Writing inspired by the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest.
Choosing a word of the year is popular. The Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as their word in 2016, while Merriam-Webster settled on ‘surreal,’ and Dictionary.com tapped ‘xenophobia.’ All good choices given the year’s events.
A number of my friends choose a word that focuses them for the coming year. Serenity and Mindfulness are some examples. As friends shared their words for the 2017, I wondered how they do it. There are so many words that might apply.
Immediately, I recognized ‘wonder’ as a good word of the year for me. Wonder has many meanings so I am not trapped in one idea for the entire year. And my life circumstances already tell me this year will be full of moments that will cause me to pause.
Wonder encompasses curiosity, amazement, awe.
- I am in wonder at our granddaughters who bring such joy to our lives.
- I wonder if our neighbors who raise Percheron horses will let us ride them sometime?
- I wonder what it will be like to tour the ancient Greek monasteries, to stand in the middle of the 2500-year-old Parthenon, to ask the Oracle at Delphi my own questions?
- When I travel to Greece, I imagine I’ll be in wonder at finally fulfilling the very first travel desire I ever articulated, in eighth grade when we studied the Greek gods and goddesses, and again in college when I studied Greek theatre.
Wonder leaves room for doubt and uncertainty.
- I wonder what our country will be like under President Donald Trump?
- I wonder if any of the agents I pitch my novel to will like it enough to represent me?
- I wonder what I’ll do if they don’t?
- Now that I’ve finished the manuscript that occupied my time for two years, I wonder what will rise up as my next project? A question for the Oracle, no?
Wonder encourages emotion excited by what is strange and surprising.
- Standing in the midst of my prairie, I feel wonder that pioneers could actually cross through miles of tall grass.
- It is a wonder that I like ouzo. (If I actually said this, it truly would be a wonder. But who knows? I’m open to the possibility.)
Having latched onto Wonder, I imagine I’ll find even more reasons to experience all facets of the word. Having chosen the word, I’ll be reminded to appreciate more deeply each of these moments. An added value to choosing a word.
Do you chose a word of the year? If you have, please share. If you don’t have one but find that Wonder resonates for you, be my guest. I’m sure there’s plenty of wonder around for all of us.
My mother had a tradition. Whenever we visited, when it came time to leave, Mom put together food for us to take along for the drive. It didn’t matter if we’d just eaten and the trip only a couple of hours long, she sent food along for the drive.
As a result, I was charmed – and not a little homesick – when I heard that Nan Johnson’s family named this common tradition. As we enjoy this holiday season and associated travels, I invite you to take a little “Perkins Corner” love along.
Perkins Corner – love and comfort in a package “to go”
by Nan Johnson
Recently, as our daughter packed her car to leave after a visit home, my husband stepped out of our pantry holding a package of Mint Milano cookies. “These will be good for Perkins Corner – Kathryn likes these.” My husband caught me by surprise, because in that simple, off-hand comment, he connected generations of my family, paid a loving tribute to my late mother, and demonstrated that he pays more attention than he lets on.
A “Perkins Corner,” in my family, is a bag of treats assembled for the person leaving. It is an assortment of fruit and snacks, and may include a coupon for an oil change or a free smoothie. Practically speaking, of course, they are road trip provisions. Symbolically, they are a loving gesture to the family member who is leaving that says “we are reluctant to let you go; here’s a small part of us to take with you.”
While the practice is undoubtedly common among families, the name for it is not. It comes from my great-grandparents, Dutch immigrants who arrived two years before Ellis Island opened and settled in a community of fellow Frisians in northwest Iowa farm country.
Pakka was a stone mason and Beppa supplemented their income by making and selling cheese. Every summer in their childhood, my mother and her sister took the train from Rochester, Minnesota, to Rock Valley, Iowa, to visit their grandparents. These days, it is a three and a half hour trip by car; back then, the trip by rail probably took the better part of a day.
My mom and aunt spent the long summer days fishing with their grandpa, weeding the garden with grandma, and playing in the hayloft with cousins – children of their father’s siblings who had married other first generation Dutch Americans.
When it was time to leave the idyllic life of loving attention only grandparents can give, the tears began. To soften the sting of good-bye, Beppa handed her granddaughters a brown paper sack as they boarded the train with instructions not to open it until they reached Perkins Corner, the first train stop down the track. During that eight-mile journey, as Mom would tell the story, the sniffling subsided, cheeks wiped dry, and curiosity peaked as to the contents of that mysterious brown bag. When the conductor announced the Perkins stop, the sisters peeked inside and pulled out apples and cookies – one last figurative hug from their loving grandparents.
I grew up hearing the story, but never experienced my own Perkins Corner since my own grandparents lived in town. But after I married, had children and we visited my parents, who now lived in faraway Tucson, the tradition began again.
“Just a little Perkins Corner,” Mom would say tearfully as she thrust a brown paper lunch bag into my hands as we pulled up to curbside check-in at the airport. I wasn’t always as appreciative as I should have been; flying with three young children, our hands were already full of toddlers, strollers, diaper bags and luggage. What do I do with this extra sack? But I accepted the gift anyway, dutifully nodding at the updated instructions to not open until the airplane’s wheels retracted after lift-off.
Moments after we left the ground and felt the rumble of the wheel doors close underneath us, our kids would turn in unison toward me, and I would pull the slightly squashed bag from my carry-on. Mom got pretty creative over the years. She included candy made from prickly pear cactus, chocolates shaped like cowboy boots, decks of playing cards with colorful photos of Arizona. Whatever minor irritation I felt from being forced to hold on to an additional package faded at the sight of our kids’ smiles. After all, it was one last hug from loving grandparents.
So, when our grown-up daughter, with car packed and ready to go, came back inside to grab her travel coffee mug, she saw a brown paper sack waiting for her on the kitchen counter. Her eyes lit up and she said with delight, “Perkins Corner!” I felt three generations smiling with me.
Do you have quirky names for common traditions? Take a moment to share. And Happy Holidays.
Nan Johnson is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tallgrass prairie. Her first book “The Open Road” will be available in April 2017.
This past week rejection hit me right between the eyes. While I was not altogether surprised by the rejection, I was still disappointed. To the point of tears. In that moment, it helped to be reminded that even the best of writers have been where I am now.
I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath
Fortunately, Sylvia Plath’s quote showed up when I needed it most. On the very day, in fact, that my new manuscript was rejected by the publisher who acquired Go Away Home. The reason I was not surprised is that my new manuscript is an issue-driven, contemporary story while Go Away Home is historical fiction. Yet rejection is rejection. And it stung.
Plath’s quote reminded me that I had tried. I had done my best, writing the best story I could. During a good long walk, I came to see the opportunity, to realize that while this rejection diverts me from the comfortable path I’d been on, it opens another publishing path to explore.
My writing journey reflects the many faces of publishing. For a variety of reasons, I elected to indie publish my memoir Growing Up Country. That experience connected me with a host of talented, supportive indie authors who helped me learn the business. My marketing background offered the comfort zone from which I launched and promoted a book that continues to find readers 10 years later.
That effort was so successful that when it came time to publish my first novel, I didn’t even look for a publisher. The indie world had treated me well, and I launched with confidence, using everything I learned from the memoir.
Lake Union’s offer to acquire Go Away Home came out of the blue. I could not have been more surprised or delighted. The publisher’s editors built my writing skill, and their team opened marketing avenues I’d never have accessed on my own. The partnership remains a success even if it stops at one book.
Having experienced the power of a good publisher, I want that for my next work. So I embark upon a new path – Find an agent.
Finding an agent
Research is the place to start. I’ve begun to amass a list of agents who specialize in my genre and are open to new submissions. I’m researching the best query approaches. I’m preparing myself for the wait and see and inevitable acquisition of more rejection slips. I remain hopeful that one of these agents will love the story and want to work their magic with publishers.
No matter what happens, I know I’ll learn a lot. And that’s always good.
Authors, have you been this route? Do you have recommendations on agents or the process?
Readers, any advice on handling rejection?
Thanksgiving is a time laden with tradition as family and friends gather to share food, fellowship, and fond memories. As I texted my nieces this year, sharing our plans for turkey and all the fixings, I couldn’t help but remember one particular Thanksgiving. I share this story written a decade ago and published in The Iowan magazine as my Thanksgiving gift to you.
A Holiday Story
I have always believed that Thanksgiving dinner is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult meal to make. Easiest because there is no wondering what will be on the menu. At least at our house, the meal is always exactly the same, from homemade pumpkin and mincemeat pies to cranberry sauce cooked up and cooled in an aluminum mold used only for that purpose to the dinner rolls my aunt bakes on Thanksgiving morning. A turkey with sage dressing is the centerpiece.
At the same time, the meal is difficult because of the high level of expectation attached to all holiday family gatherings. For me, sage dressing is the food I desire most. I can pass on potatoes and gravy, forgo cranberries, even skip the turkey. Fill my plate with the sage dressing that I wait all year to taste.
So it was with more than casual interest that I listened to the phone conversation my mom was having with her granddaughter in Pennsylvania about Thanksgiving dressing.
“Say, Clorinda,” Mom said. “Your mom says you do a great job making dressing. If you want to make it when you’re here for Thanksgiving, I’ll get everything around so it’s ready when you are.”
Mom cradled the telephone between her shoulder and ear as she reached for a pencil and paper. “Okay, I’m ready,” she said, pencil poised to write. I knew she anticipated a list beginning with dried bread and progressing through sage seasoning.
Watching from across the table, I could see the list as Mom wrote down the ingredients Clorinda detailed: Stove … Top … Stuffing. Mom hesitated as she took in the words and glanced up at me. I couldn’t stifle a laugh.
For nearly 60 years, my mother had put three square meals a day on the table, all made from scratch, mostly using produce grown in her own garden. The very idea of making a Thanksgiving dish so basic and so traditional as dressing out of a box nearly made her go into shock.
But she’s quick on her feet, my mother. “How many boxes do you think we need?” she asked Clorinda.
Though Mom takes justifiable pride in the meals she prepares, she has her priorities in order. If her granddaughter wants to help make the meal, and that help comes out of a box, she won’t bat an eye. But don’t underestimate what a mental shift that took.
From the time my sisters and I were 10 years old. Mom taught us not only to grow the food we’d eat but also to cook it. She guided us through the basics of growing and canning peas and beans, tomatoes and corn. From there we explored the complexities of meal planning and cooking. Mom made cooking easy, measuring out ingredients before we knew what we needed, cleaning up every drip and spill as we made it. We knew no failures in her kitchen.
When 15-year-old Clorinda arrived in Iowa that November, Mom swept her granddaughter off into the kitchen as her newest apprentice. Some lessons were a snap. To make eggs over easy without flipping them, for instance, Mom shared the trick of putting a lid on the frying pan, drizzling a few drops of water at the edge, and letting steam cook the egg top. Some lessons were more challenging. Gravy without lumps took two tries. These cooking experiences continued throughout the week up until Thanksgiving Day.
By 5 a.m. the kitchen was a hive of activity directed by Mom and guaranteed to deliver the traditional Thanksgiving meal we all knew and loved. As noon approached, I watched in amusement as Clorinda opened the Stove Top stuffing mix and under Mom’s watchful eye completed a cooking task in five minutes that done in the traditional way would have taken a good two hours.
When the turkey came out of the oven at precisely 11:30 a.m. and a parade of heaping dishes made it to the dining room table at exactly noon, among them was a large bowl of Stove Top Stuffing. We all ate it. And it was good. Grandma agreed.
Would stuffing from a box ever replace homemade sage dressing and become the new tradition at our holiday table? Probably not. But Mom keeps Stove Top stuffing mix on her pantry shelf, ready for the day her granddaughter comes for another holiday visit.
Much has changed since this story was written, but much stays the same. Our tables will be surrounded with love, and I wish the same for you.