The Consequence of Denying “What If”

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Nurses in the intensive care unit step aside, for I move with purpose. It is my father’s gait, one I followed year after year as he brought me along to visit sick parishioners.

Rachel’s room is guarded by a cart armed with gowns and gloves. I cover myself as directed and enter a gallery of drawn flowers, suns, crosses, cakes—get-well cards sent from her students in the south. I lose track of all the tubes and where they connect and look for the girl I met in boarding school.

Rachel’s head tilts away from me, covered partly in bandages and partly with a blue Velcro noose. The note above her head explains how the noose is really a brace meant to keep her head upright. Towels are rolled up and positioned against her neck. The breathing and feeding tubes now have a guard that presses into her hollow cheeks; Rachel’s fingers look stuck inside the guard, like she had fallen asleep trying to pull it off. Which is quite likely, by the sounds of my last conversation with her mother.

-*-

“She keeps pulling out her tubes. I just don’t think she can take it anymore,” Mrs. Brim said to me as we stood over Rachel just a few nights ago. “She’s so sick of being here. She wants to go to her heavenly home.”

“Or she just wants to prove she doesn’t need them.” Why was this super-devout preacher’s wife talking about her daughter’s unconfirmed suicidal tendencies in front of her daughter, like she is something incapable of hearing or comprehension?

She waved me away then, like I didn’t really know her child. I shook my head like she didn’t know, either.

-*-

Rachel grew up a preacher’s child like me, and like me was sent to a Christian boarding school to learn how to serve God once adulthood hit. Unlike me, Rachel embraced this future. It was the only world she had known.

Reverend and Mrs. Brim put God above all things and taught their children to do the same. Music is for God. Read God-endorsed stories and Scripture. What you earn is for God. God, God, God.

I remember losing my voice more than once at their dinner table as I learned of the evils in society. The Brim parents ate like Jack Sprat and his wife, and looked the parts, too. “Imagine, these people call themselves Christian parents, but they let their children read about sorcery! Watch vampires and aliens on television! It’s all in defiance of God’s creation, Jean, you know that, don’t you?” Mrs. Brim always did the talking as Reverend Brim nodded along.

One weekend Mrs. Brim burst into Rachel’s room. “You won’t believe what I found today!” She held up a garment bag with a smile full of bravado. The smile faded when she noticed my copy of The Crying of Lot 49, but as she had no clue whether or not the book was evil, she did not comment. “I just couldn’t pass it up.” Mrs. Brim unzipped the bag. There hung a gold-white wedding dress, an unadorned gown of basic A-line shape, no train, and thin gauze for sleeves and collar. “It was such a bargain!” (All the Brims love bargains, but I don’t hold that against them. You have to when you’re a preacher’s family.) “Now you just need a husband.” Mrs. Brim laughed as though a wedding could happen once Rachel made up her mind with all those gentlemen callers, when in reality Rachel had yet to go on a date.

Rachel kept her face a complete blank, even when her mother insisted she try it on. I wanted to leave. That dress dictated the future: frugal marriage. Sensible lifestyle. Dedicated in duty. No-nonsense in family. A preacher’s wife.

“A perfect fit!”

I looked at Rachel. How could she not want to escape this? Didn’t she want to dictate her own life? The separation between her extremely conservative world and mine was bubble-thin. Just pop it and come out!

The next weekend I went home. There sat Dad in his favorite Doctor Who shirt (before it was cool) watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Wanna hit Hot Topic? I need a new Harry Potter shirt for the midnight premiere next week!”

Did a love of the worldly creations somehow make my father less godly? That’s what the Brims thought, hinting as much without saying it to my face. Yet I knew my father’s dedication to God was life-long and absolute. Grandma told me he played communion with his stuffed animals, for crying out loud, making little wafers with bread and putting grape juice in teeny cups. And then he’d go tie a red towel on his neck to be Superman. In the eyes of the Brims, one could not dabble in fantasy, for that meant you treated religion as fantasy. Now granted, Dad had Biblical commentaries shelved with Dragonriders of Pern, but that didn’t mean he took his divine vocation as a joke, nor did he consider dragon-riding a possible career change.

As my favorite writer Diana Wynne Jones wrote time and again, people need fantasy, to explore the “what if,” in order to work through the problems in real life. I, or I should say my children, are living proof of this: my post-partum depression reached levels so dangerous my rational self feared for my children’s safety. By writing about another world, I learned to cope with the one I’ve got.

-*-

The night before the surgery, Rachel explained that she hadn’t bothered seeing a doctor because she felt okay despite the weight loss. She just focused on her students. Being a dedicated servant to God’s flock, she knew God would see her through whatever ailment made her body act like an 80-year-old-woman’s. If not for her pastor specifically stating she needed to seek medical help, she would not have bothered with tests in the first place. Either God wanted her in heaven or He didn’t.

After years of hospital visits with strangers, church members, and grandparents, I knew how monotonous and confining those rooms could be. I raided my Diana Wynne Jones library and selected three favorites to help Rachel escape those sterile halls: Archer’s Goon, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and Charmed Life. I couldn’t wait for her to meet Chrestomanci and talk to her about how Jones blends worlds and pokes fun at all the clichés of the fantasy genre.

I stupidly pulled the books out with Mrs. Brim in the room.

“Oh what a nice card, Jean! And,” she paused at the sight of the books on the bedside table, “how nice. Thank you. Let’s move these for your supper, Rachel.” Mrs. Brim plunked the books on the windowsill behind the drapes. Rachel’s supper consisted of yogurt and Ensure. “Let’s not forget your owl!” Mrs. Brim balanced a large plush snowy owl where I had placed my books. I did not tell her the owl looked just like Hedwig from the Harry Potter series.

-*-

Now Rachel lay before me, barely sixty pounds, and unable to speak. The tumor had been wrapped around her brain stem for quite some time, according to the doctors. She needs a hole in her head to function as a drain, a permanent system where fluids could be siphoned into her stomach. And speaking of stomach, she needs a hole there too, so they can move the feeding tube. May as well put a hole in her throat so she can get her mouth back. All normal procedure—that is, until her fever goes away, which must stem from an infection we can’t find. We’ll just keep taking samples from all over and studying their cultures which could take days maybe weeks and keep her in intensive care which normally is just a short-term thing but what do you know, she’s been here five weeks. Well, what’s another week.

A week. I can’t imagine laying in that bed for an hour with all those tubes and noose on my head. I don’t blame Rachel for being so unresponsive. I just wish I could give her a new fantasy to live in, if only for a few hours, without backlash from her family. There are so many beautiful worlds out there, Rachel, beyond the Christian-approved Narnia and Middle Earth, where the quests are terrible and hilarious until the very end where all is well again. Without permission to share my fantasies, I resort to becoming Listener of Woes.

“It’s a shame her sister couldn’t come before the surgery,” Mrs. Brim says with a sigh, “but she had to play organ, and you know Ruth—she just has so many duties at the church, she didn’t want to let them down.”

I nod slowly because all I want to say is what   a   BITCH. Rachel may never be the same way again, and you put ORGAN before your sister? I do not say this because I know the answer: God first.

We say good-bye. “God has his plan for Rachel. We’ll see it someday.” She hugs me, which requires a very awkward bend forward on my part. I wonder if that wedding dress still hangs in Rachel’s old closet.

“The future is full of ‘what ifs’ to be explored, Mrs. Brim. Good night.”

Guest Author Mary Relindes Ellis on the Spirituality of Untouched Nature

MaryREllis2Mary Relindes Ellis is a Wisconsin native and author of the award-winning novel The Turtle Warrior, which is set in the rural north of our state.

The Chippewa River near my birthplace has always been part of my childhood animism in that it is a deeply spiritual place. Ashland County is the poorest county in Wisconsin but that poverty has ensured that the county’s spectacular beauty hasn’t been developed.  One of the few beliefs I retain from my childhood Catholicism is that there is divinity in everything.  I can’t, however, hold that belief towards skyscapers and such.  But a river, particular the river of one’s birth, holds my soul.  We are nothing without such places.

Click here for more information on Mary Relindes Ellis and her work.

#Writing #Music: Eleni Karaindrou

54efd546af91d980f5f2c53c61e47d1d3977f305I’d like to think that Eleni Karaindrou’s Ulysses’ Gaze appeared in my albums of its own volition. A find during my graduate school years, when I struggled with my instincts over what my professors declared to be good writing. Literary fiction sprang from dark, terrible real-life things. No one likes to read happy endings, and for Christ’s sake, don’t write for kids. And, of course, the unspoken rules, the loudest of them being genre stories were a waste of time. So I was left trying to understand what “proper” story could be told in my voice, its confidence shattered.

The voices in Ulysses’ Gaze contend over the same melody throughout the album. The melody remains the same; it is the sound of that melody, so altered by the simple shift from viola to other instruments, that creates new emotion, be it longing, uncertainty, or malice. As the oboe, French horn, and others speak the melody to each other, I cannot help but imagine the four Pevensie children first entering Narnia together, unsure as to what they stumbled upon or what to do, the French horn voice of Aslan calling from afar.

The music encourages footsteps into the unknown, even if your characters cannot agree on how to go about it. It struck me that such a scene could help reveal important traits in my protagonists, who escape the plans of their scheming parents by fleeing into enemy territory. Once surrounded by stars and silence, they quietly argue over their plan, back and forth like Karaindrou’s variations of “Ulysses’ theme.” Their freedom is precious and sad. Yet hope is out there, echoing their words in the wilderness.

Perhaps your characters need some time in a quiet wood to debate their future. Give them Karaindrou, and watch your story step into the unknown.

Click here for more information on Eleni Karaindrou’s ULYSSES’ GAZE.

Guest Author Victoria Houston on Setting as a Character

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Victoria Houston is author of the Loon Lake Mystery Series, a collection of murder mysteries based in Wisconsin, the author’s home state.

I grew up on a small chain of lakes just ten minutes east of Rhinelander where my grandparents had a log cabin that had been built in 1895.  Years later their cabin was demolished by a new owner, which broke my heart.  However, I was able to a full acre and 240 feet of lake frontage — the property abutting my grandfather’s.  On it is a 120-year-old cottage where I live all summer (as a kid I used to spy on the former owners because it has a wonderful sleeping porch windowed all around. My cottage has only 525 square feet of living space but it’s 20 feet from the lake.  I sleep surrounded by the sounds of the water and the wind, Great Horned Owls and eerie murmurs from cottages across the lake. I spend my days in the midst of towering red and white pine trees with eagles, Great Blue Herons, woodpeckers and lots of other critters.
This setting infuses my stories — the lovely sunsets, the terrifying thunderstorms.  And all my characters are people who live and deal with the beauty and the threats of the northwoods.  While my plots and people may be contemporary, this setting allows me to transcend the everyday.  My characters may be fictional but I feel as though they live nearby.
My lake world is haunting, often stunningly beautiful, seductive and, on occasion, murderous.  I love it.  I love living here.  I could not write the mysteries I write if I did not live here.

Them Duke Boys Conquered the Hobbit

Recordings Hobbit Rankin Bass Soundtrack and BookMy husband Bo still revels in the moment he first introduced The Three Stooges to our daughter Blondie. All it takes is the butler to inform his rich masters that “I’ve hired three new plumbers, so everything’s going to be fine,” and the two are kicking up on the couch giggling like ninnies.

I have yet to revel in any such moment, and honestly, I’m getting pretty impatient. Baby Blondie latched onto the theme of Dragnet, one of Bo’s favorite shows. If you don’t know the song, it is approximately twenty seconds long and uses maybe six different notes. I had to sing that melody for the sake of quiet as we drove from Fargo to Bismarck to visit my parents. That drive lasts three hours. A twenty-second song. For three. Hours.

Wee Biff and Bash’s tastes demanded more sophisticated fare. Only “Bonanza” could get those babies to stop crying AND smile, even laugh the newborn laugh that spins the heart round and makes me dizzy and gooey all at once. Bo again.

“They’re never like this with any shows I liked when I was a kid.”

“Sorry, dear, but the theme to Murder, She Wrote just isn’t that catchy.”

“Is so!” I hum it. Nuthin’. “Okay. But they’re never like this with any music I like, either.”

Bo rolls his eyes as he bounces Biff and Bash on each knee. Blondie gallops around singing “Bonanza” notes at the top of her lungs. “The theme from Hunt for Red October is not exactly what I call bouncy.”

I take a crack at the melody, but Blondie drowns me out.

How does one compete with a child’s joy of exploring new worlds? Of transporting characters out of their stories and into your own? The only way to enter a child’s creative universe is to take joy in the act of creativity with her. My father understood, a man who loved to write hymns and poetry. We could sit together for ages in front of his ancient IBM staring at that nauseating blue screen. It didn’t matter. We were in my story, and we were exploring it together.

Mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, enter my world. Not real, you see. For a woman who taught elementary school, she did not see a need for all that imagination once puberty came along. Time for functional attire, plans for the future, arranged social gatherings with classmates who of course are your friends, you are the pastor’s daughter, when in reality they were decent enough but didn’t want to know me at all because I was the pastor’s daughter. Only when I turned 14 and entered a boarding school did I finally find others my age who enjoyed creativity as much as me. By then, the disconnect with Mother was complete, and the pressures of church business meant Father no longer had time to visit my story-worlds.

Now I am the one struggling with a disconnect I never thought would repeat.

Blondie peers into the living room from the hallway. She refuses to let both eyes round the corner. “Mommy, what are you watching?”

I bend over and speak with all the eagerness of a Sesame Street Muppet. “It’s a story called The Hobbit. It’s about adventure and fighting an evil dragon and bad goblins and finding treasure!”

“Mom I don’t like this.” She keeps her voice as small as possible so I’m not allowed to stand up straight.

Biff and Bash run into the room from their naps. Bash takes one look at the 1970s animation and sits with his back to the screen to read about helicopters. Biff stands fully in the room, eyes set on the story.

“Mommy I don’t like this,” Blondie repeats and presses her face into my stomach. “Please turn it off.”

John Huston’s Gandalf has only just introduced himself.

“Just give it a chance, kiddo. It’s one of Mommy’s favorite stories when she was your size. Time for a song!”

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead

“Is it done yet?”

Dammit.

“No.”

Bash puts down his book and watches the dwarves leave Hobbiton, then returns to helicopters. Biff remains silent and studious.

At the moment Biff is still unclaimed territory. Bash has taken his own path, obsessing over all things helicopter. Blondie enjoys a mix of fairies, ponies, trains, and Stooges. But Biff only notes these things politely before settling down to a book or a box of cars. His love for reading makes me hope that perhaps I can finally imprint my childhood loves on my own spawn. 1 out of 3 ain’t bad.

Blondie goes to her room and closes the door. Biff leaves the movie and comes by me. “Mommy!” His voice is a tiny version of Don Corleone’s. “What are you doing here?” I turn him back to the film. He leaves the room to find the car box. Bash follows with two helicopters. Thorin and Company’s adventure ends before they reach Rivendell.

I come upstairs from teaching online to rip-roarin’ laughter. Biff jumps and wobbles the toddler dance while his eyes remain locked onto the screen.

Just two good ol’ boys…never meanin’ no harm

Bash and Blondie are laughing so hard their voices cut in and out as the General Lee jumps yet again and somehow sends Roscoe P. Coltrane into one of Hazzard County’s many rivers with a bridge missing.

“Mommy, Mommy, look, Mommy! It’s the Zero One Car!” Biff hollers.

“Just two good ol’ boys…” Blondie laugh-sings and stops, not knowing the other words. Yet.

Bash laughs. “Weeehoo! Woah! Yahoo!” He nearly falls off the couch.

Bo gives me his happy smile. He’s won again.

Dukes of Hazzard now?”

“Not just.” Bo holds up season one of Airwolf. Bash spots it before I even notice the “HELICOPTER!” on the case.

I resign myself to the rocking chair in the corner. Biff is officially claimed. All of them love what their father loves. Bo was so nervous when Blondie and the boys were born, scared to death he’d never relate to the kids. Now he’s found a way to connect, even if it is over old television shows. That should be a good thing. But this good thing was also a competition, undeclared and cut-throat. I’ve lost completely.

Bo knows my face. “JB Fletcher doesn’t do car chases.”

I smirk. “JB Fletcher’s life is plenty exciting with all sorts of coincidental intrigue thanks to her dozens of nieces and nephews and old school mates being set up for murder once a week.”

“Muuuurdeeer!” Biff picks up on the only word not good for a toddler to say in public and turns it into a car sound. “Look Mommy look!” He climbs onto my lap. “Mommy, I am soooooooooo proud of you.” And he pats me not-so-lightly on the cheeks. “Oooh, a hug.” And he leans against my chest, expecting his hug.

I hold Biff, once my last hope. I absently wipe the tears dripping from my eyes onto his hair and watch Blondie and Bash race down the hallway, grabbing each other from behind, pulling each other down, and then running up the hallway to start again. “Bash, Bash I’m Roscoe, and you’re those Duke boys! I’m going to get you!”

Bo turns off the television and hands me Oh the Thinks You Can Think. “You know, some of us didn’t have imagination when we were kids. All we had were car chases and middle-aged men performing slapstick.”

“That’s kinda sad, Bo.”

Bo plops Bash into my lap; Blondie balances on the armrest. I have to weave my arms through wriggling bodies in order to hold the book. “It is. But look at me now—a functioning member of society.”

“Uh huh. ‘You can think about red you can think about pink—’”

“You’re not your mom.”

I pause. Bo looks down at me. He is, for once, completely serious.

I finish the story. “Neeeew book!” Each child says in turn as they slide off the chair and plow each other over in a mad dash for the book shelf. Bash gives up and grabs some superheroes. “Hello, Superman. Hello, Batman,” Bash says in his best Super Friends narrator. “Wait for me, Batman!” He has different voices for each hero. Biff finds a book on trucks and rattles off nearly every letter on the page before going back to point at the words he knows. Blondie locates her Tinker Bell book and starts speaking for the fairies in the pictures. Just when I think they’ve given up on story time, each runs at me with a different book and hurls themselves onto my lap.

All three have kicked their blankets off. I walk into the dark and watch Bash’s fingers finally give way on his helicopter book. I move the tiny General Lee away from Biff’s ear. Blondie’s buried her head in ponies—heaven help the person who tries to move them. Each has found a thing on which to fixate their final waking moments of the day. Do their dreams ever revisit the music and worlds that I share? Or are they surrounded by wall or water, a secret to be discovered when their imaginations are ready to create magical realms of their own?

Blankets and kisses, I step out.

Bo waits until I close the door before whispering, “Be sure to ask Blondie about the running policeman tomorrow.”

“Running what?”

“T.J. Hooker, baby.”

If anyone knows of a lovely storybook version of The Hobbit, please email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com. Please.

#Writing #Music: #HansZimmer

sherlock-holmes-original-soundtrack-cd2-coverMy love for Holmes and his London goes back into childhood. Little did I know Hans Zimmer had also settled into a corner of my music-world at that time through his involvement with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Muppet Treasure Island. Now his Sherlock Holmes score is integral in my writing for children.

When it comes to writing about trolls, I wanted to relay a sense of their industriousness and superior attitude. They are particularly proud of their city hidden away from the rest of the world, but a hidden city is no fun to live in when you are a child. My narrator is the pet human for a girl troll who insists on finding adventure in the least likely places. That is, I wanted the character to insist on adventures, but I had no clue how to get the girls into trouble. Originally I played the first half of the track “My Mind Rebels at Stagnation” over and over as I described the girls’ walk to their mutual schools. What better way to sneak in descriptions of the bustling city and the trolls’ day to day life? How…normal.

I felt like the boy in To Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street. Should the girls imagine an adventure? How would the readers know what is fact in this universe and what isn’t? Way too confusing so early in the story. Then I finally allowed the second half of “My Mind Rebels” to play out. The tone shifts completely here from the rhythmic gear-like sounds of strings to brass swelling with menace. I finally pictured a bully showdown. Too normal. A bully showdown involving a dare. Better. A bully showdown involving a dare with the monster guarding a magical troll bridge. Take that, Mulberry Street!

Click here to find out more about Hans Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes.

Guest Author Adrianne Lemke & Her Wisconsin

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This picture was taken at my home in rural Wisconsin. I love this setting because spending time outside riding my horse is the best way I have found to clear my head. When I get stuck in my writing, sometimes the best thing I can do is step away for a while and spend some time outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine are often the best cure for a block, and the beautiful farmland surrounding us makes for a great place to think. And if I have a story line or plot twist I need to talk through, my horse is always willing to listen.

Adrianne Lemke is author of Earthshaker Series, a YA collection about a runaway capable of commanding the very earth to protect him. She lives near West Bend, WI.

Click here for more information on Adrianne Lemke and her work.