Friends are a gift.

With this question, I move forward with the information I’ve already got. Information gathering stops. I try something out.

Do you have a question that helps you move forward when you get stuck? Share it in the comments below.

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The Comfort of Home Food: Bagels in Leiden, The Netherlands

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This tiny bakery in the Netherlands, Better Bagels, sells the real thing. It also has Joe the Slicer, a 90 km/hour table saw for bagels. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

A German Brötchen is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

A chewy bagel is just about the opposite. So, of course, Germans crave Brötchen when they live in the United States and Americans crave bagels when they live in Germany. (Can you tell we’ve had both of these conversations in our international family?)

We were happy to discover this tiny bagel bakery on a recent visit to Leiden in The Netherlands.

While we waited for the bakery to open, we looked at this odd contraption in the window.

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More like air hockey than a table saw. Joe The Slicer slices bagels. We saw him(?) in action. That fuzzy circle in the bottom middle of the picture is a bagel in motion. The blade turns fast (90 km/hour) but it doesn’t saw right through the bagel, it catches it and flings it the length of the conveyer belt with a resounding thump. P1060254

This is making me hungry all over again.ABagelInLeiden

The owner told us how he learned to make bagels after living in Ramsey, New Jersey. A handy bagel flow chart painted all the wall shows all the boiling–chilling–baking steps. Once he convinced himself he could make them in his home kitchen, he opened this bakery in Leiden. It’s a kind of alchemy, moving food culture from one place to another.

Time to get back to work. I’m getting too hungry anyway and the nearest bagel is much too far away. I’m inspired by this “do one thing” attitude.

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6 ways rhythm helps us feel at home in a new world

2-day-old foal standing next to mare cropping grass in a green meadow.
New neighbor in our world. This 2-day-old foal is getting used to day and night, rain and sun, traffic and kids on bikes. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

On the weekend, I practiced a new skill and had a sudden aha! moment about learning to adapt to a new culture by finding the beat.

(1) Every culture has its own heartbeat. When I lived in West Africa for a year, the people next door talked all day every day. There are many languages in Ghana and I never learned the one(s) they spoke. I couldn’t tell if they were talking or shouting, angry or excited. But after a year of living near them, the rhythm of their voices told me when something unusual was going on.

(2) The beat keeps going. When I took my youngest to music class as a baby, the teacher taught us to pat the baby gently in rhythm to teach to idea that music is continuous. It doesn’t stop in the middle to do something else. It keeps going because music has a heartbeat like our own. When you’re trying to learn to join in the music, it’s stressful when you can’t find your place. There’s a feeling of jump rope game that’s going on without you because you don’t know how or when to jump in.

(3) Drinking coffee has its own rhythm. It’s not always the Gemütlichkeit of Kaffeetrinken in Germany or Austria where people sit down together and have a piece of cake with their coffee. Knowing “how” people drink coffee can make you feel at home.

In Sicily, people stand up at the counter together and knock back an espresso before heading out to do the things that need to be done.

A German friend who’d spent many years in the U.S. theorized just yesterday that Americans love their coffee to-go because American culture encourages busy-ness. Sitting outside in a café where everyone can see you can get you a “slacker” label. Hence few outside cafés. But she also mentioned the beloved bookstore cafés (and libraries!) where you can drink coffee and read.

(4) Every journey has a song. The rhythm I noticed for the first time this weekend was on the drive back from my in-laws’ house. We’ve used our GPS unit to find our way through the bewildering combination of highways, single lane country roads with two-way traffic (with cows), villages with traffic-calming and traffic circles to my in-laws’ house. This trip, I realized how much I need to practice this “song” until I recognize the rhythm. Looking at a map would definitely help me.

(5) Time to process. When we alternate between moving and resting, we’re much happier and less stressed when we come home. Writing a few postcards in a café or taking time to photograph something carefully helps us to process.

(6) Remember your own culture in this international world. I once invited two young West African friends for a big Sunday dinner and they arrived unable to eat. They had visited the American church in Bonn where Thanksgiving was celebrated as a huge potluck. They had eaten all they could already. I had forgotten about Thanksgiving because it’s not a German holiday!

We start to feel at home when the rhythm is familiar. It’s much easier to do things when we’re in sync. Picture books and songs with catchy meters stick in our minds. When we feel the beat, we can play instruments together in an orchestra or sing different parts in a choir. We can be ourselves and still participate in the group.

Questions for you: What have you noticed about the rhythm of your life? What happens when we internalize other peoples’ rhythms? Or if we make our own easy to follow?

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Create something new: Lessons from a re-cycled Convent, a Peacock with a Looking Glass, and a Cow with a Drinking Problem

Fish pond in foreground, a line of trees and a convent behind with a blossoming tree.
Roman pipeline to convent to farm. Gut Schillingskapellen, Dünstekoven. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

In the small village of Swisstal-Dünstekoven, a one-time convent was built solely with materials scavenged from the Roman water line. Now it’s a farm with Scottish Highland cows and reflective peacocks.

Lesson #1: Try a bit of creative re-cycling. If Roman ruins are in short supply, maybe you have a fragment that makes you laugh. Or just a bookshelf in the wrong place.

Peacock looking at its reflection in a mirror in a sunny farmyard
Know Thyself. Gut Shillingskapelle, © Laurel Decher, 2016.

At least two mirrors are propped up against the historic buildings in peacock-accessible places. I’m guessing mirrors have something to do with peacock mental health and the display of feathers. It looks a little bit too much like “selfies” for comfort.

Scottish Highland calf, brown and shaggy in a green meadow walled in with a stone wall.
A four-legged Scottish Highlander. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This brown, woolly, Scottish Highland calf seems to have a sturdy self-image already.

Lesson #2: Don’t look in the mirror too long. Keep mooooving. (Sorry.)

An eccentric older relative was playing with the automatic water-er, slurping away noisily for a few minutes, then picking up its head to look at us, indignantly or defiantly. With that much hair over the eyes, it’s really hard to tell.

Black, Scottish Highland cow with head in waterer.
Slurping noisily at the automatic water-er must be fun. © Laurel Decher, 2015.
Black, Scottish Highland cow with head out of waterer and face covered with shaggy hair.
“Who are you looking at?” Black, Scottish Highland cow with indeterminate expression. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Who am I to say what’s silly behavior? I make up stories. Maybe this cow is a distinguished water musician. Not much audience yet. Doing the practicing in obscurity thing. That’s okay with me.

Lesson #3: Enjoy creating. Maybe the rest of the herd will be by later. Or not. But you will have had the fun of messing about.

Lesson #4: Notice the artists in your life.

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