Writers, Social Media and the Art of Self-Promotion

Self-promotion, it’s part of a writer’s job. If you want your work to be read, it’s a daily duty.  In the digital age of social media, the easiest way to reach tens of thousands of people is by posting online.  I try to spend approximately thirty to forty-five minutes a day on social media, reading and posting.

In order not to get pulled down a rabbit hole, I frequently check the right hand corner of my computer screen to take note of the time. It’s too easy to spend an entire morning reading other writer’s essays when I have my own stories hanging out on the edges of my mind waiting to be written. The balance of receiving and reacting to all the words crying to be read and focusing on composing the words I want to write is a struggle. I soldier on.

“Hey Mom. Isn’t it about time you started writing that story you’ve been thinking about?”

Each weekend I write this weekly blog which I try to always post on Sunday. For me it is part journal, in that it provides a reference point I can reread six months later and remember what I was thinking about during a particular week. If it provides useful information to others, so much the better.

So which platform is best for daily posting.? Do a Google search and you’ll find an array of social media sites. The names include: TikTok, Reddit, WeChat, Pinterest, and Tumblr. For those of us over fifty, Facebook is the familiar vehicle. But according to my younger colleagues, Twitter and Instagram are the preferred platforms for professional writers. These posts do not necessarily have to be news about you. They can be works of art in themselves. Call them observations on the state of humanity—recipes, compliments, rants, useful information or jokes, if they are read and liked, your postings remind them of you and your writing.

Fresh basil, cherry tomatoes, and cilantro from the garden. The beginnings of a Sunday morning frittata.

I opened a Twitter account ( SN Maril) in 2012, but never used it until about four months ago. I’d shied away because I assumed if I didn’t tweet twenty times a day updating the world on my latest whereabouts, I wasn’t an adequate user. I still can’t get beyond one or two tweets a day, five days out of the week, but that’s okay.  I’ve discovered the unlimited number of categories I can follow, from newly released books, literary magazines, literary agents, and novelists to summer recipes and dog lovers. Just think of a category and search. On Twitter I can find out about new publishers, as well as learn which literary magazines are open for submission, and read a few poems and short pieces of prose with a few clicks.

Broken Eggshells
Sometimes you feel so crushed and fragile, you wonder how much of yourself you can expose online. But if you can joke about it, maybe you’ll feel better.

Unlike Facebook, where your posts are only visible to friends (depending on your settings) on Twitter anyone can follow you. Learning how to encapsulate a feeling, sensation, or idea into something attractive to complete strangers is an interesting exercise. How much time do I spend on Twitter? No more than 20 minutes a day.  I’ve got other platforms to visit.

Instagram is all about the pictures.  If you’ve got a beautiful photograph to share, it belongs on Instagram. Although you can post photos on Twitter and Facebook, Instagram put the emphasis on the visual.

Peaches and Plums
Smooth shiny red plums and a pair of fuzzy ripe peaches. Maryland farm delights.

Take it another step further into video, which can be posted on all the platforms and you might want to consider Utube. Utube gives you the capability to host your own show where you can read from your work, talk about writing, or interview another writer.  Also check out  Anchor, an app that can enable you to create and distribute your own podcast.

Not to be forgotten is that whatever you post on any of these social media sites is permanent.  Once upon a time people kept diaries. Now they keep social media accounts.

Writers do both. They manage social media accounts and keep journals, write memoirs and create stories. The stories continue to be published in print on paper as well as digitally online.

Do you have a favorite social media site?  Do you prefer to read online or physically hold a book?

Thank you for reading this week’s blog and for any feedback you have time to share.

You can follow me on Medium, WordPress, Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Why It May Be Too Early to Throw Away Your Masks

I’ve returned to my pandemic hand washing routine. Each time I’m near a sink, I use liberal amounts of soap and water. No one told me that’s the thing to do, but after hearing stories of the rampant spread of the Coronavirus Delta variant I feel safer. News of breakthrough infections have me nervous.  Don’t worry, friends tell me, even if you get sick you won’t die or go to the hospital. You’ll just feel lousy for a few days.

That’s not the point, I think. If vaccinated people start getting sick and they spread the virus to unvaccinated people and immune compromised individuals, the virus keeps evolving. As long as it finds hosts, it is a threat. The pandemic continues and the human population is in danger.

Stepping inside a crowded supermarket to pick up a few items, has me reaching for my mask. I don’t know whether the person leaning over next to me, reaching for that head of lettuce is vaccinated or not. Better to be safe than sorry.

You worry too much, the other voice inside my head tells me. Everything’s open. Enjoy the moment.

My husband and I started taking “in person” dance lessons again.  In order to participate, proof of vaccination is required. We’re holding hands, changing partners, listening to the music, and concentrating on our step patterns and posture. Argentine Tango. Feel the connection. This is a two-person endeavor, the antithesis of my mind set during the Pandemic, when I kept myself physically aloof from everyone except my husband and dog. Learning to dance with different people is part of the process towards gaining a better understanding of the dance.

This morning, on our dog walk we wanted to buy coffee and stopped by our favorite new coffee shop.  The place was packed with patrons, waiting for their orders. I saw two people  survey the situation and put on their masks. No mask in my pocket and no desire to stand in line, I walked on.

We’re moving through a fuzzy moment in time. Pleased to socialize, but warily looking over our shoulders. The United States has a high rate of vaccination compared to other places in the world, but we haven’t achieved 70 percent. Approximately 58% of the population of Maryland are fully vaccinated. Some states in our union only have a vaccination rate of 35 percent. Too many people don’t believe the coronavirus is real. I wonder if they were taken on a tour through a coronavirus ward at a hospital whether they’d believe their eyes.

Young children and Immune compromised individuals are unable to receive inoculations.  Others have a fear of vaccines.

I don’t like wearing a mask. But in certain situations, I think that given what I know it is the wise thing to do.  We have a full box of disposable masks in our supply closet in addition to several cloth ones I launder. No,  I’m not getting rid of any of my masks any time soon, but I am intending to enjoy my freedom to interact with others in person while I can.

Hunter Biden, Artist or Opportunist?

Hunter Biden, recently announced two upcoming art exhibits of his works on paper and canvas that will be opening September in Los Angeles and October in New York. Or rather I should say his publicist made the announcements to the press  and in no time at all, stories were aired on National Public Radio and published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major news outlets about  Hunter Biden the artist.  Most artists consider themselves fortunate to be written up in their local newspaper, but this is the U.S. President’s son.  Anything he does is international news.

A few years ago, the concern was possible  abuse of power in his role on the board of a Ukrainian energy Company Burisma. Investigations found nothing remiss, but the association that perhaps he received the position because of his last name had eyebrows raised. Now one can’t help wonder, if his last name wasn’t Biden, would he have found an art dealer to market his work so quickly?

The association of products with relatives of the President is nothing new. We only have to look back to the previous administration to remember Ivanka Trump’s fashions. And what about Billy Beer, the brew marketed by Jimmy Carter’s brother? But this is art, not a commercial product, so I’d like to think artwork is different. 

Biden, who has received no formal art instruction, has been sketching on and off since age seven, according to an article by Adam Poescu published in The New York Times.  He is quoted in the article as saying, “Painting is literally keeping me sane.”  It’s an honest statement because art has that kind of power. Art can help heal and provide tools to access parts of yourself that can painful to approach any other way.  

 One has only to read a little bit about Hunter Biden’s life to know he has experienced trauma.  At age two he sustained a severe head injury in the auto accident that took the lives of his mother Neilia and sister Naomi. He’s struggled with substance abuse, been through a divorce, a paternity suit, and lost his older brother Beau to brain cancer in 2015.  In 1993, he had the opportunity to attend Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program but chose Yale University law school instead.  I can’t help but think, if only he’d chosen the creative writing path, his life would have been  quite different. But that’s in the past and it’s the use of visual communication—paint on paper and canvas— that now tugs on his heartstrings.

I think it is wonderful he is producing art that brings him fulfilment and joy. However, there is the question of monetary return. It’s the dollar signs that are creating the headlines.  I’m an artist’s daughter, so I know quite a bit about the highs and lows of the art market.  Most professional artist take teaching jobs, or do other types of work in addition to seeking  grant monies from arts organizations, because they cannot support themselves solely on the sales of their work. When I heard the prices being asked for Hunter Biden’s work, I gasped. Works on paper start at $75,000. Oils are priced as high as $500,000.

Because of the concern that individuals might purchase Hunter Biden’s artwork to curry favor with his father the President, an announcement was made that buyers will remain anonymous to the Biden family and that the art will be seen by appointment only. And here I thought an artist has an exhibit to share their work with the public. Silly me.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Hunter Biden representatives would set to work scheduling a show of his artwork to be exhibited at The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). The museum located in Baltimore, Maryland, is a repository for intuitive self-taught art. Even better would be if the proceeds of any sales were donated to the support of artists and the support of programs for people struggling with drug abuse.  

Opportunism vs. altruism. I do not pretend to know Hunter Biden’s finances, but I do know that his memoir Beautiful Things, published by Simon and Schuster in April, received a sizable advance, as much as two million dollars according to the New York Post.  Meanwhile, other creatives who have no celebrity connections work at their craft, perhaps never achieving fame or financial stability, but still achieving happiness. It’s the joy that matters at the end of the day, the spark of elation you feel when you’ve created a memorable piece of artwork: play, poem, story, painting, sculpture, photo, song, performance that keeps those wheels turning.  

Writing About Unlikeable Characters: Household Words by Joan Silber

In the quest to find novels that focus on families, loss, and conflict by female Jewish authors, I recently discovered Joan Silber.  In May,  her novel,  Secrets of Happiness,  was reviewed by Joshua Ferris in the New York Times. Ferris refers Silber’s signature style as “the relay narrative” and this intrigued me because I like using different voices in my work so I added her name to my “must read authors” list.  I didn’t however choose to read Secrets of Happiness. I decided to read her first novel, Household Words.

 I’m completing a first novel. My ethnic identity is Jewish and my protagonist is Jewish, so I wanted to see how the immigrant experience came through in Silber’s novel about a Jewish family in northern New Jersey.  I also wanted to examine the building blocks she began with before moving on to more complex work. Start simple and build from there, I remind myself.

Written in 1976, Household Words  won a PEN/Hemingway Award in 1980.  Silber has written five more novels and has also authored three short story collections. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in addition to a PEN/Faulkner Award for her novel Improvement and she was a National Book Award finalist and Story Prize finalist for her novel Ideas of Heaven.  I mention these honors because in Household Words  Silber doesn’t follow the standard “rules” for writing a “prize winner.” Her protagonist, Rhoda is unlikeable.  In MFA programs and post graduate classes, writers often talk about flawed characters, but the usual goal is to develop some form of empathy between the reader and the main character.

Writing workshops often talk about conflict when critiquing the work.  Tension. Pacing. Fiction in 2021 seeks to shock, wow, and amaze the reader.  Household Words is simple story, the life of an upper middle class Jewish housewife, widowed young and painfully disconnected from her two daughters.  Set in the time period 1940 to 1960, the book concludes with Rhoda’s death. There is no strong climactic peak in the plotline, but I couldn’t put the book down. This is the important thing to emphasize, I was totally absorbed in the story.

And when I put it down, I kept thinking about it.  I imagined various situations where Rhoda could have asked others for help with designing an educational program for her eldest daughter, who was only interested in science. And then reminding myself that in the 1950s, education for women was severely limited by pre-determined role models. I debated with myself as to whether Rhoda’s persistent gentlemen suitor during her widowhood, who she eventually rebuffed as inferior and coarse, would have provided her with some needed love and emotional support.  Never seeming to  fully understand the emotional complexities of her late husband Leonard during their marriage, did Rhoda finally appreciate him during her final years of living?

While I didn’t feel strong empathy for Rhoda, I felt badly for her children. They could see her flaws. Could they find ways to heal themselves once she was no longer part of their life?

A book you enjoy reading and a book you that keeps you ruminating is a good book. I therefore recommend putting this novel on your summer reading list, even though it is not the style of novel currently popular with agents and publishers. Maybe that’s because it’s not simple entertainment. The story calls out for the reader to emotionally and intellectually participate.  The journey is not always pleasant, but it’s stimulating.

 In the reading guide of the paperback edition, Silber states, “As a writer, I’ve remained interested in getting under the skin of characters whose behavior isn’t always likeable.” I admire that challenge, to use fiction as a writer to stretch your imagination to put yourself inside the perspective of characters who are troubled and unkind. Why do they behave the way they do? What can we learn about ourselves? Self-knowledge makes us better writers and better humans.

Writing Challenge (prompt) Remember something that happened in your past that made you very angry. Now write the scene from the perspective of the person who angered you.

Follow me on Twitter: SN Maril. Thank you for reading.

Safe or Not? USA Celebrates Independence Day

Annapolis, Maryland— crowds gathered. People stood waiting for the festivities to begin. From West Street and down along Main Street to City Dock, many had dressed for the occasion by donning red, white, and blue.  It was  Saturday morning July 3rd, Independence Day weekend. All ages and sizes, they gathered to watch the first local parade in the state capital since the St. Paddy’s Day festivities of 2020.  They smiled, waved, and hugged. I saw only one person wearing a mask.

Independence Day is being celebrated in Annapolis with picnics, parades, and fireworks. Yes, gatherings of more than ten people have returned, but the atmosphere is slightly subdued. The parade lasted an hour, with a long line of emergency vehicles, antique cars, political candidates, and the participation of the Corvette Club, but missing were the buckets of candy hurled to waiting children, the visiting marching bands, prancing horses, and colorful costumed dancers. I got the sense that many of the usual  participants chose a more cautious path, preferring to sit this one out.  

But we had a parade and this year there is still no parade in either Baltimore or Washington D.C., our two neighboring big cities.  And we’ll have fireworks Sunday night. I’m still cautious myself about thick crowds. I’ll try to watch from a more distant vantage point than standing with the mob that gathers at the foot of Main Street. Because we are a waterfront town with many street parks, it is possible to see the fireworks from boats, bridges, and piers.

So is it safe and is the country starting to heal? I definitely felt a sense of comaraderie while watching our little parade. It didn’t seem to matter which political party you were affiliated with, everyone seemed intent on enjoying the mild weather ( not too hot) and appreciating the  privilege of being able to gather. I think of the old Joni Mitchell song “They Paved Paradise and Put in a Parking Lot.”  Unfortunately, our human nature is to take too much for granted, not knowing what we’ve lost until poof it’s gone. Many of us around the globe have lost loved ones and livelihoods as a result of Covid-19 and it’s still raging strong with new variants arriving on our shores. We also have a rash of wildfires and floods in both the United States and the world. Many are hungry and homeless.

With our stockpile of vaccine and recovering economy, we are the “have’s” in a world of “have not’s”.  Happy Birthday America. Congratulations for making it through the tough times. And now, how about sharing some of that birthday cake. 

Follow me on Twitter at S N Maril.

Summer in the USA— With or Without a Mask

Everyone wore masks at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. If you didn’t bring a mask they gave you one before you were allowed to enter. Simple. No decision on mask wearing required.  Other situations require you to use your own judgement.

The sign on the door outside the supermarket says, ‘”No masks required if you are vaccinated. If you are not fully vaccinated, for your own protection and the safety of others, wear a mask.” Other signs request you to “socially distance” ie “Stay 6 feet away from other shoppers.” Sanitizing hand stations remain.

At a restaurant the world looks normal, or more appropriately stated—restaurants almost look as they did pre-pandemic. Except the servers are wearing masks. This doesn’t mean they aren’t vaccinated.  Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, but in order to give the appearance of having all safety protocols in place, they wear masks. Regardless, it is wonderful, to feel comfortable enough to eat out, surrounded by strangers.

Currently, Covid-19 in the United States is at a manageable level.

Decisions. Decisions. I’ve worn a mask several times in stores, although I’m fully vaccinated, because everyone else is wearing one and I don’t want to appear foolhardy. No one ever asks, “Are you fully vaccinated?” or asks for proof of vaccination. We are on the honor system.  And currently in the United States, asking for proof of vaccination is not the current protocol. Asking for a recent negative test is rarely required. Asking if you feel okay and taking your temperature is still practiced before entry into medical establishments. Otherwise, if you are vaccinated, you tell yourself you’re unlikely to get sick.

Sometimes I wish wearing masks in stores was still a requirement. I’ve gotten accustomed to the quiet. Last week, I was jolted by the booming voice of a woman talking into her phone earpiece while she shopped. I couldn’t help but listen to the conversation, a conversation that included legal advice. “We feel you have a strong case,” she was saying, “And I’d be happy to represent you…”  Yes, this person was an attorney. Professional ethics? Well, I suppose she was still keeping the identity of the parties in the case confidential. 

Back inside the aquarium, watching my grandchildren’s bright eyes take in the antics of sharks, rays, seahorses, and eels, I attempted to take pictures. But when I looked at the photographs, they weren’t worth keeping. Hidden were the smiles on their faces. Even the younger of the two, not quite three years old, were wearing masks.

We make adjustments. The world keeps getting hotter. The ice is melting and the sea is rising. Because it is summertime, I’m feeling this change more intently. I keep my focus on what is good. Too many Americans continue to behave selfishly.

My husband Peter planted sunflower seeds all around the edges of the garden, in between the boxwood hedges and as a backdrop to both flowers and tomato plants. The sunflower plants are tall and strong.  Buds have begun to form and soon the blooms will open to reveal petals of gold. His small gift to the neighborhood. If only we cared more about each other. Maybe there is still some time . I embrace the possibilities.

child in mask at aquarium

Remembering My Father Herman Maril

This essay was originally published in Chesapeake Taste Magazine in June 2012

When I was 15 years old, I traveled to Mexico with my parents. It was the first time any of us had visited another country (although my father had served in World War II, he was never shipped overseas).

An artist and head of the studio department at the University of Maryland, College Park, my father, Herman Maril, had been granted a one-semester sabbatical. To simplify our travel arrangements, my parents decided it was best to stay in one central place—Mexico City—for our three-week visit. The plan was to take side trips to neighboring smaller towns that included Taxco, Cuernavaca, and the pyramids of Teotihuacan.

Sketch by Herman Maril

Each time my dad traveled to another part of the country he was freshly inspired by the differences in landscape. The shapes and varieties of trees, flowers, rocks and mountains as well as the colors of foliage, sky, and valleys all made their way on to his canvases. While he was traveling, he sketched on a notepad. Like a writer taking notes on an interview, my father drew notes to himself in his notebooks. Mexico was no different.

Whenever I was with my father, I was always so impressed by the ease with which he could talk to anyone. My father didn’t speak Spanish, but he had no problem communicating with cab drivers, guides, and storekeepers. While I struggled with the words in my Spanish phrasebook, my dad was already laughing and exchanging pleasantries with newfound friends. He did so by pantomiming, and resorting to pen and paper when necessary. The sparkle in his eyes and his warm smile caused most people to take to him immediately.

I wished I could be so confident and relaxed. During our travels I observed that when my dad made eye contact, a firm handshake and a smile was often more important than spoken words. Shared laughter broke across any barriers of age, race, or social strata.

My first years away at college, my greatest challenge was feeling confident and relaxed enough to talk to anyone. It doesn’t come easily. I still work at it. Being a journalist gives me an excuse to ask questions, but it’s when our eyes meet, and we share a smile and a story, that I make a real connection, something I can write about.

My father’s warmth and gregarious nature is something I remember with gratitude. It taught me the importance of the small daily interactions we have with strangers, whether it’s a simple exchange of hellos with a neighbor or taking the time to chat with the checkout clerk at the supermarket.

 Today, June 20th is Father’s Day. My father has been dead for decades, but his influence on my life remains.  This month, let’s take time to honor those who have nurtured us materially and spiritually. Happy Father’s Day.

Oil on Canvas, by Herman Maril

The Best Exercise for Health and Serenity

I’ve kept the same routine for many years and it works. It doesn’t matter where I wake— city, forest, beach—the day begins with a walk.

Climb a steep mountain. Look down at the sights below, the world in miniature, and your cares will shrink to minor nuisances. The cure for self-pity is within your grasp. The more you see and hear of the world around you, the easier it becomes to put it all in perspective. You are one of many in an infinite universe.

The man, guarding the two paper bags at his feet, waiting for the city bus to arrive and the couple taking long strides towards the nearest coffee shop are not so different from the herons in the sand dunes defending their eggs or the red cardinal seizing a cicada or two for breakfast . Around us many creatures teeming across the earth are struggling to find sustenance and shelter are oblivious to everyone except themselves. Empathy is what distinguishes us as enlightened humans. Pay attention.  Walking is a time to use all your senses and be present.

Movement, any movement sets the world in motion. Calories are burned, muscles strengthened, and tendons stretched. Walk slow or walk fast. Spine straight. Feet pressing against the ground with each step. Walk to explore the world or walk for a specific purpose, an iced tea or a visit to the Post Office.

From my dining room table, I can look out my windows and see people in the neighborhood walking by; dog walkers, joggers, folks on their way to a restaurant on West Street or Main Street. We live on the corner. Walkers are a frequent sight.

At the seashore I relish the sensation of sinking my feet into sand. The cries of gulls, ducks, sandpipers, and herons are accompanied by the sighs of the wind and the tug of the sea thundering towards the sand and then retreating. The saddest thing I recently observed during my visit to the beach last week, were the people staring and speaking into their smartphones. They gazed at their phones as they walked along the shore  seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. Didn’t they notice they were in a beautiful place? Who or what was so important to pre-empt their attention?

            I can’t second guess what is inside their heads. I can only do my best with my own consciousness.  I keep walking.  Whenever possible, I walk instead of drive. According to health professionals, walking can help you keep your weight down and your bones strong. It can also help keep blood pressure in check and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes as well as possibly improve memory and prevent memory loss. Certainly if you are feeling more serene and less pressured, it’s easier to think clearly.  Walking can be a form of meditation.

I walk at least forty minutes a day. Twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening. Taking a walk with friends can be a great way to socialize and exercise at the same time. During the Pandemic, it was a safe way to visit. If you haven’t been walking, start with 10 minutes and build from there. If the day is hot, travel with a water bottle. Wear comfortable walking shoes. To get the maximum health benefits, check your posture before you start walking. You’ll want to keep you head up and your back lengthened with your shoulders loose and relaxed. Classes that include Pilates, yoga, modern dance or a session with a physical therapist  can help improve your posture and walking technique.  Swing your arms gently as you walk. Engage your core and step from heel to toe.  Enjoy the journey.

If you are an artist, remember what you’ve observed and note it upon your return. Story ideas pop into my mind all the time during walks, particularly solitary ones. The world is alive with possibilities. Walk.

What Are Those Unidentified Flying Objects?

UFO’s have been a subject for speculation for as long as I can remember. It’s fun to imagine we are being visited by extraterrestrials. It’s exciting to suppose that just maybe, the large white spinning disks in the sky sporadically sighted might have been built in another galaxy.  It’s scary too. What do they want? Have they come to harm or to help?

Photo by James Lee on Pexels.com

This past month, UFO’s have again been in the news. The United States government has begun to open their files. Recent U.S. government reports have begun the process of acknowledging the sightings are legitimate and documented; even if we don’t know what these things really are. They have conceded that UFO’s are not part of a top secret United States program, but have left the door open to the possibility that they might be part of another government’s program using hypersonic technology. So maybe the UFOs are part of a top secret program belonging to another earth government. The Chinese? The Russians? Traveling many times faster than the speed of sound, plane and missiles that fast have tremendous power. Maybe a group of scientists, perhaps backed by a billionaire such as Elon Musk are on to something.

The weather balloon idea has been debunked, and if UFO’s are not be operated by someone on earth, perhaps their origin is extraterrestrial. 

Is it more comforting to think UFO’s are being piloted by aliens with long slender fingers and tall domed heads than a foreign government or impetuous scientist? Perhaps they’re being operated remotely like drones.

If they are being flown in our heavens by aliens surveying our activities, the logical question is why haven’t they made contact? What would be the purpose of their visiting our atmosphere for a joy ride and then making a quick exit?

Maybe that’s just it, they’re adolescent aliens who stole their parents’ spaceship. Or maybe they’re from a starship with a directive similar to the one given to Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise to not interfere with lower life forms.

But I have another idea. Maybe they’re us from the future. The UFO’s contain our future selves— earthling time travelers. Our great great grandchildren are surveying what the earth looked like in the previous century or centuries.

Part of the rule of time travel is you are not allowed to make contact. Or if and when they do make contact, the trajectory of what is supposed to happen along the timeline may change. So future earthlings just zoom through the heavens and observe in a giant tic tac with sensory capability to project everything observed on a giant screen perhaps.  Those within the UFO are taking a tour of the past while we gain a glimpse of the future.  

The UFO sightings continue. Some claim there are references to flying objects in the sky during ancient times. Yes, it is comforting to speculate that the human race has the means to save itself. When the planet gets too warm and the flooding begins, maybe we can travel backwards in time to begin again. What wisdom will we remember?

Photo by Adam Krypel on Pexels.com

Why We May Not Be Safe

Waiting at what appeared to be the shortest line at the supermarket, I began to wonder what was taking so long. Then I noticed the clerk was confined to a wheelchair and he was wearing thick yellow rubber gloves, the kind I wear for scrubbing pots.

He appeared to struggle, just to push the buttons of the cash register. Aren’t his hands uncomfortable inside those heavy gloves? What will he do when it gets really hot? Won’t his hands sweat?

Behind me the next customer was humming to herself while unpacking her cart. She placed her boxes of cereal, cans of soup, cartons of diet soda on the conveyer belt and banged into me with her elbow. Although signs in the stores still advise observing a six-foot distance, no one is reading them. Her white hair signaled to me she was likely vaccinated and because I’ve been fully vaccinated for several months, I wasn’t threatened by her proximity.

Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

We still wear masks. Well, most of us wear masks. I prefer to err on the side of caution. Other versions of the virus may be circulating and while it is unlikely I can transmit anything, it is better to set an example.

While everyone in the USA now has the opportunity to get vaccinated; each individual is free to make his or her own decision. Not everyone wants the jab. Some people may have underlying conditions that may prevent them from receiving the vaccine.

I wanted to tell the clerk, he shouldn’t bother wearing gloves any more because   according to recent research, the novel coronavirus is rarely transmitted from surface to surface. Periodic hand washing would suffice in addition to his mask. But I didn’t want to intrude. If he felt more protected by wearing gloves, don’t meddle, I told myself. Let it be.

The grocery shopping routine is slowly returning to the way it used to be, prior to the pandemic. A greeter no longer stands in front of the supermarket counting the number of customers allowed to enter. In many stores the arrows that used to direct traffic down aisles in one direction have been removed.  Stores are operating at one hundred percent capacity. We are gradually returning to “normalcy,” but the process is erratic.

Every so often the clerk’s face mask would slip down and he’d have to reposition it back on his nose. Still wearing those yellow gloves, he’d grab the edge of the fabric. Sometimes when the mask slipped, he’d pause to lift a water bottle to his mouth. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He is of our frontline workers, when many businesses are struggling to fill vacant positions.

Each grocery bag was pulled out individually from a waist-high shelf. As the groceries were tallied I packed my own purchases. 

“Thank you for bagging,” he said.

“Thank you for being here,” I should have said, but instead I said, “Have a good day,” a standard American trite expression. Those four words mean absolutely nothing when accompanying a circular smiley face. Those four words can also mean everything you wanted to say. Thoughts that might include: I feel really badly that you are stuck working this shitty job looking extremely uncomfortable and I feel sad that we live in a country where people are so rich they can own twelve houses and a private jet while other people can’t afford a decent meal or a trip to the doctor.

The United States has a long way to go. We are a selfish nation. The refusal to wear masks to protect the vulnerable is just one example of how many American’s actions can endanger others. Currently millions of people around the world, including American citizens overseas are waiting for the opportunity to be vaccinated, while we have surplus doses of vaccine and the supplies to manufacture more.

As long as the coronavirus continues to infect millions around the globe, variants can still arrive on our shores. The ground I tread on is shaky. We are infinitely better than six months ago, but until the global pandemic has ceased we should remain vigilant. We are not completely safe from the novel coronavirus.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

Clothes Shopping Post Pandemic

Shopping for clothes was something I used to do pre-pandemic in between various errands: grocery run, dentist appointment, library, UPS store. I’d stride down the aisles of the nearest outlet shop: Marshalls, Nordstrom Rack, DSW, Old Navy looking for the clearance rack and the red tags indicating further reductions. I had a list in my mind of a few things I was looking for and maybe I’d find them, or maybe I’d find something else—an irresistible bargain. The out-of-season tulle party dress for $10 or the leather  sandals purchased in winter for $12 were some of my  most memorable purchases.  But then it all stopped, like everything else when the lock-down went into effect last spring in the United States.  In person shopping became a distant memory as I realized I didn’t really need much of anything in the way of clothing. Blue jeans, pullover and sneakers were just fine for sitting in front of the computer and walking around the neighborhood.

 What few things I did need could be purchased online. But I already knew that my staying current with fashion trends was irrelevant.  As someone who was working from home when the coronavirus arrived on our shores, my bouts of shopping were more for the serotonin high than for clothing needed for office meetings or business trips.

Still, when my husband Peter suggested a trip to the outlet malls in neighboring Queen Anne’s  county on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay bridge  because he needed new blue jeans, I got excited. Foregoing the exchange of gifts between ourselves, it had been our tradition to go shopping at that particular mall the day after Christmas.  The last time we’d been there had been December 2019.   

On a sunny Saturday, a parking space was easy to find. I saw people masked and unmasked. Forty-four percent of all Marylanders have been fully vaccinated, last time I checked, and over fifty-five percent have received at least one dose. Signs posted at various stores gave varying instructions regarding mask protocols. All sales clerks wore masks and most customers did as well, even outside.

Inside the various establishments that included: Levis, Ralph Lauren Polo, Brooks Brothers, and Calvin Klein; stores were sparsely stocked. No rack of $15 dresses at Black and White Market  meant I left buying nothing.  At Eddie Bauer’s, however, I found a long red hoodie reduced from $68 to $12 and had to have it.  Levis offered attractive savings when you purchased two pairs of jeans instead of one.

 The feel good sensation of  purchasing brand new piece of clothing gave me a charge. To be able to touch and handle items  rather than judge them based on photographs was a privilege. As much as I try to stay grounded and practical, trying to recycle already purchased goods, it is still fun to spend money.

The United States economy is hoping we’ll all be spending money and the ugly truth is that things are going to get more expensive. Labor costs will continue to increase as we put the focus on more domestic production and start increasing the minimum wage.  This summer, as long as the number of coronavirus infections continue to decrease, is a good time to go shopping. Enjoy the bargains while they last.

Shopping for bargains

Queries, Literary Agents and the Publishing Game

My brain is filled with sentences, all attempting to describe my novel—working title, Diogo’s Garden. It’s finished, I think. Certainly it will need more edits, but it’s time to move on to phase two and I’m scared. I’ve been putting my heart and soul into this work for several years and I don’t want to fail. Too much is at stake, but from experience I’m well aware that being offered a contract from a major publishing house is akin to winning the lottery.  I ‘ve been working on what is called a query letter all week. In three brief paragraphs I’ve been  attempting to extract from my  complicated story, what narrative threads are the most compelling.

Imagine your book published is the standard advice, and just write what you’d expect to read on the back jacket. Sounds simple until you start reading other novel’s book jackets and realize that often what is written to entice you to buy a book is not really what the book is necessarily about. For example, I recently read The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg.  The book jacket blurb emphasizes Edie Middlestein’s inability to stop eating. However, when I finished the novel I wasn’t thinking about Edie’s fixation with greasy hamburgers and Chinese food. I was primarily thinking about the role of husbands and wives in Jewish immigrant culture and Edie’s daughter Robin and her future relationship with her father.

 Many reviewers describe this novel as humorous, but I found it too tragic to laugh. Just as we all remember events differently, readers find different things in the same book. Ever notice how two people can listen to the same speech and hear two different messages. A query requires the writer to speculate on what is going to sound appealing from a marketing perspective. Can they make it sound like this book is certain to sell millions of copies.  Readers come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and cultures.  A book one person might love, another might hate.

 In the author’s quotes on the back, Kate Christensen describes the The Middlesteins  as “Topical and universally timeless” while Aryn Kyle says , “This is a novel about fear and forgiveness, blame and acceptance”.  Large themes, however, do not resonate as well with potential readers as specific character descriptions. Standard advice tells writers to describe their main character, but what if there is more than one important character?

If a query letter does not intrigue an agent with a book’s selling potential, they’re not going to  ask to read the manuscript. A literary agent is the first step towards potential publication, so getting an agent to read what you’ve written is very important.

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 Most likely, an interested agent will ask for you to make changes to your manuscript. Then they’ll spend some time deciding whether they want to work with you as a client.  If your goals and their goals are not compatible, you’ll need to restart the query process. Smaller publishers or self-publication are other possible routes, but the path to readership narrows.

Like the young hero going on a quest, I’m about to undertake what  is called in the literary world, “The Hero’s Journey.” Think of the classic Star Wars film and Princess Leah’s call to be rescued or in the cycle of King Arthur tales “The Quest for the Holy Grail.” My call to action is the completion of my manuscript, but I must undergo many trials and tribulations to seize the golden ring a claim my prize—a publishing contract. Once published, there are no guarantees it will sell thousands of copies and remain on bookshelves. Unless I put it out there, however, I’ll never know.

Large traditional publishing house editors only work with writers who are represented by agents.  Agents are barraged by writers trying to grab their attention.  Often interns and assistants are the ones who initially decide if a query is worth an agent’s attention.  Rejections are high. This protocol  streamlines the process because  theoretically the work has already been vetted.  The stubborn writer tries again and again, sending out many inquiries. Like  the young hero going on a quest, many tasks must be accomplished before I reach my goal. 

Nadja Maril

            The famous writer John Gardner is quoted as saying there are only two plots: A  man goes on a journey and A stranger comes to town.  The protagonist in my novel could be called a stranger because although she’s been living year-round in a small town for ten years she’s never been fully accepted by her in-laws. She is also going on a journey, although the journey is not a physical one. Instead, her journey is emotional as she must deal with the sudden illness of her husband and his medical care all the while grappling with her role as a mother, artist, and breadwinner. And then I have an antagonist, the brother-in-law, who sees the world very differently and has his own desire to become the favorite son in a traditional Portuguese-American family.

      Have I written my perfect query letter yet? I’m still working on it, but maybe by putting some of these thoughts down in this blog I’m a little closer to my goal.

Poetry, Writing, and Mother’s Day

Crammed between art catalogues and magazines on the bookcase in our living room sat a battered clothbound book during my childhood. Titled, The Combined Louis Untermeyer edition of Modern British and Modern American poetry, it belonged to my mother. Her scribbled notes in faint pencil decorated the margins and each time she’d pull it out and hand it to me, telling me it was one of her favorite college textbooks, I’d marvel at the thinness of the pages and the heft of its weight.

Sometimes during my adolescent years, in the afternoon, on a day when no immediate responsibilities were pressing, we’d sit in the living room and read poetry to one another.  My mother would be stretched out on the deep green Duncan Phyfe style couch, where she liked to curl up for her cat naps before getting dinner ready, and I’d be sitting across from her in one of the old rocking chairs my father was so fond of, thumbing through that heavy book looking for a favorite verse I remembered.

I’m not sure how our tradition of reading poetry to one another started. Maybe I was looking for a poem to memorize for school and I asked her advice.  But when we read poems together, I saw another side of my mother. I saw the schoolgirl, eager to soak up wisdom and understand the complexities of language.  Her professional work, housekeeping duties, social calendar all were forgotten as she focused on the words on the page in front of her. Words. We use words every day to speak, to give instructions, to record what happened, but when words are used to create a poem they are used sparingly and that is when the artistry of how they are grouped and selected becomes apparent.  Poetry convinced me, I wanted to focus my life’s work on communication.

My mother was partial to T.S. Eliot.  She never tired of reading me “The Hollow Men.” This is the way the world ends.  This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang with a whimper. I marveled at the insight of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem, “Richard Corey” and his description of a town’s envy of a successful gentlemen who “glittered when he walked” until “one calm summer night be went home and put a bullet through his head.” I was lulled by the rhythm of Edna Vincent Millay’s poem “Recuerdo” with the repeated line We were very tired, we were very merry, We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry. We both read back and forth to each other the poems of Robert Frost, imagining the stony hillsides, valleys, trees, and ponds of New England in the landscapes of his imagery.  But her all time favorite was “Lucinda Matlock,” a poem by Edgar Lee Masters published in Spoon River Anthology.

She admired the strong woman described by Masters, who raised eight out of twelve children to adulthood, and who at age 60 was still going strong rambling over the fields where sang the larks, gardening and shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys. The poem ends with a reprimand to anyone who complains they’ve got it tough with the sentence, Degenerate sons and daughters, Life is too strong for you—It takes life to love Life.

Esta Maril 1986 photo

Certainly the admonishment that one must approach adversity with strength, rang true this past year as our world was rocked by the coronavirus. The ability to focus on what could be accomplished and to reach out to help others, has enabled many of us to come through a difficult time with renewed energy and insight. It’s the connections we have, our humanity, that make life worth living.

My mother Esta Maril died in 2009.  At the tribute to her life, her favorite poem was read and many stories were told about her famous Portuguese soup, her perceptive advice, her humorous and thoughtful gifts, her devotion to my father, love of cats, and zest for living.  I couldn’t read the poem, her poem, aloud without tearing up but now I can and I read it aloud often when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It puts everything into perspective. Happy Mother’s Day.

Esta Maril and Nadja Maril in 1958

This Post was adapted from my Editors Letter previously published in the May issue of Chesapeake Taste magazine 2012

May Day and The Handmaid’s Tale

I’m a Margaret Atwood fan and an Elizabeth Moss fan, so although it is now safe to freely move about our small city of Annapolis, at night I’ve been watching season four of The Handmaid’s Tale. Seasons 1, 2, and 3 on the streaming service Hulu, got me through the tense months that led up to a divisive U.S. Presidential election and the dark winter that followed.  Now the guilty pleasure continues as June Osborne joins up with the underground network that seeks to overthrow Gilead, known as Mayday. 

Yesterday was May first, celebrated in Annapolis, Maryland with the display of May Baskets.   A European holiday that celebrates the return of spring, a traditional May Day celebration from medieval times includes the gathering of wildflowers and the creation of a garland wreath to set atop the head of a May king and queen. The village celebrates with a dance around the Maypole,  a bonfire, and feast in expectation of a good harvest.

In Annapolis, in non-pandemic times the local garden club awards blue ribbons to the best baskets and a celebratory tea is held to toast the winners.  The winning baskets use  Maryland garden foliage and flowers. Each year I walk downtown to admire all the beautiful arrangements and post photographs on social media of my favorites.

May Day and planting is all about fertility. How ironic then that the revolutionaries in Gilead, a country plagued by infertile men and women who steal other citizen’s children, would choose Mayday as their code name. Or maybe the screen writers of The Handmaid’s Tale had this in mind when they chose the name Mayday for the network of individuals attempting to dismantle the government.  

On the other hand, Mayday also is an emergency alert used by radio operators, primarily in connection with planes and ships.  “Mayday mayday mayday,” the pilot says into his microphone. The person on the receiver knows immediately the plane is in trouble. The fictional nation of Gilead is certainly in trouble as it seeks to tear apart human connections, take away all personal rights, and transform a former democracy into an oligarchy.

The first time the international Mayday distress call  was used was in 1923. Frederick Stanley Mockford, officer-in-charge of radio communication at London’s Croydon Airport was asked to think of a word that could be used to immediately signal distress. As the majority of air traffic was between London and Paris, he decided to coin a word that would be easily understood by both English speakers and  French speakers. M’aidez or m’aider mean help me or come and help me. M’aidez and Mayday sound similar.  To signal for help, the word Mayday must be repeated three times in rapid succession.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

There is also another May Day. A May Day celebrating worker’s rights.  May Day is what International Worker’s Day, held on May first each year, is called in many countries around the world.  In the United States it was on the first of May in 1886 that workers organized by the American Federation of Labor began a strike requesting  an eight hour work day.  Several days of strikes and rallies culminated into a demonstration that took place on May 4th  in Chicago. Initially peaceful, a bomb blast and gunfire quickly turned into what has become known as the Haymarket Affair.  At least eight people died. While the rights of workers continue to be celebrated by other nations in May, U.S. President Grover Cleveland did not want the association with the Hay Market bombing, so American Labor Day is celebrated the first Monday in September. 

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Certainly the rights of the underclass in The Handmaid’s Tale are grossly disregarded. Anyone who attempts to speak out is immediately punished. A May Day demonstration to demand fair and equitable work conditions  in Gilead would likely  be received with gunfire and mass hangings. The term Mayday for the insurgents  seems by this definition to be well chosen. 

Two words or one, used in several different ways can have multiple meanings. It’s important to pay attention to the world around us. A beautiful spring day, a desperate call for help, a celebration of worker’s rights or a tribute to mother earth, it’s all about context.  So for now I’ll smell the May flowers and be grateful that I’m safe and free. Each moment is precious.

Annapolis May Basket
May Basket in Annapolis Maryland. Photo taken on May 1, 2021.

How to Plant a Spring Garden When You Really Are Not a Gardener

Spring. Planting time. Knees a little soggy from kneeling in the grass, I’ve been working in the garden.  This morning, my husband and I took a long walk downtown to Annapolis City Dock and then threaded our way through our town’s historic neighborhoods admiring flowers, ferns, trees. We really do live in a beautiful place and the coronavirus has kept us hiding in our houses too long. Back at home, sitting on the ground trying to decide where flowers need to go, again I am mesmerized by  the colors, smells, textures,  and the sounds of birds and insects—although I’m not looking forward to the cicadas.  Even the thought of their whirring sound in my ears causes discomfort. I remind myself they only emerge  every 17 years.  

I’m not much of a gardener.  My mother had a green thumb. She could take any plant, root it and coax it to thrive. Aware of what I lack, I do my best knowing that I’m Inconsistent in my gardening responsibilities.  I don’t feel the urge to weed every day  and while I have the best intentions, I don’t always water twice a day in hot weather. 

To be a good gardener, you have to love the work and feel the need to constantly tend your seedlings as they emerge from the soil. I’m that way about sentences and stories, constantly reexamining which words and phrases are most effective, but I don’t feel the same compulsion to trim dead leaves and clean flower beds.

My advice, keep it simple. Read the directions on which plants like sun and which prefer shade. If it dies, don’t blame yourself. Just recycle the remaining components in the compost section of your yard to create new soil, and plant something new. It’s kind of the way I deal with stories that just don’t work. Sometimes you just need to move on.

Maryland’s hot  summer weather and humidity demands vigilance. Last summer, since we didn’t go anywhere to visit family or take a vacation break—the garden looked pretty good.  Some of the herbs I planted—parsley, mint, and rosemary—survived the winter. The parsley in particular is impressive, with thick hardy stalks. I wasn’t so successful with the basil but I will try again. I’m hoping my husband will plant vegetables again. He’s the better gardener, good at digging deep holes and watering. 

To mix things up, I decided to plant a few Dahlia and Gladiola bulbs purchased at a discount market. I figure if they don’t come up, at least they weren’t expensive. I read the instructions and look at a tape measure to get a visual of four inches, the recommended planting depth and scope out my space.  A few weeds need to be removed and then I start digging. Although I wear gloves and dig with a spade I remove the gloves for planting. I  enjoy feeling the soil against my skin and like to feel the crackly texture of the bulbs. So what if dirt collects in the cracks of my skin and gathers under my nails, it’s fun. 

At the store we pick out some trays of marigolds and geraniums. Instant color and instant success, just in case the bulbs plants never perk their heads up through the soil. Plants, the earth needs them. We all need a little more beauty in our lives. Happy planting.

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