My Christmas Key soundtrack.

There’s almost nothing I do without music, except maybe sleep. I put Pandora on as soon as I start getting ready for work in the morning, I listen to music as I drive (preferably Sirius XM’s First Wave station), and I play it all day long in my classroom during the school year while my students are working. There’s more music while I work out at the gym in the evenings, and of course I listen to it non-stop as I write. A mellow Pandora station that fits the mood of my story and doesn’t distract usually works well, so for my Christmas Key books, a combination of Tropical Holidays and Caribbean Jazz are pretty much my go-to stations.

For me, music sets the mood and the tone of not just writing, but life. Certain songs can instantly transport you to a time and place (anything that came out in 1997–Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, the New Radicals You Get What You GiveSarah Mclachlan’s Building a Mystery–are like a time machine to the fall of that year, a trip back to me driving around Miami as a 22-year-old newlywed in a beat-up car with no air-conditioning, trying to make it as a model on South Beach). Road trips are intimately tied to the music I listen to as I take in the small towns, the wide vistas, and the mottled skies, and I also find that songs are interwoven with the humans who recommended them to me, as one of my favorite students did this year when he made excellent suggestions for a handful of cool songs I’d never heard before. From this point on, those songs will always be the ones that Grayson gave me.

Music is such a big part of my life that it’s no surprise to me when I go back to revise and edit to find that I’ve name-checked several songs in every book. After finishing There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, I had to go and buy the songs I didn’t already have in my iTunes library, and now I have a handy Christmas Key playlist to listen to whenever I need to get my head back into the game with drafting or revising. So without further ado, here are the songs mentioned in the first two books in the Christmas Key series. (I’m giving away two copies of my soundtrack on CD, so if you live in the U.S., leave a comment on this post and tell me which island on this beautiful planet is your favorite, and why–I’ll choose 2 winners on July 31st!)

  1. Let’s Stay Together–Al Green
  2. God Only Knows–The Beach Boys
  3. Trouble–Coldplay
  4. Hotel California (Live)–Eagles
  5. Brilliant Disguise–Bruce Springsteen
  6. Just Like Heaven–The Cure
  7. Jamming–Bob Marley
  8. Witchcraft–Frank Sinatra
  9. Thriller–Michael Jackson
  10. Somebody Else–The 1975
  11. Jingle Bell Rock–Bobby Helms
  12. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!–Ella Fitzgerald
  13. Santa Baby–Eartha Kitt

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s truly my favorite time of the year, and not just because I love Christmas (but I love Christmas–I really do! And I’m a huge dork about it. Anyone want to come over to my house and listen to Wham! sing “Last Christmas” for the 431st time this season?) It’s also my favorite time of the year because by December I’ve spent about six months planning and envisioning, researching and dreaming, and I finally get to zip Holly into my wedding dress for our annual birthday photos.

Like all good ideas, this one was borrowed and adapted, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I know I’m not alone in wanting to document the passing of time by doing a sentimental yearly photograph. I actually got the idea from a parenting magazine back when I still had a newborn. There was a short article about a lady who had taken her own mother’s gaudy 1960s bathing suit (a boxy affair covered in loud floral print and with cone-shaped pleats on the bust) and posed her daughter for a picture each year on her birthday wearing the bathing suit. She took the photos in front of the same wall, and the progression from a barely-standing toddler draped in this bathing suit, to a lovely eighteen-year-old who actually filled the suit out, was really very charming and sweet. I flipped the page and forgot all about it.

Flash-forward to my own daughter’s third birthday. The lady with the bathing suit popped into my head, and I thought, “That would be cute to do with Holly, only in my wedding dress instead of a bathing suit.” So I pulled the pink tulle over her soft blonde baby head, and eased her little arms through the dress. I didn’t have a plan at that point–just the idea of seeing the progress of her growth each year by using my dress as a measuring stick–so I sat her in front of our oak sleigh bed and snapped a few pictures. They were sweet and simple, done with a point-and-shoot camera. I packed the dress away and planned to do it again the next year.

And I did. And the year after that, and the one after that…and then, this year, we set out to do it for the tenth year. Those early birthday shots were pictures of her doing whatever she felt like doing: posing or just standing, the sweetness of her baby face (3rd birthday), or the funny way her missing front tooth juxtaposed against the wedding dress (6th birthday), and even the year we just put the dress on over her rain boots and play clothes and went to the park in our neighborhood to play on the swings (8th birthday), acting as the backdrop for our “wedding dress pictures,” as we’d come to call them.

But then I started thinking of the potential and of all the fun we could have as we carried this on through her 18th birthday. We went up to Timberline Lodge on her 9th birthday (the day after Christmas) and got her posing in the dress with the snow falling outside the windows of the warm lodge. The next year we went to Astoria on a gorgeous, crystal-clear winter day and let her take a handful of colorful balloons all around town. For her 11th birthday we went to Disneyworld, and I got shots of her in all of the parks and on South Beach. This year we flew to L.A. and did Disneyland, then followed it up with a real “L.A. day” (I called it the, “If Holly Went to Hollywood, What Would Holly Do?” year). We got shots with the fabled Hollywood sign behind her, some on the Walk of Fame, and then we ended the day at the Santa Monica pier just as the sun was sinking into the Pacific, where I think we got some of our best photos to date.

It makes me really happy every year to dream up new locations and ideas, and I spent a fair amount of time this fall googling from which street and which neighborhood we could see the Hollywood sign (answer: 5th and Windsor in Hancock Park–a beautiful and quiet neighborhood lined with amazing houses and giant palms), and picturing my baby with her hands in Marilyn Monroe’s hand prints, so it was pretty awesome when it all came together. We had amazing weather the last day of our trip, and there wasn’t even a wisp of smog hanging over the hills. I love watching the years fall away through the lens of this fun tradition, and I’m pretty amazed at how far this $50 dress has traveled. It started on a beach on Maui when we got married, it’s seen snow, flown more miles than a lot of people do, and just in the past two years I’ve shaken sand out of it from both coasts. I’m already nostalgic for the years gone by, but I can’t wait for her next birthday…I’m already dreaming of getting my next shot.

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My little partner in crime.

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Every morning on my way to work I drive down into a mini-valley that seems to have a weather system of its own. One one side of the 4-lane highway, cows and a weathered barn sit under the diluted early morning sun; on the other side, a wide open field with one solitary tree. Most mornings I leave the house and set out in either ran or sun, but no matter what the rest of our town looks like, this particular spot has a low-hanging fog that circles the tree like a tutu around the waist of a ballerina. It’s ethereal. I’ve envisioned getting up early on a Saturday so many times as I’ve driven through, thinking that some weekend I’ll drag myself out of bed with the sun, get Holly ready, and drive down there to snap some pictures. And during spring break, I finally did it.

I didn’t quite get up with the sun, but it didn’t matter: on that particular day the fog was heavy and pressed up against the windows of my house, so I knew the valley would be swimming in haze no matter what time we got there. My husband kindly drove us to the muddy field, parked on the edge of the grass, and waited in the car with the panting, excited dog as she watched us tiptoe through the sludge and wet grass. We got a few pictures of Holly wearing a scarf from Africa (a gift from our lovely, world-traveling neighbors from Lebanon), and while it wasn’t the dreamy, golden, early-morning light that I’d dreamed of on my way to work so many times, the fog had a magical beauty all its own; I love how the images turned out.

It’s so satisfying to pull those little bits of inspiration from the corners of your mind, breathe a little life into them, and turn them into something that pleases you. And I do love my little muse (even if she did complain a little about the way the mud squished under her sandals!)

When Spring Comes Early…

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THIS. WEATHER. Who says global warming isn’t real? Our friendly after-school janitor debated this with me the other day (as here in the Pacific Northwest we haven’t seen a lick of the white stuff fall from the sky since November. NOVEMBER!)  He falls heavily on the side of “shifting weather patterns” as opposed to “global warming.” I–on the other hand–think that the world has to be tilting perilously on its axis or something in order for us to get a string of sixty degree, sunny days in February. But why quibble? All I know for sure is that, meteorologically speaking, things just ain’t right. A friend in D.C. says her son’s school district has added minutes on to every school day into the month of April to make up for all of their snow days, and my daughter is busting out her gladiator sandals before Valentine’s Day and referring to March 5th as “another hot, sunny day, right Mom?” So things are definitely topsy-turvy up in this joint.

Anyhow, with a sky the color of a Mexican Jay’s feathers, and trees already covered in puffs of pink cotton candy cherry blossoms, I know it’s time to break out my camera and hit the open road. Of course my favorite subject is also my writing partner, and I feel like I can say this without sounding like a braggadocio mom: girlfriend knows her way around a pose. I think it might be genetic. I started modeling at twelve, and while I generally prefer being on the other side of the camera now, I do love to watch my baby girl angling and configuring herself into just the right position to catch the light and convey a mood. Not that I’m desperate for her to follow in my footsteps (believe me–I’d rather she do a sport! Take AP classes instead of leaving school midday for fashion shows! Go to college while the ink is still wet on her high school diploma!), but it does make a mother proud. It does. I can’t even lie.