My Desk is a Mess by Karen Shughart

This is the stage when I’m writing a mystery that if you visited my office, you’d gasp in horror. I’m usually very organized, but at this stage, my desk is a mess.

On the right are the first two books in my Edmund DeCleryk Cozy series, Murder in the Museum and Murder in the Cemetery. I use them as a reference for book three, Murder at Freedom Hill, because there are recurring characters: a newborn baby in the last book can’t be in elementary school two years later.

A thesaurus, usually on a shelf, claims space on my left. I’m forever scrambling to find synonyms for words I tend to overuse. It’s a weighty tome but a necessary tool, although the good news is that I recently had an aha! moment when I realized that with a couple of keystrokes and the click of the mouse, hello Google, goodbye Roget’s.  How easy is that?

That thesaurus, by the way, was published in 1962. My Webster’s dictionary in 1982. If you think that dates me, it does, think about how many words there are now that none of us who were alive 50 years ago could have imagined: truthiness; snowflake (not the one that falls from the sky); bestie; twerk. Not that I’d ever include those words in my books, none of my main characters is young enough to use them. Wait a minute, did I say 50 years? Has it really taken me that long to follow my bliss?

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But I digress.  Piles of paper surround me: bills I’ve received from vendors who still, after all these years, won’t send them electronically but that I, a modern woman, have  paid online; recipes I printed from The New York Times when I could have simply opened my phone or computer when preparing them; print-outs of outdated passwords; a receipt for our dog’s latest checkup; a flyer from the local carwash announcing its wash and wax specials.

I don’t like wasting paper. “Waste not, want not” –phrase origin 1576 or 1772 — depending on your source, is my motto. I write notes to myself on the blank sides to advance the story line, a timeline I never follow, names of new characters to remember, thoughts and ideas that come to me at 3 a.m., questions I have about historical details that are always part of the backstory and the reason for the murder.

There’s a system here, a method to my madness, and it works for me. Once I make sure my historical facts are mostly correct, change the timeline yet again, check for inconsistencies, discard ideas I had at 3 a.m. — what was I thinking — I cross the items off the list, rip the paper into shreds, and toss it into the recycling bin. Then the cycle begins again. Until I reach the point when the manuscript is sent off to my publisher, my desk will remain a mess.

The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn by Karen Shughart

One of my favorite songs of the 60’s and 70s is “Dedicated to the One I Love,” which was performed by multiple groups, my two favorites the ones sung by The Mamas and the Papas and The Shirelles. The last line in the first stanza ends with the words, “And the darkest hour is just before dawn.”

The line in that song has both a literal meaning-the darkest hour is just before dawn-but also a metaphorical one. During our personal struggles and darkest emotional hours, when doom and gloom seem to permeate our lives, sometimes light and happiness are truly just around the corner, if we can hold on long enough to wait until that happens. If we’re patient, and sometimes we must pay attention before we are aware of it, dawn comes.

The song has meaning to me in another way.  Living here in the north, on the south shore of Lake Ontario, the days are short and the nights long this time of year. But it’s not as depressing as it sounds, because if you’re willing to rouse yourself in the middle of one of these nights, you can sometimes view a breathtaking display of Northern Lights over the lake.

Light is a theme in our village, especially from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Our tiny visitors’ center is decorated to look like a gingerbread cottage, trimmed with bright, colorful lights and surrounded by decorated, brightly lit trees.  A tree-lighting ceremony in the park brings villagers out to sing carols, enjoy hot beverages and snacks and warm themselves around brightly burning fire pits.

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You’ll notice telephone poles wrapped with garlands of evergreens twinkling with white lights and topped with red bows. Lights glimmer on bushes, are wrapped around trees and woven through fences. Candle-lit luminaria line walks, and fairy lights peek through holiday wreaths and garlands.

It’s not by accident, I think, that so many cultures celebrate holidays and festivals from late fall into winter that revolve around light. In many communities you’ll see Menorahs in windows, candles burning brightly, to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Chanukah which commemorates a miracle that happened thousands of years ago. 

Candles also burn in Kinaras as Black families celebrate Kwanzaa, to remember their cultural heritage and traditional family values. Hindu families decorate with lights in-and-outside their homes for Diwali, a festival in remembrance of a period in their history when good triumphed over evil. I expect there are others, too.

So, when the days are short and the nights long, how comforting it is to know that many cultures celebrate holidays and festivals that bring light into their lives and homes to brighten those darkest hours just before dawn.

Counting Our Blessings by Karen Shughart

Sometimes life sends us lemons, lots of them, maybe more than a bumper crop. We can make lemonade, lemon meringue pie, lemon sorbet… but still, sometimes there are too many bitter lemons to use them all up.

Without going into a ton of detail, this past year has been a tough one for me and my family. We’ve had several non-Covid-related deaths; some serious, life-threatening illnesses; surgeries; and other family challenges that at times seem unending. It’s been exhausting, emotionally draining and downright frightening. Then there’s been the pandemic, the terrifying weather events, and the general unrest on so many levels in our society and the world. I expect we are not alone.

How does one survive? Lately, when the stressful occurrences seem to be relentless, it’s been hard to think that any of it will get better. At times over the past many months, I’ll admit I’ve been depressed and angry and more than a little sad.

But then I take a couple big breaths, close my eyes, and remember to count my blessings. It’s a platitude, I know, but I tell myself we’ll get through it; we have the strength.

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I am married to a loving, caring man. We have wonderful children. We enjoy an incredible support system of family members and family of the heart, dear friends who’ve also been there to cheer us up as we’ve needed it. We live in a stunningly beautiful maritime village where we have a roof over our heads, our home is warm in winter and cool in summer. It’s a safe place to live, too, where we’re not scared to walk freely for fear of violence.  It could be so much worse.

 We have plenty of food, transportation to get us where we want to go and medical care. We may not be rich, but we have an abundance of what we need.  So many people don’t. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that.

We adopted a Beagle during the earlier days of the pandemic. She had multiple health issues. With excellent medical care and lots of love, she’s fine now; a happy and healthy little dog who makes us laugh and gives us an immeasurable amount of joy. That’s too, is a blessing.

So, during the month when we are supposed to give thanks, I will. Sometimes it’s easy to lose perspective and dwell on all that’s going wrong, all that’s contriving to decenter us. I’m making a concerted effort to remember what I have and how much worse my life could be. We actually do have enough lemons to make tasty drinks and desserts and even enough to share with others during the darkest days.

It’s Apple Harvest Time by Karen Shughart

If you drive around our area in October, you will notice the leaves on the trees have begun to turn, colorful red, orange, and yellow instead of multiple shades of green. The air smells of sweet decay, new mown grass, and when the waves crash against the beach, a clean, verdant aroma wafts through the air, a bit like the ocean but without the brine.

You’ll notice farm markets, large pots of colorful mums clustered together at the edges of the parking lots, filled with a bounty of vegetables: squashes, pumpkins, eggplant, green beans, and apples, lots of apples.

New York is one of the largest apple-growing regions in the country, second only to Washington state. On the south shore of Lake Ontario, where we live, you’ll see acre upon acre of lush orchards, laden with the heavy, ripe fruit. What might surprise you, if you don’t know much about apples, is that not only do they come in different sizes and colors, but there are also hundreds of varieties, old favorites and those recently developed. Each year brings more choices; there’s an almost infinite selection.

Photo by Karen Shughart

Apple harvest here, in the north, is a reason to celebrate. One of our friends spent his earlier years as an MD but has become an apple farmer in retirement (the story of his journey to this point is a long and interesting one), with 100 acres of the sweet and savory fruit.  Now he can be seen-cowboy hat, jeans, and boots, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows-cheerfully working alongside his seasonal employees to pick the crop before the frost creeps in.

We love going to his farm, when on a late afternoon, with a variety of cardboard boxes and tote bags in hand, we stroll through the stands of trees, lined up in rows in military precision. We carefully choose apples that will last in cold storage in our garage throughout the winter: baked into breads, pies, and cakes, eaten with sharp cheese, or sliced into a salad.

After, we’re likely to cluster around a large island in his farmhouse kitchen, drinking glasses of wine and eating charcuterie boards piled high with cheeses, sausages, artisanal breads, and apples, yes, apples. When the skies are clear and the air is cool, he’ll host an evening barbecue for friends in his meadow at the edge of the orchard; a huge bonfire burning with apple wood. Then, we gather, to laugh, share stories and eat a meal of locally sourced food. One year a white bedsheet affixed to the side of his barn served as a screen for an outdoor movie while we munched on apple fritters and popcorn cooked over that fire.

I love October for many reasons: the cool nights and bright warm days; the quiet and calmness now that summer residents and visitors are gone; the bright colors, and the earthy pungency of burning leaves that fills the air. But mostly because it’s apple harvest time, a time for convening with friends and sharing the bounty of the season.

Back to the Concerts by Karen Shughart

We moved from a mid-sized metropolitan area to a small village on the south shore of Lake Ontario in the Finger Lakes region of New York almost seven years ago. We love being part of a community where everyone truly does know your name, and the beauty surrounding us is inspirational. I wouldn’t be writing the Edmund DeCleryk mystery series anywhere else.

There’s lots going on here, especially during summer months, but attending monthly cultural events was an integral part of our lives where we used to live, so we decided to explore what was available in nearby Rochester and other nearby communities.  The highway system is good, and within a short drive there are a multitude of choices:  Broadway offerings performed by excellent touring companies; ballet; opera; community theatre; choral performances, and concerts of every sort. 

We discovered a wonderful performing arts venue, The Smith Opera House, in nearby Geneva, and that each year they offer a subscription to a cultural series that includes performances by both the Rochester and Syracuse symphony orchestras, world renowned dance troupes and award-winning vocal groups. This series became the opportunity for a monthly date night, preceded by dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, located a few doors away from the performing arts hall. It was something we looked forward to, especially during winter months.

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Then the pandemic hit, and our date nights in Geneva fizzled. The series was cancelled, and we found ourselves scheduling nights at home: pizza, perhaps; or takeout from a nearby restaurant; followed by streaming cultural events on TV. It was nice watching events from the safety and comfort of our home, and we agreed we enjoyed those evenings, but it wasn’t the same.

The Smith has opened its doors again, but for safety reasons there will be no subscription series this year. Each performance will be available as a separate entity, there will be no paper tickets (just an email confirmation) and patrons must order online or purchase their tickets at the door the evening of the event. Masks plus proof of vaccination will be required, plus there will be social distancing inside the venue.

We’re fine with that.  I just ordered two tickets for the first symphony performance to be held later this month. The restaurant we like has re-opened but with strict guidelines; we’re fine with that, too. We’re happy to be able to get out for an evening.

While we are looking forward to resuming some semblance of normalcy in our lives, I must admit to feeling a bit anxious about attending these performances in person as more cases of Covid and its variants seem to be gaining a chokehold on our country again.   We also realize that things could change between now and then. It’s okay, we’re willing to deal with it. Life is in flux, it usually is, but we’re hoping for the best.