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Prompts and Personal History

My artist daughter Keliana has been participating in Mermay in which the goal is to draw a mermaid each day during the month of May. It has been fun for me to see her art go up on her Patreon, some of them finished, some only sketches, some with stories attached, others just images. In the past I’ve participated in similar prompt lists focused on photography. They can be very useful ways to spark new ways of seeing the world, to create things that otherwise would not have occurred to you. I really like that aspect, but my primary art isn’t visual, it is words. So I wondered if I could find my own prompt list to help me create more variety in the things I blog about. I also wondered if I could use a list to remind me to write about pieces of my life that otherwise get missed. I’d had an entire train of thought the other day about how during the first stages of the pandemic I was very focused on recording what daily life was like because it was suddenly different. Except in the Before Times I neglected to record daily life, and now that the pandemic is winding down, I’m again not recording daily life as much. So as a historical record, my recountings of pandemic existence lack a basis for comparison. Perhaps prompts would help me provide that basis. I figured that searching for personal history prompts might be a good place to start. I found these sites: 1, 2, 3

I gleaned out a set of prompts that might be interesting to write about. I was very amused how one site assumed some very specific things about who I was as a person and what my life had been like. It assumed my parents were dead, that I missed them, and that I had grandchildren I wanted to give advice to because I was myself approaching death. Only one of those things applies to me. (I do miss my parents because they live several states away and pandemic made visiting verboten for more than a year.) And then there were questions like this one: How common was working mothers in your day? Have working mothers been good or bad for our society? Explain why or why not. Which, yes, does possibly prompt a person to write something about their life experience and opinions, but wasn’t matched with a question about working fathers and whether they had been good or bad for society. I am side-eyeing the assumptions around that question and lack of matching question. So I’ve … adjusted… several of the prompts so that the shape of them doesn’t irk me.

(For the record: Working mothers have always been common throughout all of history. It is just that during a period of about fifty years in white, American, middle-and-upper class families there was a narrative that somehow having mothers work outside the home was an aberration that caused problems for society. Does Mom working cause problems? Yup. Does Mom being a home maker and domestic worker and childcare provider cause problems? Also yup. I’ve been both of those Moms. I’m in favor of providing families with choices and support so they can decide their own best balance.)

So there in the parenthetical I’ve answered my own first prompt. I don’t plan to do these daily. I have enough creative projects in progress without assigning myself another one to track. But sometimes I want to write a blog post and feel a little stuck on where to start. Now I have a set of prompts to pull from. In the meantime if you want to see some fun Mermay pictures, you can become one of Keliana’s patrons for only a dollar.

A List of Small Updates

The last few weeks have been a period of calm accomplishment. I’m trying not to measure the value of my life in “things done,” but when living a life where most days are similar to each other and weekly patterns repeat themselves, sometimes I can lose a sense of progress. At those times it is useful to look back at the state of things six months or a year ago and see how all the small efforts and changes added up over time. So, as I enter a spring and summer that will probably look a great deal like the ones I had last year, now seems like a good time to record some status reports.


I bought Scrivener today. I’ve felt daunted by the thought of learning how to use it, but I was also daunted by the process of organizing thoughts into a novel. My first draft was one giant word document and I longed for the ability to separate out chapters or scenes to view them separately. Then I found my way into a process for brainstorming my novel’s plot that involved 4×6 cards and a file box. This made the organizational portion of my brain very happy. It is tacitlely satisfying to write notes on a card and then drop it into place. However I could already see that the method is not particularly portable and impossible to back up. So when I learned that Scrivener allows me to create scene cards and shuffle them around in the same ways that I would with physical cards, I decided to give it a try.

All of this shuffling of card and learning of digital tools is because I’m taking another run at finishing my middle grade novel. I’m scavenging my first draft for parts as I pull a sub-plot into being the main plot, let go of some of the ideas that don’t fit anymore, and adding additional threads of lore. This discovery phase is being fun. I hope to have the novel re-drafted by July because a friend of mine with experience writing and publishing middle grade has offered to do a critical read of the book and I’m using that offer as a motivational deadline. It feels good to have a specific creative focus and to prioritize writing.


Teaching classes is on hold until July. (Yes this fits nicely with focusing on fiction writing during that same period.) But even though I’m not focused on teaching, I’m still collecting bits and pieces that will go into my next classes. I have some I’m very excited about. I’ve also pitched some of the classes to a writing conference in the fall. Hopefully they’ll pick them up and I’ll get to teach several classes there. I’m also working with a graphic designer to create some logos for myself and for the creative community that I’m trying to foster. I hope to have images to share soon. And, as I posted the other day, I’ve been dressing up my Zoom corner. So “on hold” doesn’t mean “nothing happening.” It just means that I’m letting that portion of my brain simmer while I’m sending most of my energy into other things.


The next big home improvement task is moving the door into the garage. This is a multi-step project that starts by moving food storage shelves out of the way. I’m breaking it down into bite sized pieces and doing a little bit at a time rather than letting the size of the whole thing make me stop. I’m also waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) for our tax return to come in so I can afford to buy a new door. I’m now on week six of waiting. I don’t like waiting.


Outside the house I managed to accomplish the critical early spring tasks. I cut back our pear tree so it can (hopefully) recover from blight, and I cut back our grape vines so I could build a new structure for them. More structure needs to be built, but at least they are set up for a good growing season. Later this week I hope to tear grass out of an old flower bed and scatter a bag full of Utah-native wildflower seeds. I want to re-wild portions of our yard and make it more wildlife friendly. Mostly that means birds and bugs. My neighborhood doesn’t get wild mammals larger than mice. However if I could convince a family of quail to take up residence, that would make me very happy.


The kids are all in fairly stable configurations. Growth is slow and sometimes in odd directions, but bit by bit they’re beginning to claim adulthood. For the most part my job is to stay out of their way and not make their lives too easy. They need to practice doing some of the small life maintenance things which are so second nature to me now that I’ll often do the things for my kids without thinking about it. So my job is to think, and to leave the small mess, or the small task, for my kid to (eventually) notice and do for themselves.


Howard is still working on creating process for his next comics projects. He keeps running into mental roadblocks, and he keeps being frustrated by his own lack of productivity. Again, my job is to stay out of the way.


In pandemic news, Utah is on a low-level plateau. The removal of the statewide mask mandate didn’t cause even a blip in the plateau. Possibly because I didn’t notice much behavioral change. Most retail stores and schools are still requiring masks. However church gatherings and activities are coming back up to pre-pandemic levels in the next couple of weeks. By “pre-pandemic levels” I mean that there will be as many hours, but masks are still expected and social distancing is the norm. We’ll have to see how that affects the numbers. I think it is a reasonable next experiment as we all try to figure out how much the vaccination effort is helping and what life patterns we can reclaim from the before times. In another ten days everyone in my house will be fully vaccinated. So venturing to church in person is something that we’ll be trying, and possibly retreating from if we discover it to be panic inducing. Slowly life is taking on a new shape yet again. However I’m still not planning on traveling this year and not going to any big conventions.

I have many mixed thoughts about the ways that pandemic have exposed privilege. I can’t help but compare the current crisis in India with the US having piles of open vaccine appointments with no one showing up for them. I have friends in Canada who are locked down and would love to be vaccinated. And I compare that to what I contemplate happening in my life in the next few months. It isn’t fair. I know that life has never been fair, but all the unfairness keeps being in the front and center of my attention. For the most part, I can’t fix it. So I focus on telling stories that help people whether they’re in the form of blog posts, tweets, middle grade novels, picture books, or letters.

Fixing Up My Zoom Corner

One thing that the pandemic made necessary was setting up a space in my house where I could manage Zoom meetings and classes. I claimed a corner of the bedroom and set up this.

It functioned really well for the past six months, but I discovered that having a green screen behind me created a fuzzyness to my video images that I did not like. I wanted a real background. I also wanted a corner that was pleasant to look instead of a corner that looked and felt jumbled. So I pulled everything out, painted that corner (to cover up the gray stripes marking the location of wall studs) and put up some shelves. I like it a lot better now.

I have flat spaces to put lecture notes, shelves to display attractive things, and a place that is generally pleasant to look at. I finally mounted and hung my two original drawings from Strength of Wild Horses. I also invested in a better webcam so that when I teach and record classes, I’ll have a clearer image to work with. The view via Zoom also looks pretty good.

The last piece I need for the space is a footstool because the height of my chair doesn’t let my feet sit flat on the floor. I went shopping and found some functional ones at reasonable prices, but my heart caught on this fellow.

He was more expensive, but Howard pointed out that sometimes it is okay to pay for joy. So I placed the order and he is coming to live with me. His name is Clyde.

So now I’m set up to host more online classes, attend online social events, and visit with friends. This is good, because even with vaccinations, most of my connections with other writers will be online this year.

Re-Watching My Fair Lady

I grew up loving Hollywood musicals. I still love the colorful, glorious, joyous, extravagance of them, but I see them with different eyes than I used to. I see the ways that they taught my young girl self to form her identity around life with men at the center. I see and think a lot differently than I did back then, I have more trouble just enjoying musicals, I have to think about them, the messages they reinforce, and the context in which they were made. Today I re-watched My Fair Lady, which could be aptly re titled Misogyny and Gaslighting: The Musical. The nice thing about My Fair Lady is that it is specifically designed to interrogate the power structures between men and women with a small side order of interrogating class structure. The hard part is that it was filmed in 1964, an era when American women couldn’t get bank accounts or credit cards without a man’s permission. So even while the film clearly positions Professor Higgins as an asshole and shows us that Eliza is trapped, even while it gives her a powerful song of declared freedom, all of that is undermined by the closing scene where she returns to him. Higgins doesn’t even turn to look at her, just asks after his slippers while she smiles. The film pulls its punch and reinforces a status quo where men get to be comfortable and women have to put up with it. Women, you can have your independent moment as long as you’re back in the house for slipper delivery.

As a text for discussing systemic misogyny, My Fair Lady is incredibly useful. Particularly since both the 1900’s era classism/misogyny and the 1960’s era misogyny are in there to talk about and discuss. Unfortunately it is one of the beloved movies from my childhood that I can’t share with my children and have them love it as I did. It would be a huge sociological discussion rather than a shared delight. (Though, to be fair, an hours-long sociological discussion with my kids is its own kind of delightful.) We’ll find other things to love together. I wonder how other issues-based musicals like South Pacific hold up. The ones like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are hard for me to even enjoy anymore.

Drifting Through a Sunday Afternoon

I’m sitting here in the middle of a drifty Sunday afternoon, feeling like I ought to have something meaningful to write, but not quite being able to connect with my focused thoughts because I’ve been so successful at actually having a weekend instead of a sneak-in-all-the-tasks-between-pretending-I’m-taking-down-time. Weekends are something I’ve been nurturing in the past months, especially since all my days are spent at home and my work spaces are in the same physical location as my relaxation spaces. I drift from work into no-longer-working sometime in the afternoon. Then on Saturday and Sunday I don’t assign myself tasks. I’m free to do them if I bump into them, but I’m not pushing to get anything done. I can’t always have pleasantly drifty weekends, but during the times when I can’t have them, I try to hold the memory of their importance so that I don’t return to living an anxiety-and-task driven mode of being.

My life has had more appointments in it lately. This is a shift from last year when all the days felt long and formless. They’d been stripped of external structure by the pandemic shut downs. Most of that structure still hasn’t come back. I have no kids in school, no homework to monitor or oversee. My weekly church meetings are two half-hour web streams and a family blessing of the sacrament. I still only grocery shop once per week and have consolidated all my other errands. But over the months, I built a new structure to help me connect with people. I now have video visits with various communities and friends at fairly regular intervals. Seeing people is good, but it does mean that I am back to having time segmented into parts: Tuesday before appointment, Tuesday after appointment. But I don’t schedule appointments for Saturday or Sunday. It helps me remember what those long, formless days were like. It helps me to retain the lessons I learned from having all of my days be formless.

I wish I could write down my lessons from formless days into a clear list: Things I Learned From My Pandemic Summer. I can’t though. They’re all amorphous, nebulous. Sensations and feelings more than concrete thoughts. By shutting off all the ways I’d over extended myself, I learned what it felt like to be on balance in my center. While centered, I learned all the things I had waiting for me to grieve them, so I gave space/life/energy over to that grief process. I gave stretches of hours and days to let the feelings fully play out instead of processing emotion in stolen snatches of time between other obligations. I still think about how that felt now that I’m building a new network of time obligations out of the pieces of the old. Interesting that the time spent growing in a centered way has resulted in me being able to extend outward as far or farther than I used to reach in my former overextended mode. That’s a lesson I want to remember.

Perhaps someday I’ll find words for how I feel more whole now than I did a year ago, how I’m less afraid. So far any words I use feel like a thin layer of papier-mâché over a round balloon, describing the outline of the thing while not the fullness of it. For today, I’ll put down the words and drift through the rest of my Sunday afternoon.

Dreaming of Ocean

Last night I dreamed of open water. We went to the water hoping for solitude only to discover crowds of people everywhere. Relatives, friends, strangers, none of whom I dared approach, all of whom invaded the space I’d hoped to have. Then I found a vast expanse of bright blue devoid of people. The water was at a perfect temperature for me to wade waist deep without feeling cold. I was so pulled by the water that I didn’t even take time to change into a bathing suit and just let my clothes be wet, knowing I could dry them in the sun later. I walked in the water amid twisted, fantastical, beautiful trees. The light caught on these trees in ways that I photographed, and every photo was perfect.

I am awake now and I still feel the pull of that water. I catch my breath at the remembered beauty of those trees. Someday I will travel to an ocean again. Today I must content myself with my 1/3 acre of plants and trees just beginning to wake from winter’s sleep. Chilly gardening instead of sun-drenched water.

Event Planning in End-Stage Pandemic

I have a list of tasks for today. It is a reasonable list and sits in a row with the reasonable lists from earlier in the week. Most days I do most of the things on my lists because I’ve manage to size my obligations to fit into my available hours under ongoing pandemic quarantine. All of it carefully paced to be sustainable over the long haul. It is smart. Yet this week I feel stifled somehow. The hours feel long and I keep shying away from tasks on my list. Some of that is the normal anxiety I feel in the few days prior to teaching an online class. I love the concept of this one (Networking for People with Social Anxiety) yet I worry that I won’t be able to do the topic justice, that I’ll fail to provide my students with sufficient value for their expenditure of time and money. Teaching the class also requires me to expose my own social anxieties. In order to teach I have to be vulnerable, and that is scary. Anxiety over teaching on Saturday doesn’t fully explain my mind state today though.

So much of my pandemic experience has been learning to focus on the short term because long term had too many variables in it. This week has forced me to face that same necessity through the end of 2021. This seems to be the week when events I’m associated with for late summer and fall are making decisions or announcing decisions about their format for this year. For example, Gen Con has shifted their date to late September and announced that they’ll be running a hybrid show with in-person, online, and pop-up aspects. In light of their announcement, I, as a vendor for the show, have decisions to make about whether I’ll commit my crew to attending an in-person event. I have to sit here in March and stare across six months of unknown variables relating to vaccination, Covid variants, public behavior, transmission rates, re-infection rates, international travel blockages, and the hazards I don’t even know to look for. Weighing all of those question marks, I have to come up with a decision that I can stand behind. Each variable has its own freight of anxiety, it’s own catastrophization tree of possible terrible outcomes. My anxiety gnaws at it all, and the only way to quiet the anxiety is to keep my physical life small, controlled. Which then leads to me feeling worried that I’m letting anxiety dictate my life. Perhaps I should be brave instead of safe. But facing anxiety is exhausting, and I know that need to decide upon a path that I can maintain for at least the next six months.

Looking at the decisions in front of me, I’m fairly certain where I will land. And as I write that sentence my eyes tear up a little bit for the losses. Last year loss was imposed. Everything was canceled and I was relieved to just flow along the choices of others. I could be sad without having to be responsible for causing the sadness. This year, standing in this week, I know I’m going to have to choose loss. I will either watch others have an event I stayed home from, or experience months upon months of frazzling anxiety which will interfere with my ability to work and feel happiness.

The general tenor of public discussion is cautious rejoicing because we’re reaching the end of the pandemic. I wish I could join in that hopefulness, but I remember how it felt when everything was canceled. I worry that some of these bright plans for Fourth of July events and fall conventions will have to be canceled. My instinct is to take much smaller steps into a wider world rather than rushing to reclaim as much as possible as soon as possible. So I sit here with my choices, and I grieve for what they will cost me, and I worry that my instinct for caution will prevent others from having their full reclaiming of life. Perhaps this year should be met with bravery instead of caution. Perhaps caution will save us pain, stress, and loss. We can’t know yet. And that is hard.

The Owl

On Sunday morning I heard a blue jay yelling outside my front window. It is common to hear jays yell as they fly through the neighborhood, but the frequency and persistence of this yell declared “danger!” even to my uneducated human ears. I stepped outside to find the jay jumping in circles in one of my trees. A closer inspection showed me the small screech owl who was the focus of the blue jay’s ire. I waved off the jay so that the owl could sleep in peace. The owl elected to move to a different tree. All was calm… until the jay found the owl again.

This set the pattern for the entire day, quiet, interrupted by a jay screaming, me stepping out to chase off the blue jay, followed by a period of quiet. The jay was persistent. He not only came back again and again, he also attempted to gather other birds and jays to help him mob the owl. Chickadees, juncos, and finches all showed up to yell at the owl. Mostly the owl hunkered down, not taking flight, and not offering any returning attacks, even when the jay pecked at is feet.

I don’t know that the owl needed me to chase off the other birds, but I felt like attempting to defend him was important. Owls move through the world so quietly that getting to observe one in my own garden felt like a minor miracle. Particularly since his roosting spot let me get within five feet of him. These pictures were taken with a basic cell phone, that’s how close I got, but I was careful to watch his body language and back off when he seemed nervous about me. It was this careful balance, close enough that the other birds flew away, not close enough to cause the owl to take flight. There were several long stretches mid-afternoon where no birds came to disturb the peace.

When I talked about owl sitting on twitter, there was a side conversation about how blue jays can be real jerks. I suppose that is one interpretation of the jay’s behavior. Except, the jay was not wrong. The owl, even a small one, is a predator who will absolutely kill and eat other birds. Once night fell, the owl would have the advantage. During the day, with a crowd of birds, the day birds had a chance to drive the owl away from their territory. The entire nature play between the owl and the birds was each feathered creature following their instincts. When dark fell, the owl took off and I’m not likely to ever see him again.

I have one set of thoughts where I identify with the owl hunkered down in a place that was only sort of safe while bird around him yelled at him or pecked at his toes. I can draw parallels to social media experiences or pandemic. There is another set of thoughts about the birds who banded together to try to chase away a threat to their lives by grouping up and yelling about it, which feels parallel to protests and community actions I’ve seen in recent months. The blue jay was a leader / instigator, but all the birds played a part, and if they’d managed to get the owl to take flight, they could have driven him far away. As it is, he isn’t likely to pick my trees for his daytime roost again. I hold all of these thoughts loosely.

Mostly I look at the beautiful pictures of the owl and think about what a miracle he is. Look that those ear tufts! and those feet! I marvel that something so small could be alive. He flies about the world taking care of himself while I’m unaware. The world is full of such feathered miracles. The jays, chickadees, juncos, finches, and sparrows are all miracles too. My world is full of wonder, and I’m glad I got to see some of it up close for a day.

Trees in Bubbles

I had a thing to do. It was a simple thing, and yet I kept not doing it. So yesterday my oldest also had a thing to do and we joined forces. I went over to her house and helped her photograph these:

Keliana has been making them for the past several months, and hadn’t managed to get them into her etsy store. So we made a little assembly line to get individual photographs of each bubble tree. They’re in her store now. Then we also took photographs of a pile of necklaces that I’ve been gifted and will be gifting onward via Twitter later this month. The whole photography session took less than an hour, yet neither of us had been able to make ourselves do it prior to making the appointment. Brains are weird that way.

It has me thinking about inter-dependence and the value of community. We’ve all been running experiments in isolation during the pandemic to varying degrees. Old systems for getting things done broke down and we’ve had to build things new. As I looked at each little tree with its own bubble, I thought about how they are perfect pandemic art. Each tree both constrained by and protected by the bubble that surrounds it. Hopefully this batch will sell well so that Keliana will have the resources to make more.

Spring is Beginning

It is sixty degrees outside today and the sun is warm enough for my to sit on the steps in a short sleeve shirt. We’re finally on the front edge of spring. In only a few weeks more my spring bulbs will bloom with all their joyous color. Spring is an escape from the cold and dark of winter. Life feels full of potential in more ways than one. Howard is scheduled for his first vaccine appointment on Wednesday. The person we’ve most been worried about catching the illness will soon have the start of an immunological shield. I expect my vaccinations are only a month or so out with the kids to follow. Utah keeps opening up to new groups faster than expected. On a personal level I am glad. Though the reason for speed of offering vaccines is because people who were eligible didn’t sign up. Herd immunity is going to require convincing reluctant people to get their shot. Now we have a whole new set of questions in our lives. Which things that we’d ruled out of our lives are safe to bring back? Once my household has vaccines, what comes next? Going back to church in person? Jobs for my young adults? Having friends over for outdoor visits again? We’d grown familiar with the pandemic boundaries. Now we’ll need to define new ones.

The emotionally complex decisions that will be necessary in the coming months do not take away from today’s joy in spring. I feel like the plants, just starting to wake up and rejoice in the sunlight. I spent winter, and the pandemic, growing some strong roots. Now I’m ready to put out leaves and bask in the sun.