I see a lot of things on my morning walks. Just this month alone, I’ve seen…
…an armadillo rooting for grubs…
…a cicada shedding its shell…
…a big toad sprawled belly-down on a wet sidewalk…
…a raccoon sneaking around a garbage can.
When I post the pictures of the critters I come across, people are often surprised. Several have replied that they’ve never seen a cicada emerging from its shell, and more than one friend has told me they never saw a live armadillo the whole time they lived in Texas.
Lately, I’m beginning to wonder if they ever LOOKED.
You don’t run across armadillos during your typical 8-5. You have to get up early and peer in the bushes. (I peer in all the bushes.) It’s easy to miss a fresh cicada drying its wings on a fence post. You have to keep an eye out for them. (I keep both eyes out for them.) If you want to see the bunny taking a dirt bath in your yard, you have to keep the blinds open, and if you want to hear the screech owl hoot at dusk, you have to stand outside and listen.
Sometimes if you want to see something, you have to look for it. So think about what you’re hoping to find, and put a little effort into discovering it. Get up early. Stay up late. Take a different route. Turn a different corner. Peer under some things and sneak up on others. Slow down. Wait. Look. The thing you’ve been hoping to see might reveal itself to you.
In October 2015, I went on an Austin ghost tour with some fellow members of the local chapter of SCBWI. We met at the Omni Hotel, then strolled around downtown, visiting the Driskill and the Texas State Capitol and other buildings with haunted histories while our guide, Monica Ballard, regaled us with stories of sinister secrets, ghastly murders, and eerie experiences.
I love the night and especially love walking around my favorite places at night, seeing them by moonlight and learning their shadows. I would’ve had a good time exploring Austin in the dark regardless of what the topic was. But add ghost stories to a late-night stroll, and I’m in my happy place. I enjoyed myself so much that, when the tour ended, I bought a copy of Haunted Austin: History and Hauntings in the Capitol City by Jeanine Plumer to read more about Austin’s ghosts. I took the book home and gobbled up all the good stories inside.
I had no idea on that night back in 2015 that six years later I would be adapting Plumer’s book for middle grade readers.
In 2020, I wrote my first book in the Spooky America series from Arcadia Publishing: The Ghostly Tales of New England. I was excited about the chance to adapt one of the Haunted America books for young readers and loved learning more about New England, an area of the country I’ve visited a few times and whose history and scenery I love. But I really wished I could write about some ghosts closer to home, so when the opportunity came along to write the haunted history of my own town, I was thrilled. The Ghostly Tales of Austin comes out on Monday, and I can’t wait to share the spooky side of my city with young readers.
I put a lot of heart into this book and learned a lot about Austin along the way. Did you know that Austin suffered a devastating flood in 1900? Or that a ghost wagon haunts Westlake? Some of the stories in this book are not for the faint of heart. For instance, I suggest you don’t read Chapter 2 about Josiah Wilbarger while you’re eating. But if you’re going to the Capitol anytime soon, you should definitely read Chapter 9 before you arrive, so can be on the lookout for the ghost of Colonel Love. And I highly recommend visiting Mount Bonnell while in Austin, but you might want to leave before sunset if you don’t want to experience anything unsettling.
I have fond memories of that ghost tour back in 2015, and I’m proud to now have a part to play in passing down the spooky history of a city that I love. Austin’s ghosts await. If you’re willing to meet them, pick up a copy of The Ghostly Tales of Austin!
If you want an unsigned copy of the book, you can order it from Amazon or, better yet, from BookPeople, Austin’s own one-of-a-kind local bookstore. But if you would like a signed copy, you can order directly from me for $12. Send me a message via my contact page with your name, address, and what you want written in the book (either just a signature or a dedication). I’ll let you know how to send payment, then I’ll get to the post office ASAP, and you’ll have a personalized copy of The Ghostly Tales of Austin before you can say poltergeist three times*!
*Just to be on the safe side, I do not actually recommend saying poltergeist three times.
This weekend I sat down and re-read my journal entries from March through July of 2020. I wanted to re-experience those first few months of the pandemic, to see it again from a little distance. (I stopped at August because I wasn’t ready to revisit the school year again.) It was so surreal reading my thoughts in those initial days of confusion and fear. I wrote every day at first and then about every other day for many weeks. Seeing those entries again made me shiver. Here are a few excerpts that gave me pause:
* March 30, 2020:
This morning I got up before 7AM, showered, and went to HEB. It wasn’t bad. I got there about 15 minutes before they opened and lined up outside (6 feet apart, per the orange lines) with a couple dozen other people. Inside, there were reminders to stay a safe distance from others and lots of signs limiting numbers of items (4 cereals, 4 cans of chili, etc) and parts of the store were blocked off to keep people moving in an orderly direction… We have enough food to last us another couple of weeks. Now it’s just stay-at-home-stay-safe. It looks like we’ll be in this mode until the end of April.
* April 2, 2020:
Headlines this morning include: “US braces for ‘horrific’ weeks as deaths top 5,100” “Cruises with sick, dead passengers awaiting approval to dock” “Coronaviras pandemic alters life as we know it”
* May 10, 2020:
I want to remember this… When the world goes back to normal, I want to remember these long ambling walks through my neighborhood, how hours went by without me checking my watch or making a list in my head of all I needed to do when I got back home. I want to remember how my feet felt on the pavement, how I knew every sidewalk scratch and screech owl by heart and watched the chalk art evolve from fresh and bright to faded and rain-streaked. When I’m late to work, stopped at the light at Slaughter Lane, when I’m collapsing on the couch after school, when I’m standing in line at HEB looking at Facebook on my phone, I want to remember the sound my ball made as I bounced it lazily while listening to my audio book and strolling the same streets at 5AM, noon, 8PM, midnight– how it felt when the ball landed perfectly in my palm with a *smack*.
Reading these journals makes me want to reach back in time to that version of myself and give her a hug. But then I’d be tempted to give her the truth, too, about what else was coming and how long this was really going to last, and that just seems mean.
But good things came out of those months, as well. For instance, I found some new creative outlets.
In June of 2020, I randomly started painting. I already had some old acrylic paints and brushes. I ordered a few more and some small canvases online and made myself an “easel” by propping flattened cardboard boxes on the windowsill in my office. I grabbed a button-down tunic shirt that I’d never worn but couldn’t make myself give way and made that my painting frock. Then I tossed a pillow on the floor to sit on, got a paper plate for my palette, filled a Rudy’s Bar-B-Q plastic cup with water, turned on some music, and started painting.
On July 18, 2020, I wrote in my journal:
I’ve been painting. I’m not great. I’ve had no training except for a few “Painting with a Twist” sessions and watching my dad draw, but I find that I can make things look mostly how I want them to look, and I’m learning as I go along—how to mix paints for subtler shades and how to turn the brush on its edge for a finer stroke or use a thick bristly brush when I want more texture. Mostly though, I just like putting paint on a canvas. It’s so relaxing. Sometimes I sit for hours and paint, until my back aches and my legs are tingly from falling asleep.
I’m still at it, and I think my paintings are improving, but honestly, I don’t care that much. I just paint for fun. It’s something to play with, and the freedom of it is what makes it so enjoyable.
I also enjoy playing with words—collage art, found poetry, book title poems—and the pandemic offered more time for that, too. This pastime is even messier than painting and often encompasses much of the house. If I’m making collages, there are little bits of paper everywhere and no fans or pets allowed in the area. To make book title poems, I end up taking dozens of books off my shelves, stacking them and restacking them in precarious piles and rearranging them over and over again until I’m satisfied with the result.
I love making book title poems and have shared several of them here over the years, but this summer I decided to create something more tangible with them. I chose twelve of my favorites and made 2022 calendars.
Most people agree that 2020 was, in general, a terrible year, and there are many who say 2021 isn’t much better. But I have high hopes for 2022 (don’t you?), so I’m getting ready early.
I made three sizes of calendars: an 8×4 desk calendar, an 8.5×11 wall calendar, and a 12×12 wall calendar, but they all include the same poems. I’m selling them on my Esty store, so if you know a book-lover or a poet who would enjoy having a unique calendar next year, consider getting your shopping done early and buy them one of these! If you order by July 31, you can get 10% off by using the coupon code: NEWYEARINJULY
For me, summer is a season of creativity because I’m off work and can indulge in my hobbies. This summer, I’m grateful to be vaccinated and feel comfortable enough to venture out into the world again. There isn’t any part of me that wants to be that confused, stressed woman of last summer who was stuck at home feeling trapped and scared, but I’m thankful that she used her shelter-at-home time to try some new things and make some art.