The Mysteries of Symbol and a Heartwarming Holiday Tale

20141112_112302It’s back!  I was walking in the place where I usually walk the other day, rejoicing in the fact that I could still walk outside after the massive snowstorm tracked to the north.  (The fact that the  windchills are subzero was not stopping me, no way.  I’m tough like that.)  I rounded the bend and came upon the small tree and discovered that it had indeed been decorated for the year.

If you remember, tree decorations pop up in the place where I walk every year, usually around this time.  The tree captivates me.  For years I thought it was a sweet gesture done by students, a way of spreading holiday cheer in every corner of campus.  Then I wondered if it had another meaning, created by someone who has lived here past several generations of students.  Maybe it’s a tribute to loss:  a lost friend, a lost child, a lost identity or idea.

These reasons say much more about me than anything, pointing to my own losses and the way I have made the tree a symbol of my own.  But the tree means something to someone, a symbol of something.  Maybe it’s simply a nice tradition a few employees do every year, but that still makes it symbolic.  There’s something sacred about the not knowing.  It’s a sacredness I encounter every time I walk around the bend and see the tinsel swaying in the cold wind.

Last year the tree sparked my creativity and the story I wrote about it (full of ritual and loss) became my first published story.  Read the story here at Foliate Oak.  And if you read that much, you might as well also read an earlier post I wrote about the tree, too.

Origins Story – Home for the Holidays

20140421_111742 I made a guest appearance at a local writers group a few weeks ago to read some of my stuff and chat about writing.  One woman asked where my ideas came from.  “Um….” I said.  “Uh…it kinda depends.”  (I’m smooth on my feet like that.)  It’s one of those things that I hesitate to talk about, because I’m afraid of scaring the Muse away.  (And yep, I just used pretentious Muse language.)

My story ideas come from all over – dreams, conversations, images.  And there’s this really cool moment when something catches in the corner of my mind and sticks.  It whispers, hey, pay attention to me.  It’s a tremulous, dangerous moment, replete with possibilities – and potential loss.  And usually some success if I have pen & paper (or bar napkin) with me and can jot it down.  Then I cram the paper in my bag or pocket, where I’ll find it again and have a new burst of inspiration, provided it doesn’t go through the wash first.

Anyway, I recently published a flash fiction piece, “Home for the Holidays” in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.  In the spirit of answering the question, “Where do your story ideas come from?” I thought I’d talk about the inspiration for “Home for the Holidays.”

There’s an arboretum at a college campus near where I live.  I walk there frequently.  Every year, usually in November, one of the tiny evergreen trees near the marsh suddenly sports Christmas decorations.  I’ve never seen anyone decorate the tree, but the decorations appear every year like clockwork.

For the first few years, I assumed students were putting up the decorations for fun.  The years went by, generations of students came and went, and the decorations kept appearing.  It occurred to me that maybe there was something deeper at work.  Maybe the decorations weren’t something put up on a whim but as a tribute or memorial, a sign of loss and hope against a cold prairie winter.

This past November I started thinking about the circumstances that would lead someone to decorate a tiny tree.  As a parent of kids who were busting at the seams with excitement about the upcoming holiday season, my mind flitted to an image of a woman who had lost everything, a woman who was debating the wisdom of holding onto hope.  The story was born.  (You’ll have to read the story to see what she decides.)

The Bucket of Death

I promised in yesterday’s post that I’d talk about a few additional influences, namely a brown bat, nachos, and The Bucket of Death.

I love revising my work.  Until I get to the point where I can’t tell if it’s good or a pile of shit.  That’s when I need beta readers.  I enlisted a friend who had once naively said, “I’d be interested in reading your story.”  Little did he know I’d take him up on it.  I sent it off and he and his wife both read it – I got two amazing beta readers for the price of one!

It was the evening after I’d chased a bat out of the house, so I was pretty amped up anyway.  My friend and I headed to our neighborhood bar, ordered a plate of nachos, and he gave me feedback that made the story sing.  He ordered The Bucket of Death on the side.

Me: “I’ve seen that on the menu but I’ve never ordered it.  What is it?”

Him: “It’s a pail full of various bottles of hot sauce.”

Me (pause): “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.”

So we talked about the story and what would make it better while peppering our nachos with various offerings from the Bucket of Death.

Huge, huge thanks to my friends for their feedback on the draft (they know who they are).  Thanks to the bar for creating The Bucket of Death.  Thanks to everyone for reading the story and being interested in where it came from.  I’m off to have a celebratory plate of nachos and hot sauce.

Home for the Holidays is here!

If you’re in the mood for a short, compelling bit of dystopia, look no further than my story, “Home for the Holidays,” which was just published by Foliate Oak!

There’s all kinds of good stuff in the May issue, so head on over and check out all the contributions.  Let me know what you think of my story in the comments.  I’ll be back soon with a post about the inspiration and construction of the story.  Hint: it involves a sleepy brown bat, a plate of nachos and something called “The Bucket of Death.”