I walk into the master bathroom and find a square present with “Happy Anniversary!” written in silver. Granted, Bo and I got married on New Year’s Eve, so to see such a gift on Christmas Day wasn’t outlandish. In the bathroom, though…anyway.

“I’m so excited! Open it, open it!” My sister-in-law Bev revels in all things special occasion. She’ll spend hours at work planning lavish parties and celebrations, the tiniest details settled weeks in advance. The fact she has been written up at work for not doing work is beside the point. Parties! She sucks in her breath a bit to fit between the half-wall and Christmas tree. “I did it at work. So easy, so fun, you know?”

That’s comforting, I think as I unwrap…a photo book of my wedding to Bo. It’s sweet, nice. I say as much.

Bev looks over my arm at the family picture which includes Bo, his brother, her. We do not comment on the change nine years and a child have done to her once marathon-ready body. We don’t have to. Tears once again well up in the corner of her eyes. I flip the page and comment on Grandpa Varinski, already losing the fight to Parkinson’s. Grandma Varinski, bless the old bird, swooped in and grabbed the book with her talons before I could turn another page. Bev could talk to her about all the pictures, about the smiles. About the niceties.

I can see the appeal of The Show. Sure, our house is always this clean. I’ve always got time to scrapbook. Oh, this ol’ recipe? Sure it took three hours to prep, but who doesn’t have the time? Care for a race car made of crackers and olives?

That Show, it proves to others you can manage work and family with time for you to spare. PROVES it, beyond a doubt. In Bev’s mind, that is.

No one likes to think about Life After the Show. Of an alcoholic family who doesn’t understand what decades of neglect can do to a person. Of a toddler who bites and screams and kicks the pet. Of a husband who doesn’t want another child. Far easier to close the curtain on the Real, and embrace The Show. Make it go on, and on…

With the help of wine and pills, Bev nearly did just that.

Bo turned on his phone when he reached work at 4am to find a flurry of text messages from his brother: Bev locked herself in the bathroom and tried to kill herself. Cops were called. Boy is with the Varinskis. She has to stay at a clinic for an eval. Not sure if she’ll be out by Christmas.

It is not a reality many can easily understand. Grandma Varinski still thinks it has only to do with alcohol. Sure, alcohol didn’t help, but it’s only a microphone for the voices already there. Few get how those Dark Solutions can speak up in the calmest, quietest voices, the same voices that tell you to wear shoes because it’s cold outside. I can still remember my own:

Put your shoes on. Dump your son on the side of the road.

Fix your daughter a snack. Break your son’s fingers.


It all flows together and makes so. Much. Sense. For Bev, the Dark fixed on her rather than her son. You don’t matter. You’re a horrible mother. Your own family could give a shit. Why should you?

Bo receives word from his brother: Bev is out. We’re coming Christmas Eve. She doesn’t want to be treated differently.


So, here we are, Christmas Day, happy smiles and bawdy jokes, and Bev on the verge of tears. Always on the verge of tears. Everyone knows, but no one comes to her, asks her how she’s feeling. She requested this be a happy Christmas, so by God, we’ll make it a happy Christmas.

Facades aren’t allowed to react. We’ll go through our designed motions, provide loads of accolades to her for her baking, for how well her son sang with his class. Remain fixed on the excellent, and nothing else.

Christmas lights are always so good at softening the world, giving it glowing warmth and magic. Bev endeavors to capture the tree in as many pictures as possible, to capture proof she did, indeed, have a happy Christmas after attempting suicide. When her son refuses to follow her directions for a sweet pose, I point out I don’t even try with Biff and Bash. I point out my own shortcomings, my children’s shortcomings, time and again, and the façade grows ever more real with my reality’s harsh details contrasting her perception of how her life should be.

Inside, I can’t help but think, almost bitterly: I am no façade.

Shut up, Jean. Today is supposed to be a good day for the kids.

So why am I bitter?

The book didn’t help. Seeing my father’s face, so alive, so joyful, knowing he won’t hear Blondie talk about Darth Vader or watch Bash fly up and down the halls like a helicopter or Biff go around looking for words, spelling them out, remembering them. Knowing who wasn’t with me, in my house, made me bitter, yes. Life wasn’t perfect. It’s supposed to be perfect.


That’s Dark Thinking, Thinking Bev invited, entertained, all too often. And that entertaining nearly led to her Last Show.


I accept Biff and Bash can be right little bastards. But they are amazing, too. Blondie frustrates me with her lack of imagination, but that is only because she doesn’t have what I perceive to be the RIGHT imagination. My life is filled with little glowing blessings that one harsh moment, feeling, can cut out. But just because they’re turned off doesn’t mean they’re not there. I need only find the source of the problem, untangle it from myself, and throw it out. The glowing returns, and I sit, and stare, and marvel at how such blessings could possibly be mine.



Writer’s Music: Mormon Tabernacle Choir

I admit, music with words is rarely great for writing. One can so easily get swept up by the lyrics and the passion of the song itself, rather than take the passion of the orchestration and use it to propel the characters and plot forward.

Still, a unique aura glows around Christmas music. There is innocence and tragedy. Joy and sorrow. One is thrilled in the Coming, yet one knows what has to eventually happen, and one is brought to weep.

This is precisely what I feel when listening to “What Shall We Give to the Babe in the Manger?” as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The timid beginning with minimal instrumental back-up has that shy sense of a child first approaching a new sibling. The stanzas that follow introduce more voices and more instruments. The choir returns to its timid state for the final verse, and then…the build. Oh, the build. The orchestra and chorus both swell up, and up, and you’ll find yourself on your knees with your eyes to heaven awaiting the appearance of The Star.

In other words, it’s a pretty cool song, and if you want your characters to be, well, in awe for a moment, this song befits the need and the season. A blessed Christmas to you.

Click here for more on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Strange Grief

As desperation mounted in the search of Where Can’t Biff and Bash Reach Yet, the hutch felt like a safe haven. Shelves at my eye level, and a long wide ledge higher than that for sticking the drumsticks and plastic tools they use on each other’s heads. Candles were shoved in there, writing utensils, sharp things and long things that could become weapons. Even Blondie started shoving toys up there, or asking Bo and I to stick such’n’such race car “way up high where my brothers can’t get it.”

Then my boys discovered the joy in ladder-building. Nothing is safe on any edge ANYwhere.

Thank God wee arms can’t reach too far. To create more space in the depths of the hutch, I dump piles of papers and old toys from the hutch shelf onto the table. Blondie is happily surprised in finding an old magnetic dress-up set she thought lost months ago. Then: “Mommy, what’s this?” She holds out a blank card.


Cheery thing. Blue-white check, two pastel, happy owls sharing a sparkly red heart. “Whoo’s nicer than grandparents like you?” “Nobody, that’s whoo!”

I take it, primly set it to the side. “It’s nothing.”

Bash notices. “Owls! Two owls! They are hugging!” I rip it from his hands before he can bend it. Primly set it aside again. Glare at my son for daring to bend a nothing.

Biff looks up from the Tinkerbell math game to see what the fuss is all about. “W.H. O. O. Spells? Spell?” Very keen to learn, that one.

I have to answer, don’t I? “What’s an owl say?”

Bash, voice high and syrupy-sweet: “Hoot hoot!”

“That’s what it spells.” Which of course it doesn’t. I look at the garbage can, the card, the garbage…

Blondie goes on tip-toe to give the card another once-over. “But what’s it for?”

“Valentine’s Day.” I can’t help but look outside at all the raking we’ve yet to do. Now that Bo found some kid-sized rakes, the kids can work with me for a change and clean up our yard before November gives out.

“What’s Valentine’s Day?”

“You know what it is, Blondie.” Why am I getting so heated about this? But I am. I snatch a cookbook from Bash when his only crime is touching the cover.

“Why was it in there?” She asks, pointing at the hutch.

“One. Two. Three hearts.” Biff pokes the card with his pudgy finger.

How did he get it down?!

I yank it away and just…hold it.


“Yes. Blondie.”

“It’s Thanksgiving time, not Valentine’s Day time.”

“I know.”

“So why do we have that?” She points to the card. The entire planet is fixated on this one card and the weight of this, of IT, almost makes me answer:

Mommy got your grandma and grandpa a card for Valentine’s Day, but forgot to send it, because Mommy always forgets things, forgets little things and big things, and then Grandpa died. So now she can’t send it, because it says ‘grandparents,’ and the merest mention of Grandpa makes Grandma and Mommy cry, and we don’t want to do that to Grandma, do we? Yes, Mommy’s crying, let her cry.

Bash shoves Biff off the chair for a shot at the Tinkerbell math game. The distraction gives me just enough time to dodge the falling weight and say, “Because we can’t send it until another Valentine’s Day.”

Satisfied, Blondie returns to her prodigal toy. I scold Bash, he whines, “Go on timeout! Go to my room!” and he does so with the flair of a teenage girl. Biff discovers a raisin I missed in yesterday’s clean-up and tries to eat it.

I know I didn’t answer the question.

Hell, I can’t even answer the question for myself.

Why keep it? Why not throw it away?

I see that card, and I see the last chance I had at sharing a bit of love, of appreciation, with my father before his heart failure. I see the last chance stuck in a pile of papers like it was nearly two years ago. It was lost and forgotten then. I seem to lose it now, on purpose, forget it on purpose, just to remind myself of what I didn’t do.

My grief demands strange pieces to linger in the here and now. My father’s Facebook feed still shows up online. His handwriting on random post-it notes in books I borrowed long ago, or that Mom’s returned since then. His voice in a recordable storybook. I cry whenever my daughter opens it. I sometimes wish my sons would erase it, cast his ghost out of this house. Yet how dare I wish to destroy what is a warm reminder of happiness from my daughter’s past. How dare I.

I shove the card into the drawer with other cards—forgotten baby congrats, retirement wishes. Out of sight, out of mind. But never out of me.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Brevity’s Fine, Too, You Know.


Some tales require thousands upon thousands of pages. Writers paint a world, a history of that world, history of the players, the players’ quests, etc.

Some tales need only a day and 100 pages. How does Jones pull this off?

She begins with a common problem of many adolescents: a summer holiday with no access to fun. Jones amplifies the common with the not-quite-so-common: protagonist Heather is stuck at a home which is also a tourist attraction. The girl yearns for the tourists to go away, and finds herself wishing on an old mound for an old story about a warlock named Wild Robert to be true.

Enter Jones’ fantasticness: the girl’s wish comes true. She made her wish on the warlock’s grave, and her wish wakes him up. He doesn’t waste time turning people into sheep, pulling old relatives out of paintings, compiling strewn garbage into nasty monsters who chase children–Wild Robert’s capable of anything, as Heather quickly learns. Only she sees him, restrains him from doing more than pranks. By the end of the day, the characters have connected, and we finally learn all of Wild Robert’s story.

The end.


Yup. One day. One glorious, adventurous day. It’s not like Jones cut out with the final detail of Robert’s life. Rather, she ends with the promise of future adventures:

Wild Robert’s power really did end at sunset. He must be back in his mound now….Heather remembered that Wild Robert had made her promise to speak to him again tomorrow. He had known….She climbed the stairs to her little room in a corner of the old castle, smiling. Robert was full of tricks. Tomorrow she would understand him better….Heather fell asleep thinking of ways she might even rescue the treasure that was really Wild Robert’s heart….

But those days are different stories. I’m sure that if Jones had wished to return to these characters she would have, but she didn’t have to. Readers, especially Middle Grade readers, have plenty of imagination. Jones provided a place, the players, the premise. It’s all laid out. Wild Robert gave us “a day in the life.” Now it’s on the readers to imagine the rest of the life.

Don’t think that you have to provide your readers every bloody day between birth and death. If the heart of the story is in but one event, then that’s IT. You know readers can tell when a story is padded. Knock that off. Give them the adventure. Trust them to imagine more.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2015

  1. It helps to have a very vivid view of the opening. The concept of writing 50,000 in thirty days isn’t quite so daunting at the outset when you can start without writer’s block.
  2. There are characters, and then there are the cut outs you know will have to have things to do at some point with the plot but that ain’t happenin’ in this thirty days. Yay literary abandon!
  3. Dialogue tags? Who needs dialogue tags?
  4. Some scenes feel horrible as you write them. Write’em anyway. You may discover a fantastic bit of dialogue or visual that would have never appeared otherwise.
  5. The world building may look like a three-year-old with blocks, but hey, it’s still standing.
  6. If you remember the clues for the mystery, awesome. If not…well, that’s what footnotes are for.
  7. Focus on the scenes you can really, REALLY see. Piddling around with filler may boost the word count, but face it: you’re avoiding the hard stuff in that plot arc. Stop screwing around and muck through it.
  8. So your protagonist is starting to sound like an antagonist? Go for it. That kid sounds more like a teenager? Ta da! The miracle of puberty works wonders. Don’t be afraid to just switch up a character or an event.
  9. It helps to have a very vivid view of the ending—all the more reason to crack on and GET THERE.
  10. Remember, it’s not like anyone but you will have to read this draft. The folks of NaNoWriMo call it “thirty days and nights of literary abandon” for a reason. Don’t worry about form, strictures of genre and narrative. Just let the story go where it wants. Like a toddler’s antics with finger paint, you will see a massive mess at the outset, but some beauty, too. Imagination. Unexpected contrasts that just seem to work somehow. Trust me: the mess is worth it.