Where Gillian Whispers to Trees

Today is one of my favourite Jewish holidays. It’s the birthday of trees. When I was a child, we planted a tree in the backyard. I used to find a really nice tree and hug it and wish it happy birthday. This latter wasn’t due to any religious proclivities – I loved hugging trees when I was little and this was the perfect excuse. If I had time and could find a good paperbark, I’d take a bit of the paperlike bark and write a poem to trees, on their birthday. Luckily for the world, none of these poems survive. I don’t think I showed them to anyone, either. They were between me and the birthday celebrants. I once made a magazine using paperbark, but that had nothing to do with the birthday of trees.

These days, I donate a sum of money that has symbolic significance and someone plants trees for me, in a place that really needs them. Every year I do a bit of an internet search to decide on which organisation should get my money. I donate, then promptly forget how much money and which organisation. The trees will be planted, that’s the important thing. I may, however, quietly whisper a “Happy birthday’ when I press the ‘donate’ button.

Because the old Jewish way of counting used the alphabet, every word in Hebrew has a numerical value. The word I chose for trees today was “Life.” I didn’t have enough money to plant that many trees, but I had enough to spend that amount of money on planting trees somewhere they were needed. I forgot, however, to whisper that happy birthday. If I were still that tree-hugging five year old, I’d wonder if they missed me. (Let me make up for dereliction and whisper right now…)

I’m back. I even sang trees the birthday song this year, because it’s midnight and midsummer in Australia and it seemed appropriate.

One of the small mysteries of my life is that so many people tell me how important Chanukah is. I know this is because it’s closeish to Christmas so it’s considered an acceptable festival by many non-Jews. Tu B’Shvat (today) is only a little further away, and it’s all about trees. Why can’t the secular world choose it, instead?

I may never truly understand why the non-Jewish world favours the festival when we gamble above the festival when we plant trees.

Our next important festival is the one where it’s obligatory to get drunk. I have my own version of the Purim story. If any of you are interested in it, let me know and I’ll put it up here when the time comes.

So Much of a Good Thing

Map of California indicating drought status as of January 13, 2023
Image from U.S. Drought Monitor https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Current Map/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA

I have rain fatigue.

This is the rainy season in San Francisco. We know to expect that December through February will be wet–although this year the procession of atmospheric rivers, cyclone bombs (WTF?) and their accompanying sequelae–floods, mudslides, property damage, even loss of life–seems to be overdoing it. The mantra, in California, is “We need the rain.” And we do. The unrelenting rain of the last month has been a soggy, cold, disastrous blessing. If you’ll look at the map, you’ll note that there is no where in the state that isn’t “abnormally dry.” Currently a little less than half the state (46%) is in a state of severe drought,. Sounds pretty awful. But wait, what about all that heavy rainfall in the last month? Hasn’t that helped at all?

In fact, it has. A lot. Three months ago 94% of the state was in a state of severe drought (41% was actually in extreme drought). Three months ago 16% of the state was in a state of exceptional drought–and exceptional, in this situation, is not a good thing. So that last month of rain has been a godsend. And given how far the state still has to go in order to be out of a state of drought, I should not complain if we get another month or two of deluge.

Sadly, I almost certainly will. Continue reading “So Much of a Good Thing”

My To-Do List

Every morning my sweetheart asks me “What do you have today?” And every morning it irritates me, because it means — or I take it to mean — “What tasks are you going to do today?”

Many of those tasks are things that must get done but that I don’t particularly want to do, like managing money or cleaning things or making my tech work better. I make lists of those tasks but they’re not really what I’m going to do today.

The real answer to the question of what am I going to do today is think, because thinking is all I ever want or intend to do.

The answer does not change. It is the same every day. I get up, do my morning toiletries, do some physical therapy, feed the cat, and make coffee all with the goal of sitting down to think and maybe write.

My whole goal in life is to have the things I don’t want to do simplified enough that they become routine and don’t take much time so that all I really need to do is think. Continue reading “My To-Do List”

Work in summer

I had very fine intentions this week. I was going to say something Wise. Then I was going to say something Important. Then I was going to move back to my introductions to my own books, and talk about a novel.

It’s summer here, however, and the heat has melted my brain. This is why I normally write in the wee hours of my morning at this time of year: there is less heat then.

So what was I doing in the wee hours of my Monday morning? Why was I not writing to you? I finished my monthly Patreon newsletter, and sent it out. What you get from me today, then, is a pause. If you want to know more about my Patreon, you can find it here: https://www.patreon.com/GillianPolack

This month my patrons asked me to talk about antisemitism. There’s a short story where I tried (and failed) to find a way of explaining the cultural loss it incurs. There is non-fiction that gives some explanation. There’s some (very personal) advice for writers who come from mainstream culture. It explains the first big step they can take to write about people who come from different backgrounds to themselves. Without this first step, other understanding can be shallow, and so the writing is less than it should be.  And, for my top tier of patrons, I talked about what’s happening in the publishing industry. I pointed to the need to support writers in these very, very difficult times. My estimate is that the next three years is going to lose us many favourite writers: support from readers is the biggest factor in many of us staying the distance.

All this boils down to the appearance of my once-a-policy-wonk self. It’s talking to my historian self. I’m looking at the shape of publishing and its internal dynamics and patterns of change over time… it’s all a bit too exciting.

If you want to know more about any of the subjects I talk about on Patreon, I can talk about them here, on Mondays. My patrons get first look, though, so it won’t be instant. And since I’m no longer paid for my insights, writing about the big subjects that tax my brain is a low priority. I’ll still work at understanding everything (we all have our obsessions – I have this one and I have chocolate), but I can’t take it further. Income matters.

My highest priority right now is writing about my research. (I get paid for it!) This month and next I’m focused on food and foodways and history and genre. A curious side-effect of this research is that I think I finally understand what makes certain writers popular. I can trace the critical aspects of their fiction and have linked them clearly to things of cultural importance in the outside world. This fit with all my earlier work, but it means I understand far, far better what makes a work a best-seller when an equally good work dies in a ditch. (I love my research so very much!)

I’m gradually working through the physical morass I’ve been in for the last few months. When I’m out of it, I’ll return to interviewing writers. I have so many amazing writers to interview!

In the meantime – including next week – I’ll keep introducing my own work.

If you want to see me at a conference, I’ll be at the virtual side of Boskone in February.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I go to ponder food in fiction.

Final Friday: Year Out, Year In….

I woke up this morning thinking, “today is December 30th.”  The final Friday of 2022. A weekend to celebrate (good planning, 2022!), and Monday rolls around in a new year.

[disclaimer; the rest of this post will be taking a Northern Hemisphere view of the season.  Apologies to friends in the Southern hemisphere]

For me, the “new year” always feels like it starts in September.  Part of that may be because I’m Jewish, and our lunar new year comes around then, but I think it’s more about school starting again.  New clothes, new schedules, new notebooks and pens… all that amazing, long-stretching possible.

By the time December comes around, though, the routines have become, well routine. The notebooks are scrawled in, the pens lost or dried up, the possible likewise drying into the actual.

Maybe that’s why New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday, because you’re stuck, you’re tired, you’re a little worn out, and then New Year’s Eve comes around, and people start talking about fresh starts, about making resolutions to do it better this time.  It’s a second chance pretending to be a new start. It’s addictive. 

And resolving to do something is easy.  “This year I’m gonna…”

So many things we’re gonna.

Over a decade ago, I  resolved to make no more resolutions, and that’s one I’ve managed to keep.  Mostly.  But I’m no more immune to the lure of a fresh start than I am to the lure of a fresh, new notebook, never mind that I already have more notebooks, half-filled, than even a writer could ever need.  It’s aspirational, I’m gonna DO IT this time.  I’m going to take control of my own story, and rewrite it fresh, and better.

Yep. This year I’m going to stop worrying about Goodreads reviews.  I’m going to stop buying anything from Amazon. I’m going to write every single day, and make every single internal deadline.

C’mon.  No I’m not.  

That’s not to say we can’t change, of course we can. We do. In fact, it’s harder NOT to change, than to change.  It takes serious effort to remain static in the face of life’s constant friction. But personal, internal changes are most effective when done a piece at a time.  There is no deus ex machina to lift us overnight out of our funk.

But if our lives are stories – and they are, a multitude of intermingling stories, crosshatching the globe –  then January 1st doesn’t start the revision of the last 365 days. It’s the first page of the next chapter.

Time to build on what we’ve already written.

What new chapter are you going to write?