On Greece, Rome, leaning against ancient temple columns, and . . . oh yeah, a new book coming soon!

To my horror I realized today that it’s been over two months since I’ve posted here. The past couple months of teaching high school–with my students taking the AP English Literature exam (scores are released this weekend–biting my knuckles), helping with Junior Prom (I got to be the MC announcing students, but I held back from using my full <announcer voice, voice . . .voice>), getting the school’s literature and arts book published (thank you, Amazon), helping students write graduation speeches (“Why aren’t you mentioning me?”), and grading finals (did they answer all the questions? Just slap a 90 on that.)–well, all that took every last minute of my days.

Then, the last day of school on June 14, my husband and I took off for sheer indulgence to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary, since we’ve never really celebrated any of our past anniversaries beyond eating a piece of cake. We left our family, flew to Rome–just the two of us–and took a cruise to the Greek isles. It was my first passport, our first cruise, our first major trip anywhere. (People on our ship asked us if we took “practice” cruises before, and I just stared at them, not realizing that’s a thing. Matching t-shirts on cruises are also, sadly, a thing.)

Some of my students, after hearing where I was going and responding to my pictures on Facebook, said, “Man, you must be RICH to go on this trip!” (Forgetting that we’re school teachers in America.)

I replied with, “Not by any stretch. I’m working a second job for two summers to pay for it, we planned our port excursions on our own to save money, loaded up on the breakfast buffet before we left the ship so we didn’t have to eat until we got back for dinner, and for souvenirs we collected sand in test tubes and rocks off of beaches. In Rome we found a grocery store and bought local food for meals, paid only for two guided tours (Delos and the Vatican) and otherwise purchased guide books or just sidled up to other tour groups to listen in on what we were seeing in Athens, the Colosseum, Olympia, etc. We didn’t purchase the drinks package on the ship (picked up our own soda off-ship), walked for miles every day or took local buses and trains instead of taxis, and THAT’S how you afford a Mediterranean vacation!”

I never imagined I’d actually write a paragraph as I did above. Such a trip never was a possibility, only a dream. Yet it happened (after a GREAT deal of planning and saving). I’m still surprised we went through it, and that nothing horrible happened as a result. (I’m guilty of believing that if I try to do something fun, the cosmos will come back and bite me later. It still may . . .)

If you’ve read my books, it’s no secret that I borrow from ancient Greece and Rome: architecture and ruins, leadership and armies, “bread and circuses.” I’ve researched a great deal of their societies to create my own in the Forest at the Edge series.

In Book 6, Flight of the Wounded Falcon,  I gave Perrin and Mahrree experiences I’d never had (ok a little wish fulfillment in my books). I also gave them a way to remember it:

 . . . Mahrree gazed again at the large painting that nearly covered the wall in their little gathering room. For their anniversary a few weeks ago, Perrin had asked a landscape artist to create for them a painting of the ancient temple ruin where they had trekked so often.

The Shins had expected a small picture, but the artist, knowing how much they loved the site, created an immense painting of breathtaking realism of the entire area, with details and colors that left both Perrin and Mahrree speechless.

But the best part was that she had included both of them in the painting, smiling and leaning on either side of a pillar at the top of the stairs of the crumbling temple. They were only a few inches high, but even then the detail was astonishing.

They discovered later that the artist had been surreptitiously following them. Their grandchildren, in on the surprise, had found occasion to ask them to lean against things so that the artist could quickly sketch them at the correct heights. . . .

On nights like this, Mahrree stared at the painting and wished she and Perrin were at the ancient site again, as they had been dozens of times, all alone. . . .

The last time they did it was just a few weeks ago, for their 44th anniversary, just before they’d been presented with the glorious painting.

When Dave and I paid off the trip and realized we were actually going (although I kept thinking, Some disaster will strike and we won’t go; Greece will slip into the ocean, Rome will erupt in a giant volcano, I’ll get a horrible stomach flu . . .) I told my husband that all I wanted were a couple of pictures of us leaning against an old pillar. He hasn’t read the books (although I’ve used him on several covers) so he was a little confused by my request, but he was willing. (I wish you could see his, “Are you serious?” expression. After 31 years, I’ve seen it MANY times. He’s learned it’s just best to go along with things to keep me happy. That’s why we’ve been married for 31 years.)

On the island of Delos, we asked a man with a camera like mine to take our picture. (Here’s a travel hint: always find someone with a nicer camera than yours to take your picture; people with only phones have no idea what they’re doing.) The wind wasn’t too helpful, but the excitement–for me, at least–wasn’t blown away as we posed at the Temple of Isis (not the current ISIS, but an ancient one, fortunately):

Two days later we were in Olympia where the ancient Olympics were held for a thousand years, and whoa–more columns to lean against! So again I recruited a photographer, and my husband gave me that same puzzled look, then gamely leaned against another column:

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I see these photos from just a couple weeks ago and I still can’t believe that I was allowed to visit some amazing places. I still marvel that I’ve been allowed to have nine children, to teach high school students, to write an entire books series, to meet so many marvelous people . . . sometimes life is just too good.

No, I amend that: very frequently life is just too good. When you stop and analyze it, and realize what opportunities it gives you, it’s overwhelming. We have to sit in the grass and just whisper, “Thank you.”

Even if the cosmos does decide to come back one day and bite me in the rear because it’s my turn for a new trial, I’ll still have had all of this. Too much, and too good.

Oh, and did you notice what I put in the title about a new book? IT’S TRUE! I’ve written a prequel about the first High General Pere Shin and the servants of King Querul, and it’s nearly ready to be published! (Ok, so I had a few minutes here and there the past three months, and surprisingly I produced a new book with that time.)

I plan to release it this summer, now that my life has slowed down a little, so watch for updates and a LOT more posts about The Walls in the Middle of Idumea, a Forest at the Edge Prequel.

And no, you do NOT have needed to read the series to read the prequel. In fact, I think it’ll be a good lead-in to the rest of the series, especially since it’s only about 180 pages (not as daunting as some of my other books). So if you have any friends that have been interested in reading, tell them they can begin here!

The Walls in the Middle of Idumea–coming very, very soon!

Optimism, Gratitude, and Grit can together defeat fear

One of my favorite writings assignments I give my 10th graders is the “Optimism, Gratitude, and Grit” write-up. We’re reading a holocaust memoir, and we talk about the qualities the survivors had in common:
1) the ability to maintain hope and optimism;
2) a feeling of gratitude, no matter the circumstances; and
3) grit and perseverance to never give up.
I then read out loud the chapters in All But My Life detailing the Death March to Volary, Czechoslovakia, and have my students mark the novel with sticky notes whenever they encounter someone demonstrating those traits. Then they type up the lines and label each with what trait it demonstrates.

I tell them later that this was practice for their upcoming research papers, reading a text for specific details.

But I really hope it’s practice for life. They can endure nearly any trial and succeed in nearly any endeavor if they’re hopeful, grateful, and gritty. I have them take online quizzes evaluating their current levels, and explain that each of these traits can be learned and improved.

I love hearing the quiet rustles of paper as they mark another part of the text as I read, love seeing their lists and their labels, and I silently pray, “Let this leak into their brains! They’re going to need it all!”

In many parts of the country, teenagers and college students are becoming fearful snowflakes who melt at the slightest breath of trouble.

Most of my downeast Mainer kids, however, I think are a little tougher. They’re more like snowballs–packed firm and ready to fly.

Some of my students have shrugged at the book, claiming they can’t get into it because they “can’t relate.” I sincerely hope that they never do, but I worry that someday they will, too much.

And it’s then that I pray they’ll remember to always have hope, always be grateful, and never, ever give up. (That’s a much better lesson to remember than how to write a research paper.)

fear and success

Get the Forest at the Edge series here.

Two logical reasons why I bizarrely thank canning jars . . . and everything else

I didn’t realize until I was older that we had a weird tradition in our house. It was mandatory that when a canning jar popped, no matter what part of the house my mother was in, she’d shout, “Thank you!”

If she wasn’t home, that duty fell to me, and I didn’t always want to do it.

My mother, a refugee from Germany after WWII, learned how to can after she came to America. But she was always worried about sealing the jars properly, so she’d watch the jars, waiting for the lid to pop up indicating that it had sealed. Relieved, my mother would exclaim, “Oh, thank you!”

Over the years, it became a habit to thank each jar for sealing properly, and I grew up knowing that when the jars popped in the kitchen, “Thank you!” needed to be shouted. Otherwise, who knew what evil would transpire?

I thought the tradition was ridiculous, especially when I discovered that no one else did this.

When I was twelve, Mom pulled out a batch of pears, then went outside to pick strawberries. It was then that a cooling jar popped, and . . .  I was the only one to hear it.

I knew what was expected—that I should thank it, but how stupid was that? Thanking an inanimate object?

The house became very quiet and still, as if waiting for me to thank the jar for its kindness in sealing, but I wasn’t going to do it, not going to—

“Thank you,” I finally whispered, because the cosmos seemed to demand it.

Two more jars popped cheerfully after that, and I thanked each of them. Fortunately my mom came back into the house and asked urgently, “Did any pop?”

“Yes, and I thanked them,” I said sheepishly.

She thanked each of the jars herself anyway, just to be sure.

It wasn’t until about ten years later, when I tried canning for the first time, that I eagerly and worriedly watched for my first can of tomatoes to signal its sealing. When it did, I cried out, “Oh, thank you!”

And immediately I understood. And immediately I was hooked.

You see, I began to thank all kinds of things; our old vans when they start without spluttering (I frequently pat them on the dashboard, telling them what good vehicles they are); the driver’s side window of my minivan when it decides to go up when I push the button—especially when it starts raining; my printer when it communicates with my laptop and actually prints something; when the traffic light stays green for a second longer; when there’s a 2-for-1 sale on my favorite bagged salad—all of that gets an audible, “Thank you!”

Yes, even in the grocery store.

I’ve found myself saying “Thank you!” when:
my sons’ favorite t-shirts are on sale;
that 50% off coupon is still good at the fabric store;
the berries produce;
the bread rises;
I get to the pot just before it boils over; and
when the stain comes out in the laundry.

Because everything deserves thanks, animate or inanimate.

It’s contagious. My oldest daughter confessed that when she cans, she also calls out “Thank you!” each time a jar pops; another child thanks the scooter when it starts up; and the other day I heard my four-year-old thank his Legos for going together.

There are numerous studies showing the spiritual/psychological/emotional improvements when we count our blessings, but here are the reasons why I became hooked on thanking the world:

  • It immediately makes me happy. Think of every time you say thank you, or someone says it to you. There is always—always—a hint of a smile (or maybe a huge one, depending upon the situation).

I have yet to witness a sincere expression of thanks without accompanying happiness.

  • I feel in harmony with the world when I thank it, and that makes me peaceful. So what if it’s weird to thank the automatic door for opening; I do so anyway. It might not have opened, and that may have made me grumpy as I wrestled with doors, trying to leave the store.

But something kind and helpful happened for me, as it does every day, so I show gratitude. It does nothing for the item I thank, but it does ME a world of good: I see the world as a kind and helpful place, which in many,  many ways it still is.

I need to remind myself that there is peace, even during horrific times, or I’ll hide in my closet terrified of the world.

My mom told me once of fleeing the Soviets when they were taking over her hometown of Neisse (Nysa), now in Poland. She was a teenager, fleeing all alone to the west, and had only a sausage in her backpack for food. She found a mother and her child willing to shelter her for the night, and she shared her sausage with them. She thanked the woman for safety from the Soviets, and the woman thanked her for giving them something to eat when she had literally nothing left.

And for that evening, for them, the world was at peace. I don’t know about you, but I desperately want that kind of peace in a world growing more hostile. My mom always remembered that night fondly, when she realized that kindness still existed, and so did God.

Yvonne N Strebel 1

(My  mom, a few years later, in happier times in Munich.)

So really, it’s not so much thanking the world as an inanimate object, either; it’s thanking, in many different ways, the Creator of it all.

“Thank you,” Perrin said again to the forest, wondering if anyone was there to hear it.

Back behind a clump of pines, a man in white and gray mottled clothing nodded. “You’re welcome, sir. My pleasure and honor.” ~Book One: The Forest at the Edge of the World

why-i-thank-the-jars

 

Thanks, Etsy shoppers, for my inability to sleep!

Last year we were dragging ourselves out of a financial mess. After many months of being severely underemployed, our situation was slowing improving with new jobs. But we didn’t yet have any funds for Christmas. I wondered if I could generate a few dollars to provide Christmas for our family of eleven—nine children, plus an in-law and a grandchild. We’ve never spent a lot at Christmas—about $50 a person—but our budget by October was literally nothing. (Writing novels and giving them away for free doesn’t produce much income; go figure.)

I’ve always been crafty, had read about successes on Etsy, and wondered if I any success could be mine. So after several prototypes and a few failures, I came up with this:

House Elf (Dobby) Laundry Room Sign--A fun place to store those single socks

I liked it, wanted one, and hoped maybe someone else would, too. Nervously I put it up for sale.

About a week later someone bravely took a chance on my new shop and . . .

 . . . bought one!

In my head I thought, “That’s enough profit to buy one paperback for a child!”
Then another one sold.
“I can buy a used DVD!”
Then another, and another.
“A handful of matchbox cars! A Minion t-shirt!”

And then the avalanche hit, mid-November. One week, the payment that went into my bank account on Monday was in the triple digits—over $100.

I was ecstatic. And stunned. And overwhelmed. I needed to get cutting more wood and painting and packaging, quick! Get the kids to help—it’s their Christmas we’re buying, after all.

The avalanche grew, and by the second week of December I realized something astonishing: we had earned enough to have a regular Christmas.

I was both humbled and thrilled. My faith in the free market system was also restored as I realized that people all over America were buying my little sock holder, and giving my family a Christmas.

My oldest daughter, whose birthday was in December, said, “Mom, years ago you tried making a Harry Potter/Mrs. Weasly clock. I think you should try it again. I really want one for my birthday.”

I hesitated. What I had made as prototypes were beautiful, but since there were out of solid wood they were heavy, bulky, and ridiculously expensive.

“So try something else,” my daughter was persistent. (Oldest children tend to be the naggiest.) “See what’s out there now. I really want a Harry Potter clock for my apartment.”

My husband and I searched all the hobby stores looking for ideas, but nothing that was reasonably priced. Finally I decided to try a trick I’d done years ago for Mother’s Day gifts: I purchased a clock, dismantled it, made a new face, and reassembled it again. I showed the prototype to my daughter who said, “Very good. Now start selling these on Etsy.”

Harry Potter Clock, 8.75 inches

Why would anyone want this? I mean, I loved, loved coming up with the fonts, designing the face, creating the sayings, but would anyone want it?

I also made the Geek/Nerd clock for fun. For years I’d thought such a clock needed to exist, so I designed it and listed it just in case.

Geek Nerd Clock, 8.75 inches

I got an order here, another one there. But it was January, and things were normally slow. I ran into shipping problems, packaging problems, other worries, and stressed about my ability to make something consistently good enough. I almost, almost pulled the clocks from Etsy.

Why was I so arrogant as to assume someone would find my tinkering worth $21?

Someone was, in Australia. Would I ship a Harry Potter clock internationally? Uh, I guess I could . . . and I realized that international shipping wasn’t that tough.

I also hadn’t understood before the power of websites like Buzzfeed and ThinkGeek and other sites that stroll around the web looking for something mildly interesting, then posting about it.

Someone thought my Harry Potter clock was mildly interesting, put it on a piece about decorating with Harry Potter decor, and within one day I was sold out. An avalanche of orders and requests came, half of them internationally. Gee, people still love Harry Potter as much as we did?

The next month that happened again, with my Geek/Nerd clocks. Several websites picked those up, and in one day I had over 50 requests for those clocks. And the next day, and the next. Every time I opened my email I cringed in worry about how many more requests there would be. It took me three weeks to catch up to the demand. I’d never been afraid of my email before.

etsyshop header

(I realize the name of the shop isn’t too representative of what I sell. I initially was going to sell something completely different, for which the name made sense, but that didn’t pan out. With no idea of what else to name my shop, and not thinking I’d sell more than 30 items, I just kept the old name. In a way, it works. At least, that’s what I tell myself.)

Overwhelmed, I stared at my Etsy stats as they reached numbers I’d never seen before. And when a weekly payments went into my bank account that month sporting four figures, I could do nothing but stare at it.

The timing (ha!) was perfect. We had some major financial needs to fill, and the sales—and my working about 40 hours a week to make all of the products—filled it.

Then another website posted about my sock signs, and someone found out I made Star Wars key signs. More avalanches.

Star Wars key holder

By June my sales had leveled off, but I realized I could quit my part-time job and work from home, never leaving the house to earn money, but always being available for my kids. Another welcomed, wonderful miracle. Etsy buyers were consistently paying for our groceries each month. And for a family of eight, that’s a few dollars. I’ve added a Disc World clock (my personal favorite), a Lord of the Rings clock, a Disney Princess activity clock, and two Star Wars clocks–Light Side and Dark Side, whatever your preference may be.

Have I ever mentioned before that we’re a bit geeky at our house?

Now, a little over a year since I started, I’m once again overwhelmed—happily—with orders for Christmas. There’s no time to work on my books, or keep my blog updated (except for this). Our Christmas is already paid for this year, and now we’re hoping to pay for someone else’s. This bounty is also letting me donate $1 from every DiscWorld/Terry Pratchett clock I sell to the Alzheimer’s Association, and much of our proceeds from last week and this week will be donated to help the Syrian refugees via the LDS Church’s humanitarian organization.

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It’s tough to be three years old and see giant rolls of bubble wrap in your mom’s room, just waiting to be used. Even tougher when you sneak in her room and start popping the rolls when you think she can’t see you. Amazing how she still hears it, though . . .

A year ago, I never would have suspected I’d sell over one thousand products, a number I hit a week or so ago. I realize that for a lot of Etsy sellers that’s not a big number. But I’m not used to success. This feels huge! I’ve sold to every state in the union, and sent orders to a dozen other countries. My kids enjoy seeing the places where our little ditties fly off to.

But there are some disadvantages to working from home. Try this: go to your place of work or business, get your pillow and blanket, then have a good night’s sleep there.

Yeah, not too easy, is it? My storage and packaging room is also my bedroom. We have a small house and a large family, and while we’re down to only 5/6 kids (depending who’s home from college/army), every room is filled with kids, so my bedroom is also where I keep my orders chart, my shipping boxes, etc. When I lay down at night, I stare at the shelves crammed with work that needs to go out in the morning. Not the most restful.

Nor can I get away from it. When you work out of the house, you can leave your job and relax at home. But even as I sit here happily typing away and “relaxing”, I see out of the corner of my eye the stack of shipping labels that will be taped to packages tomorrow, and while I never work on Sundays (I desperately need a day of rest and renewal) my job sits there, watching me, waiting for early Monday morning . . .

But that’s ok—I don’t mind. I’m fine losing a bit of sleep because of success.
It’s a lot tougher to lose sleep because of failures.
I’ve been down that road.
This one’s a lot better. Thank you for this sleepless journey!