Tuesday, December 26, 2017


I have been a story-teller since I learned to talk. 

My earliest memory is telling my father about my dream house. I was three years old. By the age of six, I told stories to my classmates during the wonderful "Show and Tell" of 1st Grade (do children still have this opportunity?) during which I described the fox I encountered in Golden Gate Park. My family assumed, with fond mockery, that I had made the story up. High praise for a would-be novelist! However, I was proved truthful by consequent media reports of the red-coated predators in popular areas of this iconic location.

My credentials as a potential author of fiction were validated in sixth grade when I presented my teacher, Mrs. O'Brien, with a book report on (Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust) Marcel Proust's novels, Remembrance of Things Past, which I had never read! Only many years later did I realize how generous my French-born sixth grade teacher had been by not sending me to see the Principal, Miss Ryan. 

The book was one of many on the bookshelves of my parents' living room. Both my mother and father were avid readers, a passion that I inherited from the point of a creator. I was not as much interested in reading as in creating material to be read. Although I have gone on tangents into visual arts, indulge my love of singing, and earn a living with my understanding of technology, finance and administration, words are my beloved tools of the trade. 

I continued my apprenticeship in high school where I won an "A" for a book report on The Red Pony by John Steinbeck. My teacher, Mr. Lombardi, taught me the value of simplicity and the importance of placing emphasis on the significant. The opening sentence of my book report was Gitano was dead. I subsequently named the male protagonist in my novel, Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls, David Miguel Gitano.

One of my professors told another that I wrote "the best sentences" of any of my fellow graduate students. I have worn that trade-peculiar badge of honor with both pride and humility ever since the receiving professor shared the statement with me. Also the responsibility. One of my professors further encouraged my ambition by praising my understanding of the male psyche. And another schooled his pupils with what he called the "taxi driver test" of literature: what we recognize now as "the hook".

My love of words and using them to tell stories is a forever love affair, although often unrequited! I do my best by them, as is required of any writer. We are what we write after all.

George Rupert Smith stretched his legs across the gap, toward the bench his sergeant, Morton Pierce, occupied to the full extent of his physical being. Though the train could not progress any slower up the coast, Rupe pressed his back against the upholstered seat as though he could hold the engine back by force of will. 
-- First paragraph from Pavane for Miss Marcher, Leigh Verrill-Rhys, August 2017
 Happy St. Stephen's Day/Boxing Day to all!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Christmas on the rez

Our Christmas this year will be quite different from any in the recent past. In fact, since our #1 child was born more than 45 years ago, this is the first year we will be entirely without family. It's just the two of us, here among our new friends and borrowed family in Kayenta. Still we are celebrating the season with joy. We have lights in our front window and a few more lights shining from the small arbovitae tree in front of our duplex. Inside my husband has strung a chain of beads which we are using to hang Christmas cards, and we even have a Christmas tree. The doorknob and drinking glass are included for size reference.

There's a new addition this year, one we hope to take home with us as a memento of our time in the Navajo Nation. We plan for it to decorate our home in California when we are there again, two Christmases from now.  

This Nativity is the work of a local artist. The Holy Family, the angel, and the shepherd are depicted as Zuni, in a Zuni pueblo room. The wise man shown with the rug is Navajo. The other human figures are dressed as members of different pueblo tribes. This is yet another way of making current and relevant the events we celebrate at this season. Until next year, Yá'át'ééh Késhmish, everyone!

Susan Aylworth and Roger, her husband of 47 years, are serving as full-time missionaries working in addiction recovery programs on the Navajo Nation. They are living in Kayenta, Arizona. Susan has authored 14 novels, all available as e-books. Contact her via her website, susanaylworth.com, or susan.aylworth.author@gmail.com or @SusanAylworth. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Family Gift Traditions

As anyone who has spent any time with me knows, food and drink are an important part of who my family is.  The holidays are no different.  Although they can be a busy, stressful and expensive time of the year, exchanging gifts is a must.  My family came up with a solution years ago, which, while not eliminating the work involved in gift giving or even the stress, created a custom that works for us.

We give each other gifts of food or drink, usually homemade though being homemade is not a requirement.  I should explain that we, my brothers and their families and I, don’t live near each other.  One of us lives in San Francisco, another just outside of D.C. and I’m in New York.  That means shipping can get expensive, but we’ve been doing this kind of exchange for at least twenty years and have no plans to stop.

It’s an interesting exercise in creativity to come up with something that feels festive and generous and tastes good.  Sometimes, we’ve relied on one of the websites that specialize in food, fruit, and cheeses, and my brother in San Francisco always has California wine as a default, but only in times of desperation.  Usually we go with homemade.  My brother in San Francisco’s wife (who is the one who actually does the baking and the giving for her family) is the most creative gifting homemade sundried tomatoes, vanilla extract, infused vinegar or soap and candles from their own bees.

My brother in Takoma Park, the suburb just outside of D.C., has always baked though there was one year when we got a great barbeque meat rub.

I’m a good cook, but not much of a baker so this kind of gift is always a challenge.  I can’t very well send a salad or casserole. But the holidays are the only time I do bake and I like the challenge since it’s always seemed to me that a homemade present is more meaningful.  For years I baked fruit breads including one that had apple and every healthy nut and grain in creation.  It was good, but I’m not sure how festive.  Then, for several years, I was on a granola kick.  I used the recipe from 11 Madison Park, which is wonderful and guaranteed to be delicious and a hit.  But this year I’m thinking of baking again.  Maybe I’ll do shortbread or some other reliably easy cookie that will be tasty and not impossible to make look pretty since my cookies and cakes never look the way they’re supposed to.

For some who do not like to bake or cook, all this may sound like an incredible pain. But for me, it’s always been the perfect family gift. Because we’re never together for the holidays I want to reach out and show the love I feel for my brothers.  The time it takes to put together the kinds of gifts we exchange seems just right. Now that my brothers and I are at the downsizing stage in our lives, food, wine or even artisanal whiskey (which I’ll give if the shortbread doesn’t pan out) is much more appreciated.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

I Still Buy My Parents a Christmas Present

My mother died in 2012 after a brief illness. When she went in for surgery to repair an aneurysm, we didn’t really expect complications. Although she was 87, she was still active and spry. Her mind was sharp. And she’d come through other recent surgeries with all flags flying. We didn’t expect that she would suffer a stroke during the surgery and end up with a few other complications that led to her death just a few weeks later.

My mom’s parents had both lived into their late 90s and I truly thought she would, too. I thought we had more time. That said, although there’s still a lot of sadness, I don’t have many regrets. We had a good relationship and I visited as often as I could, given that I had a family of my own to take care of and we lived 600 miles apart. I could’ve called more often, but I did make it a point to call her at least once a week. If I didn’t, she’d call me, concerned that there was a problem.

My father died some ten years before her, after a long and lingering illness. His passing wasn’t a surprise, but it still came on us too quickly, before we were ready. I suppose one is never really ready.

It took a while to get over the grief each time and there are still holes in my life that they used to occupy, but I’m reconciled to it now.

But I still buy my mom and dad a Christmas present. Every year, I buy chickens or a goat in their names for a needy family through the Food for the Poor (foodforthepoor.org) program. It’s a charity my mother had supported during her lifetime. I like to think it’s making them both happy where they are now to know that they’re still making an effort to help others in need.

And on a personal (and more commercial) note - I love writing Christmas stories of all kinds. I have a couple that are available for sale on Amazon and at most ebook outlets and one short story that's totally free.

A Vampire's Christmas Carol

Blue December - Amazon Kindle
Can You Jump-Start a Reindeer?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Writing Schedules and Other Fictions

by Janis Patterson

There are those who say that the success to writing lies only in following a strict schedule. So many words per day, every day, or writing X number of hours without deviation, or... whatever. On the other hand, there are an equal number of equally fervid writers who are convinced that no good writing ever comes from being forced. One should wait for the magic touch of the muse, as anything which is worked at, which happens without fiery and flowing inspiration is unnatural and bad writing. 

Give me a break. Or two.

That said, I will admit that my writing is easier when I am in the throes of inspiration, and that I do try to write a certain number of words every day. Keywords here are 'easier' and 'try.'

Like all of life writing is uncertain. You can vow that you will write a minimum of 5,000 words a day, every single day without fail. If you can, good on you. The rest of us have lives. We have families, cars, homes, jobs... all of which seem to go maniacally wonky just at the worst times. There are things in life that should come before writing - family comes to mind first.

So - you've set a schedule and stuck to it pretty well, then something overwhelming happens and until it is resolved the writing goes out the window. Then what? Your rhythm is off. You haven't kept your word, and if you're so unreliable why go on? Obviously you aren't a real writer unless you .... whatever.

Yes, there are people who actually believe that. I look at writing schedules sort of like I do at a diet. They can be wonderful things from which you can benefit greatly. Depending on your attitude, they can also make your life miserable. If you break a diet, you don't just give up and wallow in a slough of chocolate (however delightful that might seem), you admit what happened, then pick up and go on. Or at least you should. At least, I do. Most of the time.

Being a writer is a life and career choice - it shouldn't be a sentence. Yes, we have deadlines, and yes, if we've given our word that so-and-so will be done by such-and-such a time, we should honor it, no matter what it takes. That's a sprint, though, not a way of life.

So am I advocating heedlessness, hedonism, laziness? No. If you are a writer, you must write. But... if you are a human, you must also live. As the Facebook meme (am I using that weird word correctly?) says, Eat the chocolate, drink the wine, smell the roses.

It's all about balance. I am a firm advocate that family comes first. Yes, you owe dedication to your craft, but you also owe dedication to your Self. And your family. And your life, however you choose to live it. But you must also be disciplined and productive in the way that is right for you.

Besides, there is a extra - if rather naughty - benefit to having a writing schedule. When something comes up that you should do, but don't really want to, but can't say no gracefully, you can always say, "I'd love to, but I haven't made my word count for today." Works every time.

Now for something that has nothing to do with writing - I wish all of you the Merriest of Christmases and the Happiest of New Years!