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Honeybee Magic

I’ve never liked “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” I hated that the fable was pro-hard-working, no-time-for-fun-or-art ant. I identified with the grasshopper, and it was pretty scary to see that not only did no one delight in (or even appreciate) his music in summer, no one wanted to take him in or give him food in winter. It seemed to me like the two options were: work hard and be safe, or do what you love and perish. (I have been known to be dramatic now and then).

I’ve been working in my flower gardens a lot this summer— some latent Gerdin gene has kicked in and I’m channeling my grandma. My husband said he really appreciates it, that it makes it nicer to live here. I told him I think I contribute the most in the “Thriving” category, and he’s really good at the “Surviving” category— and we’ve been in the latter for a long time.

Doesn’t anything bridge that enormous gap, the apparent chasm between Surviving and Thriving?

Yes. Honeybees.

Honeybees have the satisfaction of work— of taking something in and making something new that is not only nourishing but sweet and good. Honey is medicinal. It literally never goes bad— you could eat honey from a pharaoh’s tomb (if you weren’t worried about possible curses) or from a Viking cellar.

Honey is specific to plant and place: Tanzanian honey tastes different from Minnesota clover honey. It helps with allergies. It’s antiseptic. It can be made into mead.

And unlike ants who, to my eye, work at a frenzied, militant pace, honey bees dance to tell their hive where the good flowers are. They stitch a thread of connection from blossom to blossom over acres, over miles. If you could trace the line of their movement it would be, I imagine, a visual poem.

And they aren’t storing up fuel for decay, like ants; they are stuffing their furry, golden bodies into flowers, into the very center of colorful, feminine, temporal, perfumed chambers. The magic, the pollen, clings to them— they don’t cling to it, they don’t hoard it. And when they make honey— it’s just regurgitation. They are vessels, they transform nectar without doing anything particularly special or difficult.

What also appeals to me is that if one honeybee fails— if one is somehow flawed and simply can’t do its job for a day or a week or its whole life… well, it’s one of many. It is impossible for the failings of one bee to kill the world’s flowers, fruits, vegetables. It is impossible for just one bee to save them all, either. There’s no pressure, no blame, and no credit. But there is beauty. There is sweetness.

When I was very young, my parents kept bees. I can still remember my dad in the dust-colored suit, netting protecting his face as he moved slowly among the hives with his tiny bellows of soporific smoke: a sweet and comforting smell.

I like that the bees aren’t killed or driven out or even alarmed in order to harvest the honey— they are made drowsy and dozy. They sleep. Maybe they dream. Then they get back out there, following sweetness, and do what they do best.

We found a 5 gallon bucket of honey stored in the root cellar some years after my parents divorced. It was crystallized and thick, a deep golden amber. We scooped it out and heated it slowly. And it was still good.

Compliments Are Not the Goal

Compliments aren’t the goal. They aren’t even proof that something good happened. Compliments just show the audience’s awareness of what happened.

When I perform, I know when connection happens; even on an off day, I can feel it. If I get too attached to or interested in someone else’s praise after a show, it’s easy to think that praise is the goal, the point.

But praise is a mirror: I saw it too!

The point, the connection in the moment— that happened whether anyone gave a standing ovation or not. Compliments might say more about a culture than about a performance.

That said, everyone needs mirrors. (Mirrors and Models). Just be aware of who you are using as your mirrors. Other artists with a facility for your art form? A mixed age audience? Your favorite audience? Pay attention to the variety of mirrors, and of whose feedback is most helpful at different stages of the process.

Story Starter Grab Bag

If you’re stuck on a story, or just want to mix things up, try making a Story Starter Grab Bag.

You can be a Plotter or a Pantser (or something in between)– be as structured or as loose as you’d like, but set yourself a timer of 3 minutes for each of the following lists, and write down as many things as you can think of:



What happens

Themes/What the story is about

Postive moments

Negative moments

Images you can picture vividly

Now cut up the lists and mix the slips up in a pile (you can make a separate pile for each list, or mix all of them together).
Then set a timer for 10, 20, or 30 minutes, draw three slips, and write. You’ll discover connections you hadn’t noticed, and see your story from new perspectives– and you just might solve some plot problems or writer’s block.


Austin Kleon writes about “A Bag of Words” in his blog post (referencing Linda Barry and Ray Bradbury). When I lead the Grand Marais Writers’ Guild each month, we always start with a free-association word list based on an image, choose from the list, and use those words in a couple writing exercises. I liked the idea of a Bag rather than a list– it reminds me of the party game, Popcorn, that’s sort of a cross between Charades and Twenty Questions. And I like the randomness of drawing slips of paper, like drawing cards from a fortune teller: I like trusting my subconscious or some other unseeable force to point me in the right direction (and you can’t be blocked about what words to choose when you don’t get to choose them).

For longer writing projects, like novels, things can get stuck in a rut: write chronologically, figure out the problem in Act 2 before moving on to Act 3, is this a single novel or a trilogy?, etc. Using slips and words/phrases brings us back to seeing the story; when you can see it, you just have to write down what’s in front of you.

I See You

You are good.

You are enough.

Don’t worry about how everyone in your town or your school does it.
You have great ideas— you must follow them. Be curious. Discover things.

If you’re somewhere where you feel alone, I’m sorry. I understand. As you get older and get to make more choices for yourself you get to choose where to make your home. You get to seek out and choose the weird-cool people, the ones who get your jokes, who are interested by your curiosity, who give you fuel and inspiration.

Be proud of yourself. That’s never been a sin. Don’t shrink from who you really are. Reach up, reach out, send roots down deep. Create your own ecosystem. Make a beautiful world for yourself and invite those who will treasure it as you do.
Know when fear is in the body, when it’s in the past versus when it’s from the present. Let it flow out of you through your feet, out through the palms of your hands, let it disappear like fog and mist from your breath.

You can do magic.

You can see more than what is visible at a glance, more than what is believed in or accepted. When you look for magic, you will find it.
The people, both real and imagined, animal and human, who you admire are reflections of yourself. Be proud of them and proud of your own goodness, your own cleverness, your own strength, your kindness and tenderness, your faith, your courage.

Be generous with yourself. Adore yourself the way you do puppies and kittens and baby horses. Marvel at your existence. Put down the shame you carry. Put down the lies that keep you small.

We are here to delight in beauty— and there is always beauty. We are here to breathe, to be present, to connect and to notice. Whenever it feels right, share that noticing with someone else— with a person, with a tree, with a ghost, with the air around you. Say, “I see you, and you are beautiful.”


I see you, and you are beautiful.

Roald Dahl & the Writing Shed

When I was a kid, Roald Dahl was my favorite author. I loved “James and the Giant Peach,” and thought of it every time we flew to England to visit my grandparents. I looked for cities in the clouds, for the people who painted and hung rainbows. I imagined the BFG gathering dreams, though I couldn’t picture him coming to my rural Minnesota farmhouse to blow them into my bedroom; but in England on narrow streets between small brick houses, it seemed he was real.

When I watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” I felt betrayed— how could Roald Dahl have made Charlie and his grandpa behave so badly? It didn’t feel like his other stories— and sure enough, when I re-read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” I discovered my hunch was right: Charlie was the only child who didn’t act selfishly (and Willy Wonka wasn’t creepy).

Maybe because I had British grandparents I read more BritLit as a child, or maybe that was just what was good. (“The Chronicles of Narnia,” everything by Enid Blyton, the many adventures of “Dr. Doolittle”). I felt drawn to Roald Dahl not just because his stories were so fantastical— a grandmother who smoked cigars! a girl who stood up to her horrible principal! a giraffe with a telescoping neck!— but also because he and my grandad blended together in my mind. My grandad wrote me airmail letters on thin blue paper, always with a fountain pen in all capital letters because otherwise, he said, I wouldn’t be able to read his “poor penmanship.”

Getting a book by Roald Dahl was like getting to be with my grandad, though I don’t recall him ever reading any of them to me.

When I was about nine I told my mom I couldn’t wait for his next book (I’d read everything for kids by then). “When do you think it will come out?” She had to tell me that he’d died a few years ago. In my memory, that was around the same time as other blows: my parents’ divorce, my grandad dying suddenly of a brain tumor (and us not flying over for the funeral).

Roald Dahl was an adult, but he wasn’t like any adult I knew. He was wicked and weird, and he had gone to boarding school in England (worse, even than going to my small town school and not really feeling I fit in).

As an adult he is still one of my most favorite writers. I aim to write books that could be the children of his and Astrid Lindgren’s work. I’ve read his adult short stories. I’ve read his twelve month memoir of a year, and I’ve thought off and on about how he had a little writing shed on his property, and the marvelously odd assortment of things he kept on his desk (including the head of his own femur after he had it replaced!).

But it had never occurred to me, a child of the era when tvs still had clunky knobs that turned with a chunk chunk, that I could search for videos of Roald Dahl on the internet.

… They exist! He only died in the ‘80s, so there are BBC clips and whole documentaries! I watched a short one today in which he walked us out to his shed! It was cluttered and the plaster was peeling in a way very reminiscent of when my studio was bare sheetrock with so many black screw heads they made a constellation! He sat down in his armchair, put a long packing tube across the arm rest, laid a large writing board on that at an angle, sharpened six pencils (“always six”), and began to write. In a voice over, he described what he was doing and how the whole process went, which was, of course, fascinating. But what made me shout with delight and surprise was he said he always sits in a sleeping bag, pulled up to his chest! I was, at that very moment, in my own backyard shed (wearing a big fur coat), with my own sleeping bag pulled up to my chest!

It reminded me of the many times I’ve thought of printing off portraits of writers and others I admire: Roald and Astrid, of course, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Lorna Landvik, comedian Maria Bamford (the newest addition), and marketing and business genius Seth Godin.

There have been days when I lugged Stephen King’s “On Writing” around and then held it to my chest. Or I propped it up on my writing desk next to Anne Lammott’s “Bird by Bird” and Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking.”

Why does this matter? Why does it help?

Though I live in a very creative community with a higher saturation of artists than your typical small town, I am still so alone. I’m alone in that the norm is still to have a Regular Job or a Professional Career— the kind that you don’t have to provide a definition for at parties when someone asks what you do. Even in the arts community I tend to feel alone: it’s not like traditional oral storytelling is part of the Academy Awards and in the public eye. I’m alone because that’s just the general background music in my life— it’s not as tragic as it was in my teen years, and it’s a feeling I expect to have my whole life. How could I not? I’m a pioneer, an explorer gazing West. All the things that interest me require me to go where I’ve never gone before.

Being alone like this is both wonderful (I am an introvert, after all), but also a little crazy. I recently visited my alma mater, an arts high school in the Twin Cities. I was nearly floating off the ground with happiness by the time I left (rather like Charlie and his grandpa in the erroneous film adaptation, before they realize they’re going to be sliced to ribbons by the ceiling fans). Why was I so elated? Because I was reminded that for two years, Monday through Friday, I lived in a community of artists. Everyone was there to explore, to be creative, to learn, to practice a craft, to try weird stuff. And, as my theatre teacher so off-handedly commented, it was an ensemble program; there were no divas or super stars. We did three months of improv before moving on to other subjects. I dream sometimes of what it would be like to be surrounded by other middle grade writers— how much more I would be likely to write if every casual conversation at the coffee shop or grocery store was about word count and trying to figure out just what the protagonist wanted, and how cool but complicated it was to invent a language for pixies.

Seth Godin talks often about marketing as “People like us do things like this.” As in, you speak to your tribe, to your niche, to your tiny, specific, weird corner of the world. And I thought, “But what if there aren’t ‘people like us’ around?” What if I’m not bumping shoulders with 299 other people pursuing a life built on art, because at least in my physical, everyday life, I’m not.

I suppose that’s why I watch actors interviewed on late night shows, or watch the Oscars. It’s why I listen to Seth’s podcast. It’s why I watch Maria Bamford’s comedy. And it’s why I want to put those portraits up in my studio. I want to remind myself, This is where I come from. This is my family tree: Roald and Astrid, Uncle Lewis and his magic wardrobe, the next door neighbor who writes about daemons and parallel worlds, even Stephen, whose books are too creepy for me, because he flies so far past “normal.”

So I was delighted, I felt Roald Dahl was visiting me, having a chat in my garden shed when I came across his interview. I ask myself, “What would Roald do? How would Philip say it? Would Astrid be worried what people think?” I line their pictures up in my mind; I know they would root for me, nod in approval, tell me to keep going, because though it is frightening to step into the unknown, it is also marvelous.



Big Voice (& the Demons)

It turns out that I can sing. I mean I can do some operatic Edith Piaf thing.

At SVEA rehearsal last week I was goofing around and did a Big Viking Lady high note. Tina and Erika whipped their heads around so fast I could almost hear their necks cracking. “Ok, you can not tell us you can’t sing loud,” Tina said. I began to melt into my seat, shrinking like a snail. “I was just faking it!”

Erika looked at me with an expression that was not quite disgust— not towards me, any way, but the way one is disgusted by the patriarchy or crappy cafeteria food. “That is not faking it.” (The look was more like what you’d give a kid who is old enough to behave properly but tries to revert and pitch a fit. Um, no. That’s not happening.)

My immediate reaction was to sweat. Profusely. To squirm. I think I went into some stand-up routine patched together from every video I’d watched online in the last month. Then, as if to prove them wrong, I did some acrobatic scales. (I might have even rolled over like a dog: pleeeease don’t look at the roll of toilet paper I destroyed, here’s my belly!)

Or something like that.

I tried to sing some songs like that during rehearsal. It sort of worked. “You were doing fine, and then I don’t know what the gremlins said to you, but you went back to singing from your throat,” Erika said, still with a slightly appalled, no-nonsense look.

Tina said I should work with Erika to figure out proper breath support. Basically, the jig was up: not only do they know I can sing in a Big Voice, but because they witnessed it, my conscious brain is forced to confront this information.

It was exhilarating and horrifying, and after rehearsal I was exhausted and as crabby as if I had a hangover.


This week was more of the same. Tina got me to be goofy and I did the Big Voice… and then I had to peel off three layers of clothing (I fully expected to be forced down to my long johns before the hour was up). I thrashed around and did my penitent stand up comedy shtick. “I’m pretty sure this is going to happen every time until I sweat out the demons.” They graciously did not quit SVEA and go in search of someone with more stable emotions or core temperature.

Every time I tried the Big Voice I waited for them to say it was too loud!, but instead Tina said I’m still not louder than them and we are just now starting to blend well.


It is an extremely uncomfortable feeling. All I want (I think) is to be Fabulous. Rock Star-Ballerina-TED Talk Lecturer-Academy Award Winner-Best-Selling Author-Fabulous. But this is so loud! I’ve tried to trace back to the inciting incident that is causing the alarm bells to clang so furiously, and I’m coming up with nothing. Being a good singer was totally ok in the more stayed, Baptist side of the family, and I had a voice teacher with a Big Voice, so I was certainly exposed to it. I don’t have a clue.

In a moment of furious self-analysis alternating between anguish and incredulity, I thought about my sister, Abbey. Abbey has a really cool voice. Though I haven’t heard her go for Edith Piaf/Viking Opera Singer, she has an amazing low range, she has cool vibrato, she has a voice much bigger than her physical stature would lead you to expect. She’s an itinerant musician. But she’s my little sister. Part of my brain kicked in in a delightfully cliché superior-older-sister way: Well, if Abbey can do it, you can definitely do it. (Ahh, the ego is a strange horse to ride, but sometimes it gets you where you want to go.)

Last night, while still feeling the detox of demons leaving my body (scrabbling around for better handholds?), I told Jay about it.

He said, “You’re a better singer than you think.”

I said, “Ok, but I’m way weirder than you think! What happens when all that comes out? What about the spew of weird improv-comedy blather?”

He said I should just let it out, but then didn’t seem thrilled by my immediate showcase of character voices and anecdotes. (To be fair, he was already in bed with a pillow over his head when the whole conversation began.)

It feels so weird, it feels like driving on ice— if I take away one filter [Don’t Be Loud], it feels like all the other filters and barricades between me and the edge of the cliff vanish, too.  Who knows— maybe in addition to being able to Sing Big and be Extra Weird, I also have wings and I won’t plummet into madness/freindlessness/stardom/a whole new personality. Maybe I’ll fly around, have a great time, and never be afraid of that particular edge again.


Besides the emotional discomfort, it feels physically weird, wrong, strange, like learning better posture or how to cross country ski. Nothing is habitual, and I’ll suddenly drop all my breath support and not know how to get back on board. Honestly, it’s the first time in my life I’ve thought maybe I should start exercising because cardio feels bad! That I should practice feeling horrible and doing something anyway, both for the improved breath support and core strength, and to do something that feels physically more wretched than singing! (If you see me at a Zumba class, you’ll know why).

I think it might not take a thousand years. I’ve been thrashing around through first drafts of stories, and over and over again it turns out if I just flail for a minute or two, I settle down eventually and things turn out pretty well, or at least I have something to build on.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll be heating our house purely on the power of the Shame/Courage circuit. If you see me around town wearing a clown nose and muttering to myself, count it as a sign of progress.

What is Magic?

photo by John David Dela-Peri

What is Magic?

It is fierceness and generosity. It is one hundred children sitting cross-legged on the floor of the gym. It is six children in the corner of the library.

For me, Magic is Story. Or, Story is the vehicle I know how to navigate.

Magic is a feeling, an energy. There is mystery to it: I don’t know what will show up. Right now, I don’t know what I will say, though I feel many pressing, urgent things.


Magic is the sound of gold coins in a bowl, paying the fine for stealing a whiff of bread.

Magic is the cloak of the storyteller who clothes the naked truth so that the villagers can stand the sight of him and hear the wisdom he has to share.

Magic is a woven basket, the white necklace of the loon, the way pussy willows look like cat paws.


Magic is the connection, the unseeable, the divine. It is what makes us not feel we are alone. It is a lineage, an inheritance, an ancestry. It is the future, it is visions, it is dreams.

Where does it come from? Or, do we come from it? Are we the props, the puppets, the shadows on the wall as Magic tells itself a story about life?


I have always wanted to know what is Beyond. Where do children come from? Who are we before we exist and have mortal memories? Where is the doorway to Narnia? What must I learn to be able to speak the language of animals? How does cardamom raise the spirits of my long-dead relatives and transport me across oceans and centuries? How do plants grow?


Curiosity must be Magic’s lover, then. He would be a good one; attentive, delighted, asking questions that expand, unfold, reveal. I think this is my job, and I hope it is everyone’s job: to be the companion and lover to Magic. To ask the questions. To squint and sniff and listen for the answers, the clues, the hints, to go on that wild goose chase and in the process discover that not only can we fly but we are also swans.

That, yes, there are castles in the air, the stars can talk (and they do care about us), and all troubles and seemingly wasted journeys are, in fact, taking us home. Home to ourselves. Home to the Magic. Home to the beginning of everything, changed, sloughed smooth, worn by time, deepened, opened, made whole by being broken open.


This is my wish: to go where Magic calls me. To make my marks along the way so that others may take comfort, trust the compasses within their heart, and carry on.

I will see you there, on the journey, through the door, on the other side, back where it all begins again.

The Pocket Watch

Photo by Niklas Rhöse on Unsplash

Hailey had a magic pocket watch. The thing was, she didn’t know it was magic. She only knew it was old, and it felt nice in her hands.

“Grandpa, can I get this?”

He was looking through a stack of records.

He looked up, eyes blurry through his thick glasses. “Hmm?”

“This watch. Can I get it?” She held it out.

He came over to her, tucked the album he held under his arm, adjusted his glasses, and looked.

He had wavy white hair (not bald like so many other grandpas, which made Hailey feel proud, even though she knew it was unfair)— and he moved slowly through the world. She had asked her mom about that once.

“Is it because he’s old? Is that why he’s forgetful?”

Her mom had laughed. “No, your grandpa is just always somewhere else, and it takes him a while to get back.”

Hailey had been puzzled.

“He’s some other place in his mind— he’s a great thinker, your grandpa, and he travels far away without going anywhere at all.”

“Oh! Like Narnia,” Hailey had said. And after that she always liked to watch him come back to this world. It reminded her of a video she saw on the Discovery Channel once about a whale coming up from deep water.

Grandpa gave the little knob on top of the pocket watch a turn and held it up to his ear, cocking his head to one side.

“Does it work?” Hailey asked. She knew it wouldn’t’ matter— he’d let her get it anyway, not like if she was out with Nana and Papa, her other grandparents. They were practical. They had been farmers all their lives, and Hailey figured you couldn’t go traveling to Narnia if you had to plant corn and milk cows. She knew Grandpa would be able to tell the pocket watch was special.

“Hmm,” he mumbled. (He always mumbled— unless he was reciting Shakespeare or Longfellow or one of the other poets he liked so much— then he was “a great orator,” as Mom said.)

“Something’s loose inside— hear that rattle?” He held it out to her. In the stillness of the dusty old shop, she could hear some small piece sliding against the casing. She nodded.

“But you can fix it,” she said. It wasn’t really a question. Grandpa was an engineer. He had worked on building rocket engines for NASA long ago. Mom agreed that Grandpa’s Narnia was probably full of gears and gadgets and inventions.

He shrugged and handed it back to her, which was Grandpa-speak for “yes.”

Hailey held it close and turned the dials, feeling the now-smooth filigreed case, enjoying the click of the hidden gears as she adjusted the time.

Half an hour later, Grandpa said, “Now, then,” and Hailey knew that meant he was done looking. He gave the man at the register some cash and they left the store, treasures in hand.

First draft, timed writing, Stories for Dreamers