A letter to my #father of #grief, #family, #Easter, and #StarTrek

Dear Dad,

Another Holy Week is almost over. Another Easter on the horizon.

Another Easter without you.

This time of year the stores are overloaded with Easter lilies, the scent of their beautiful white blooms permeating every aisle. Of all your allergies, Easter lilies were the worst, especially because the old ladies of the church flower guilds never really took it seriously.

Oh, you’d tell them, and I’m sure they nodded politely, but what did they do on Saturday? STUFF the altar with lilies for the Easter service Sunday morning.

So where are you during those two, sometimes three services Easter morning? Not in the pulpit, that’s for damn sure. Down in the pews, as far from the altar as you can get, silently praying you can at least speak your way through the service without passing out because your throat’s so constricted. Singing Easter hymns was not even an option, which sucked, because I know how much you loved them. Even if the flower guilds used a mix of fake and real lilies, it made no difference–your voice would always be so hoarse anyone would have thought you’d spent the last six hours cheering for William Shatner’s arrival at a Star Trek convention.

Honestly, that’s what initially got me writing this. Not Easter, but Star Trek.

All my listening to James Horner put Bo in a mood for Star Trek; one clip with the kids later, and Biff is hooked.

Oh, Dad. Biff’s so into Star Trek right now it’s hilarious and sad all at once. He stares at the ships, absorbing every detail. He’s transforming boxes into his own Enterprise, Excelsior, Reliant–the kid’s got the entire Starfleet parked on the end of his bed, manned by the brave comfies from Planet Teeny Ty. I can’t imagine what a conversation between you and Biff would have been like, especially when the little guy’d insist Excelsior is cooler than Enterprise.

And because I can’t imagine that conversation, I’ve been pretty damn sad.

My last picture of you and Biff–his first birthday, 2013. Probably can’t see it, but you’re wearing your Dr. Who-Harry Potter scarf fight shirt. I have a pillow with that shirt’s image now.

Bash shows me the first book he made about the Wall-E and Eve robots, and I can’t help but remember when I’d show my own stories to you, how’d we spend ages going over the stories I’d type on that goliath of an IBM computer.

How is this the only picture I have of you and Bash? Where are the others? I asked Bo, and he’s pretty sure our sister-in-law was the camera-holic at that time. I’ll have to get those pictures from her somehow.

I hear Blondie sing in church, and can’t help but remember those toddler years when she’d run up the aisle at your own church at the end of a service. You would pause the announcements, and just stand there, grinning, until she reached out for you with her little hands. You’d hold each other all through the announcements, recessional, and greeting, so happy to be together.

You and Blondie in Door County, Wisconsin, 2013

Blondie turns nine next month.

Bash, Blondie, & Biff, 2019

How you’d laugh with these guys now, sharing goofy faces and terrible puns. How you’d run after them at the park, caught up in epic battles of dragons and space ships. How you’d throw your hands up in exasperation when facing the latest generation of family stubbornness I know I got from you and have passed on to all three of my little B’s.

How I miss the memories that never were.

But this Easter, I’m doing my damndest not to let love known in the past prevent me from seeing the hope of a happy future.

Awake, my heart, with gladness,
See what today is done,
Now after gloom and sadness
Comes forth the glorious Sun!
My Savior there was laid
Where our bed must be made
When to the realms of light
Our spirit wings its flight.

From the lutheran hymn “awake my heart with gladness”

Despite those lilies, you loved Easter. You loved sharing its joy, its hope, its miraculous nature. If not for Easter, there would be no hope for us beyond these few years of mortal coils. Through Christ, death can only keep us apart for a little while; through Christ, we know that when our time on earth is done we will be joined together in Heaven, where we can share all the songs and smiles, stories and laughter we’ve gathered over the years.

Happy Easter, Dad. For once I can put a lily next to you and it won’t kill you, let alone keep you from singing the Easter hymns you loved so much.

The Easter hymns I still cannot sing, too choked with tears.

But no tears will ever choke my hope of seeing you again in Heaven.

Happy Easter, everyone.

#writing #music: #JamesHorner & @samuelsofficial

After wading through the muck’n’mire of Cancel Culture, I’d like to celebrate Spring’s arrival with you. It comes upon the choir of strings, written by a beloved composer, performed by dynamic voices.

Stringed voices.

Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen and her cellist brother Hakon have been performing both together and separately for years. Like me, they’ve always adored the music of composer James Horner–how can one not? This man’s music brought life to blockbusters like Braveheart, Aliens, and Titanic. His music filled the movies of my childhood: Something Wicked This Way Comes, American Tail, and Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to name a few.

Just as writers and readers dream of meeting the authors who inspire them, the Samuelsens dreamed of Horner composing a piece for them.

And, as the happiest of stories go, this dream came true.

Mutual friend and Norwegian director Harald Zwart finagled a meeting with James Horner and the Samuelsens. After performing for Horner, Mari asked if Horner would write a concerto for them.

He said yes.

I feel like I’m transported to the classical style Horner himself loved. The beginning cello solo here reminds me of the bassoon opening Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Then the violin enters, and I can’t help but think of Firebird Suite,also by Stravinsky. It’s no coincidence both works were adapted to accompany visual stories of creation and destruction in Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.

And Horner himself is a storyteller, such a storyteller. The cello and violin are the characters of this story; its setting, the dawn of spring. Can’t you just feel the encroaching sunrise with the muted swell of the woodwinds? And here come the strings: warmth, growth. Green shoots struggle for freedom from thawing soil. Cello and violin walk–no, dance–through the landscape, casting out the final frost fairies to welcome spring’s sprites. The sprites run as the orchestral strings unleash them into the air.

I could go on, but I am sure your own imaginations picture this dance of change and color. It delights me to hear beloved themes from Horner’s other work woven into this tale: the strings bring forgotten magic from Something Wicked This Way Comes, a touch of kindled love from Titanic. The orchestral woodwinds remind me of the bravery buried in Wrath of Khan. Yes, I hear many loved harmonies of my childhood fantasies come and go until the final moment, when all is silent but for the violin and cello, an echo of the song’s beginning.

It helps the harmonies are played with such passionate players. I must find more of the Samuelsens’ work–their expression with bows and breaths are unlike any I’ve heard before.

If you loved Part 1, then please, listen to Part 2 and Part 3 of James Horner’s concerto. It’s such a stunning work, and one of Horner’s last; he died the year this album was released, 2015.

I am so thankful to have found Pas De Deux, and cannot wait to write more about the composer who led me to this album. But that will have to wait. Until then, let me give you a sample in the form of his contribution performed by the Samuelsens. May this song bring you dreams of Spring’s duet, its color and storms ever dancing with ribbons of sunlit magic.

But most of all, may this song fill your heart with a hope defiant of all darkness.

Thank you so much for reading this small journey through music’s inspiration. I hope you’ll take a moment to check out my novel and free fiction, as well as subscribe to my newsletter.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 29

Certain moments promise tears.

Maybe that moment is in a story…

…or hidden within a song…

For me, at least yesterday, it came as a question.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Innocent enough question, right? Routine interview question from the panel, right?

Yet there I sat before the faculty, tears welling in my eyes.

I apologize for my reaction. I understand the question. It just calls me back to…well, I should be honest. It calls me back to when my children were infants and I suffered postpartum depression. 

Very, very bad postpartum depression. 

I would tell myself over and over that all would be better in five years. 

In five years, when the kids were out of colic and not fighting so fiercely, all would be better. 

And here I am these days, telling myself that in five years, when my sons are older, things will be better…

In regards to the University, I like it here. I want to continue teaching here, whether it’s full time or part time.

 I want to help our students succeed because I know how hard it is for them because I’ve lived that insane balance of raising a family, caring for loved ones, and maintaining a job. 

I want to make our curriculum meet our students’ needs because so many just don’t see how important writing is to their success.

 I want to help them learn that, see that, for the next five years and farther.

So that should sum up how the interview went this week. I didn’t have many professional, verbose, academic answers for them.

Just a lot of heart.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe not. No matter what, I’ve done my best and will continue to do my best. With the love of my family and dear friends like you, I won’t stop running with the wind, leaping as a wild child, never quite grown up, never quite done learning. And always ready to share that magic with others.

In the meantime, Bo’s ready to pour a glass of wine for me tonight because dammit, it’s been a long week, and I’ve already cheated the Whole30 code anyway.

Thank you for sticking it out with me, my friends. x

Oh! I finally got my newsletter out this afternoon, including a sneak peek at Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Check it out!

Noooooow it’s time for that wine. 🙂

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 13

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

Working from home has lots of pros. I can prepare my non-sugar non-dairy non-gluten non-joyful lunch with anything handy here. I can run errands whenever. I can sit in the recliner with my dad’s ancient laptop and ice my back while writing. I can work with my students at 5am or 8pm, whenever’s convenient.

But I’m with my own thoughts aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall the time.

And with depression always lurking on the edge, this isolation can get nasty.

Take this morning.

The heater goes wonky.

I’ve got fifty posts from students to sort through, not including their projects. This all needs to get graded in the next few days.

I have an interview for a full-time position to prepare for.

I have a novel that needs serious course correction.

Will the boys be sent home again?

How will we afford Bash’s ER visit from that damn lego up his nose?

What if the heater breaks?

What if the roof starts leaking from all that heavy snow?

Blondie so badly wants to spend time with animals. Where to do that, when to do that…

I have to go to choir tonight on these shitty roads and I HATE driving on slick roads, I’ll spin out, I’ll end up in the ditch and how will we afford that?

My heart starts going nuts.

My breathing rushes.

I get light-headed.

I KNOW WHAT THIS IS.

NOT A HEART ATTACK. A PANIC ATTACK.

I WON’T LET IT GET TO ME.

I stagger upstairs, call Bo. He talks about work, about the roads, about anything as I slowly get up, open a window. Breathe.

Breathe, Jean, breathe.

Panic attacks fucking suck. They have a strong ally in depression.

But you won’t beat this lady. I’ve faced postpartum depression twice without meds. I’ve battled my own body. I faced the Monster who abused me. I’ve overcome loss and pain and FUCK you, panic, you will NOT own me.

I’m gonna keep breathing. Fighting. Mothering. Writing.

Never give up, my friends. Never, ever, give up.

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

Oh, PS, the novel’s on sale, yadda yadda. 

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

 

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 8

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

My apologies in advance.

This one’s short. Curt, really.

Today was supposed to be a lovely day for Blondie.20190208_114112

 

Parent Visitation Day. For the first time ever, I could attend the whole day and watch her awesome smartness in action. She kicked butt on her spelling test. She went crazy during a math game (seriously, everyone went NUTS over these weird cards), and brainstormed up some amazing ideas for her gray wolf habitat display for the Science Fair. We were just getting ready for lunch when–you guessed it–the phone rang.

Biff and Bash’s principal.

They needed to be sent home for fighting. Fists to the face and everything.

I did my damndest to hide my tears when I told Blondie. Her reaction: not all that surprised.

For once, for FUCKING once, can’t Blondie matter more than the boys’ behavior?

But Bo works in another chunk of the state. have to get them.

Bash’s black eye is…well it’s hopefully something to give him pause.

Biff says Bash started it by budging in line. When I asked why Biff didn’t just tell the teacher, he shrugged. Would he have punched out another kid for such an offense, or because it was Bash, then it was all-out war?

The school’s scheduled an evaluation for a behaviorist.

God, I need a drink.

Oh wait. I can’t.

No booze during Whole30.

20190208_072806.jpg

I know you’re a good guy, Biff. You and your brother both are. Please, PLEASE, you have to show you are a good guy to others. You cannot lash out so violently over so little. Please, dear ones, please.

(sigh)

Okay. I can’t be dour forever. There has to be a change sometime.

And a few hours with Blondie is better than none at all.

A YA book blogger also reviewed Fallen Princeborn: Stolen and loved it.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

Bunnerbooky’s review made me smile like a hug from Blondie. You can check her out here.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends.

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 4

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

More mist today. A spring-like humidity clings to winter coats: still too much snow to be outside without them, yet the freak warmth makes one feel like it’s April, not February. That’s Wisconsin for you.

20180509_101546

Bash, Hoppy, and I on a happier day.

If only the mist didn’t seem to fit so perfectly with Bash’s constant talk of death.

“Noooo, I have to wear my mittens so I don’t get frostbite and die!”

“Can choking make me die?”

“Mom, how does Jesus get me after I die?”

Where this fixation came from, I don’t know. I’m surely responsible, at least in part, what with my Stop wrestling on the stairs before  you kill each other! kinds of threats. Bo’s not helping, either.

“Mommy and Daddy are on a diet so that our coffins don’t break pallbearers’ backs.”

Y-yeah, that’s a great thing to tell the kids.

Yet I can’t bring myself to be angry, or even annoyed. See, not only did my father die suddenly in February–Bo’s, did, too, just three years before Dad.

“Mom, your mom is Grandma. Grandma is still alive, but your dad’s dead. How did he die?” Bash asks while playing with Transformers, like this is a normal question during a normal day, like this is a thing to ask right before “What’s for lunch? Do we have string cheese?”

His heart stopped working,” I say quietly.

“And then he went to heaven?”

“Yup.”

“Where is heaven?”

“On top of the universe.”

“Ooooh,” Bash whines, and finds my lap without looking up from Optimus Prime mid-transformation. “That’s far away from you.”

I wrap my arms tight around my baby Bash, no longer so little,, but always my youngest, my snuggler, my storyteller. “Not that far, Bash. Never that far.”

~*~*~*~

Snuggle with your loved ones today. Give’em a kiss, show them what they mean to you.

Of course, I’m going to plug my novel here, too. but seriously, share your heart today. Life is too short not to fill it with love and hope.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends.

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#writerproblems: Feed the #writing Flame

Let’s face it: some days, we’re burned out.

God knows I am.

From 4am until 10pm, life is a steady stream of to-dos: grade papers, get kids up, get daughter to school, work on author platform, stop Biff from shoving cars into the fridge, feed twins, get them to school, try to rewrite that &!#@ scene for the umpteenth time, get daughter from school and rush over to the sons’ school, drag Bash out of mud-slush sandpit, scramble a supper, dishes, laundry, bedtime stories, pay attention to spouse, answer student questions, crash.

Repeat.

How in Hades do we keep going? How, in all the needs of family and work, do we find a way to keep inner flame burning?

With a fresh box of matches.

34043886

Light the Dark is an amazing collection of essays gathered Joe Fassler, who’s interviewed dozens of writers for The Atlantic. Each essay shares “a moment of transformative reading,” as Fassler puts it–a line the writer read, and is inwardly changed. I was skeptical to read the book–I barely have time to read the novels I should be reviewing. How the heck can I read something for me? Ridiculous.

Buuut I figured I could give the first essay a go while the boys mucked about in the library. Aimee Bender’s “Light in the Dark” shared the physical and spiritual elation felt when memorizing Wallace Stevens’ poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” She had heard the poem at a funeral, and its first line–“We say God and the imagination are one”–stuck with her. And me.

There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost religious reverence.

Which is just how I feel about imagination. It is a sacred gift, one not to be denied or squandered. God has given me many hard blessings, but He also gave me something that I knew was special: imagination. Before I knew how to make letters, I knew how to create worlds of adventure, of stories fantastic. And when I learned to make words, I knew them to be powerful, worthy of respect, just like the Scripture I memorized from little on.

And then, too soon, I’m nearing Bender’s conclusion:

That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath the verbal, that mysterious emotional place…

Yes, I thought. Yes, that, just so. To know another writer struggles to find that place of power, of strength beneath the words…the writing life did not feel quite so charred.

I had to try another essay. Just one more, before the boys drove the librarian around the bend (again).

Sherman Alexie’s “Leaving the Reservation of the Mind” floored me. Floored. Me. He shares the context of his world:

There is always this implication that in order to be Indian you must be from the reservation. It’s not true and it’s a notion that limits us–it forces us to define our entire life experiences in terms of how they do or do not relate to the reservation.

I felt the whiplash of memory: the moment from my first year of graduate school when my parents criticized my writing for not putting faith in a good light. For not sounding “nice” enough about it. For having a harsh, raw tone about life in the ministry. How dare I.

For years, the guilt stuck with me. I wasn’t writing about what was appropriate, what fit. I come from a Christian family. I should be setting a good example in my church, teaching good Christian children how to write good, Christian things. Smile sweetly, bring the cookie bars for fellowship hour.  Be content.

No.

We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

I left the library with Light the Dark. I had to. Not just because the boys were shouting over checkers next to the old curmudgeon at the stamp table, but because I was reading words that burned me deeper than my imagination. This isn’t just about craft–this is about living. Literally, it’s the writing life: these authors are sharing the moments words branded themselves onto their internal skin, and shaped their futures.

And now here I was, blasting Tron for the boys and humming off-rhythm inside because for the first time in ages, I could feel a spark of hope, of need. A microcosmic brightness just between the gut and the lungs. Oh yes, it is cosmic, and it will come from me, from you, from all of us who live for words, burning sacred, to light the imaginations of  tomorrow, and every tomorrow thereafter.

#writerproblems: The War Against #Writer Butt

“Who wants to dance with Mommy?”20180214_155933Sigh.

Finding time to move is a right bugger these days. When one’s jobs of editing your novel and teaching both require hours upon hours before a computer, physical activity doesn’t get to be a priority. Sure, there’s the movement of motherhood: chores, keeping kids from wrestling each other off of the bunk beds, etc. But these aren’t steady, challenging movements one’s body needs to lose the writer’s butt that’s been developing since the holidays.

For the record, I do know something of how diets work. I gained almost 100 pounds during Blondie’s pregnancy, lost a small chunk, but then gained that chunk back during the boys’ pregnancy. The latter pregnancy threw my entire diet off-balance, as so many foods made me sick. When we finally evicted Biff and Bash (aka, induced birth), I reveled in dairy and all the other foods that would never stay down long with boys in utero.

But when the boys started toddling off in different directions, I realized: I have to be able to keep up with them. I have to be able to run, to move. I can’t be wheezing on stairs with them.

So I joined Weight Watchers, and lost 85 pounds over the course of a year.

YAY!

But then, I just stopped keeping tally of what I ate. And for the life of me I can’t seem to jump back into that groove. I’ve tried other methods like the FitBit to tally calories, but I kept forgetting to type it in with Biff shaking the yogurt off his hand and sending it all over the Legos on the floor, or with Bash hugging his bunny Hoppy and smearing Nutella all over its body. There’s always something that needs attention.

And, to be selflishly honest, I stare at screens enough as it is. I don’t want yet another reason to stare at a screen and type.

But I know I need to do something. My workload ain’t goin’ anywhere. My kids’ craziness ain’t goin’ anywhere. Wisconsin winter ain’t goin’ anywhere for at least…three to six months. (Hey, we’ve had blizzards in May. I assume NOTHING about Wisconsin weather.)

At first I thought I could take a cue from Blondie’s teacher. With three grades in her classroom, she knows it’s important to give little kids physical breaks from those desks. So, she has these five-minute “brain breaks” scattered throughout the school day: She puts on kid-friendly dance videos and lets the kids go nuts next to their desks until the dance is done. Cool idea, right? Especially in winter, when Wisconsin can have cold snaps resulting in frostbite with just a few minutes’ exposure, or a big melt turning the entire landscape into a muddy, cold mess.

 

20180123_160402

Monday…

20180111_152237

…and Thursday.

I know my sons behave better when they can burn energy. Let’em dance!

Well, you saw the result of that experiment.

So, I let them run their races around the house. Me? I find whatever spare reason I have to move: taking things one at a time down the basement. I pace while I read, or take editing notes. I fidget while I teach. Just. Keep. Moving. Lord knows that once all three kids are in school 8am-3pm, I can carve out a wee window for exercise. Until then, I’ve got to accept the little steps as I can take them.

This starts with diet.

In the quest to find out what foods I can scarf without guilt, I came across Sugar Busters, a breakdown of how much sugar we take in through processed foods and poor food choices. Cut out the processed foods, focus on the fiber-rich produce and protein. Whole grains. Easy peasy!

Only I live in a house where pop tarts, muffins, mac’n’cheese, peanut butter and jelly open-faced sandwiches sliced down the middle with crusts painstakingly removed–(erm, that last one’s Biff)–none of this really caters to the “quinoa berry mash in a slow cooker” kind of cooking.

20180104_115136

“Let’s eat Cars for lunch, Mommy!”

And before you ask, Bo’s soured to the whole “diet” thing. He did Atkins for a year before we met, and now clings to the carbs in his life with a death-grip.

So.

Whatever I do, I do for me.

I did find another diet book in the library: Digest DietLose weight by eating certain foods in just 21 days. Oooo, sounds easy! The first five days consist of nothing but shakes and soup. After that, a slow introduction of meat and veg with just a touch of carb. Lose anywhere from 10-20lbs in this time. Brilliant!

I made Bo find flaxseed meal and the other ingredients for the shakes. This, I could do: after all, I can drink a shake and write at the same time. I can sip a shake while handling laundry or whatever else. This diet fits with myyyy lifestyle, Naive Me thinks.

Here are some more thoughts from Naive Me from the past week:

Day 1: Woohoo, I got my shakes in! What soup do we have? (gasp) Ella’s Deli is closing?! But Blondie and I love it there! We all gotta go one last time so I can say goodbye…and have their chocolate cake, one last time…

20180117_160519

Blondie and her awesome braces

Day 2: Okay, back on track…aw man, this meat’s gonna go bad if we don’t make something with it. Should probably taste it to make sure…with those leftover noodles, and that scrap of cream cheese…don’t forget the veggies, at least….

Day 3: Who dares order pizza when Mommy’s got to have soup?! I demand a slice in sacrifice!

Day 4: BACK ON TRACK. Soup for breakfast this time, we’ll just switch things up, with a shake for dinner. And apple crisp.

Day 5: You think you’re so funny, Biff, wheeling those precious chocolate chip cookies around the table like they’re race cars. Well it ain’t funny! Taunting Mommy is a Thumbs Down Thing!

Yeah, I don’t think this writer’s butt is going to get smaller any time soon.

Oh, I’m not giving up. But I’ve got to be okay with my body as is until time opens for me to change it.

As Hawkeye would write to his father on M.A.S.H.:

“The war goes on.”

giphy.gif

 

#writerproblems: Taking a Break

Four weeks.

Four weeks of rewrites and hours locked away in the basement to the screams of “I want my MUMMY!” Four weeks of barely saying more to the kids than, “Good morning,” “Eat,” “Get dressed we’re late,” “Stop sitting on each other,” and “Goodnight, I love you.”

Three weeks of that had the additional fun of writing to eighty new students, grading their work, and answering those who don’t get why they can’t just write about how obesity is bad and wonder why I don’t hand out my phone number so they can call when they need me.

Damn, I cried. Hard. And often.

I wasn’t being a mom. A wife. I was just glued to the stupid screen to grade yet another round of papers, tackling another dozen pages of rewrites and DAMMIT, I lost three days’ worth of work, and–

Bo played with the kids. He kept them upstairs with books, video games, food–anything he could. He sat with me as I cried, and reminded me, time and again:

“Focus on what you’ve achieved, not on the hell right now.”

To which I often spat something back like, “And how’s that going to give me time to respond to two dozen students and edit thirty pages?”

Because that’s the killer, isn’t it? Time. We writers are desperate for it. It’s lousy timing when the fun writing hour we save for ourselves gets nixed for an obligation. But when writing is one such obligation, suddenly we realize just how little daylight we have for family, work, and writing.

~*~

When the term started, my mother offered to watch the kids for a day so Bo and I could get out.

Bo offered to go off on his own. “You should use that time to work.”

My immediate thought: Yes, I should. Several hours of peace. No “Where’s Mom?” No forced interaction with my family…that just want a little time with me. Any time. 

Bo looked so tired. He fell asleep in the chair next to me yesterday, exhausted from his new double-shift life of ten hours at the postal service every day and Prime Caregiver every evening and weekend.

I set my screen aside. “Yeah, I should. But I need some time with you, too.”

~*~

Since neither of us were keen on the current films, we decided to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum–this time, for art we kinda actually knew.

20180113_124515

I partially kid. A traveling exhibit of early Modern works was in town. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, I’m afraid, so I can’t show you how unique the exhibit was. Much of the work consisted of early sketches and practice drawings; for instance, one Toulouse Lautrec sketch of a horse was bordered by various drawings of hooves, just hooves, because he was trying to capture them just so.

Seems a familiar practice between writer and artist, that constant running of the pen to find the perfect strength in chosen lines.

The other big theme in those sketches? Women coming out of the bath. Not bathing, but coming out and drying themselves. Always drying the legs, too. Well, I suppose armpits aren’t exactly a sexy location to sketch.

Anyway.

When I was a kid, the museum building consisted of a 50s rectangle made of gravel that is actually a War Memorial (I still can’t tell how), but since 2001 we’ve had the very fancy-pants edition of the Quadracci Pavilion. The outside is built in the shape of a bird, complete with wings that open and close.

The inside of the Pavilion is pretty swanky, too.

 

 

 

 

The art contained within is something of a quirky hodge podge. And I say this as a Philistine who never took a lick of art history in school, so feel free to turn up your noses at my ignorance on the subject. All I know is that if your chosen first impression on visitors is a giant trowel in dirt, “classics” are not going to come to one’s mind.

20180113_143526

Take this creature, for instance.

20180113_132221

Yes, that is a machine projecting a man’s face onto a balloon. He says things like, “Life is but a tunnel of darkness. Are we truly alive, or are we toys?” And yes, it’s all with a drowsy monotone.

20180113_125518

Is this normal, to have captions of guesswork?

20180113_125449

This Garden of Eden painting creeps me out. An attendant noticed me with my camera and mentioned that the dog had originally been covered by a bush, but in restoration they discovered him there in the corner. Just look at that thing. No one else is looking out at the viewer. Why that dog? And those eyes follow you everywhere in the room.

Creepy demon dog.

And some pieces…look, I don’t get super-modern stuff. I just don’t. When an empty acrylic case can be put on display as art, and labeled as such and donated as such, and things like big pieces of blue plastic are leaned against the wall and declared art, I just…

I like words.

20180113_13230920180113_132743

Not that all pieces are like this, to be clear. There’s this beautiful creation by artist Dave Chihuly in the Quad Pavilion:

20180113_143324

Some other pieces that are just plain neat, such as the powder-wig boys up for some badminton. (Yes, the maintenance fellow is a sculpture. He’s been around for decades.)

 

 

 

 

In our sojourning through the exhibits we came across a suitcase.

20180113_141823

I got super excited. I was determined to take a picture to show you all the inside: a pond swimming with life. A statue of a father’s feet can be seen, with part of a baby’s body, its toes just above the water.

20180113_141834

But try as I might, I could not get a good position. Bo reluctantly offered to hold information card about the sculpture. Here’s a little more information about the piece.

20180113_141848

Anyway.

I hulked over, on my knees, on my toes, shoving my camera in. Bo gave up on me and looked at another piece in the room.20180113_131621

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

Outside of my head, I slid backwards and whirled around the corner, poking at my phone under the guise of sending a text. A security guard walked briskly by as I approached Bo with my phone and said, “Did you see this? This is very interesting.”

Inside my head: “OH SHIT! They’re gonna fine me and ban me from art! Run for the post-moderns, RUN! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

Bo, of course, found this to be hiLARiuos. “You know, I can’t take you anywhere. You bonk your head into display glass at the public museum. You walked into a glass wall when we came here last year. Now you’ve got The Man after you.” He proceeds to then make “BEEP” sounds any time I try to take a picture.

A little later we came upon a strange room of pottery without captions. There’s a little model room display behind some glass.

20180113_140424

Hmmm.

Next to this little room is a bellrope marked “Pull.”

Hmmm.

“Don’t you touch that,” Bo said.

“But it says, ‘Pull.'”

“BEEP!”

“Shut up.”

“Well I don’t know you, Miss Whoever You Are.”

I pulled it.

(I know, I’m as bad as Alice in Alice in Wonderland.)

 

 

 

 

A recording started: a wee ghost stepped into the miniature room and described the pottery collection around us. It was neatly filmed: she pull pottery out of the trunk nearby, sat in the little chair, laid things on the table. Here’s a little more information about the room, as I’m clearly not doing it justice.

“See? I was supposed to pull that cord,” I declared triumphantly to Bo.

And proceeded to walk into the glass door of an uber-bright Spanish exhibit of “playful art.”

Bo laughed. And despite the annoyed security guards, I laughed, too. Because it’s moments like these make breaks from writing so very necessary.

We can’t create life in stories if we don’t live a little. And sometimes that living does seem little–I’m not trying to rescue refugees from Mexico. I’m just going to the art museum with my husband.

But it’s in these everyday moments that we remember what it’s like to be around other people, listen to other people, roll our eyes at other people, skee-daddle from other people. It’s in such moments that we remember what it means to hold another’s hand, share a smile, tell a joke that sets the other groaning. And through these everyday moments we find new imagination to channel into our worlds.

So don’t forget to take a break, writers. That giant green ceramic chicken ain’t gonna rock itself.

20180113_13532820180113_135344

 

 

Lessons Learned from John Kaag: Re-Route, Re-Root.

Salvation can’t be accomplished in isolation.
-John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story

Words have a tendency to change meaning from profession to profession. In the world of  university adjuncts, for example, you may hear the words “professional development.”

We adjuncts hear “do this or ELSE.”

51Ek3onp4tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Such was the situation to bring John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story into my hands. I had to fill at least an hour of professional development OR ELSE, and I was tired of “how to keep students focused” kinds of webinars. A different department was holding a monthly book club, with Kaag’s latest being May’s choice.

I had “studied” philosophy in college, and by “studied” I mean I audited the 400-level course without any previous credits in philosophy courses. Yeah, not my brightest move. But it promised deep discussions with at least two really cute guys and the teacher was one of those rare men who by all appearances balanced philosophy and faith with ease. I was intrigued then. Don’t remember a lick of it now. But Kaag’s title brought that old intrigue back. Why not? I liked stretching my lit boundaries, and it would earn me a PD hour in the process. I contacted the PhD in charge: I’m in.

~*~

At one point, philosophers like Pierce could determine the very language we use. They had the power to define reality. (25)

“So yeah, I guess it was pretty good, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the narrator.”

“It was informative, but I just couldn’t root for the guy, you know? I mean, he left his wife. Why should I cheer for that?”

The Google Hangout felt way too much like grad school for comfort. It was the dust bunny-addled classroom all over again with cracked plastic chairs and classmates declaring a book unworthy of them solely because they didn’t like the main character.

I was stymied, and conflicted. Why such shallow comments? Why wasn’t anyone looking past this need to “cheer” a hero and not see the journey Kaag risked showing us? Because I understood this kind of journey. Any one buckled under by depression would.

“Yeah, I mean, talk about a first-world, white-privilege problem.”

~*~

May was not a good month in my house. Family crashed upon us in waves for not one, not two, but three parties for Blondie’s birthday. The church threw some extra duties my way because apparently no one thinks anything has to be done until mere hours before a major retirement dinner. Friends got married upstate, which meant more family gatherings to butter up the baby-sitting and to travel and to get back and to grade final projects and to START a new term and and and AND.

And, it was not a good month. When you’re an introvert, and would love nothing better than a few uninterrupted hours to read and write, this social storm nearly drowned me. Many nights ended in tears. My children noticed: on the “My Mommy” cards Biff and Bash made with their teachers, it was revealed that this is what Bash remembers more than anything:

20170613_114251.jpg

How did I respond? With sobs on the front porch. Fuck the neighbors, let them watch, it’s not like they have yet another conference about their sons kicking and fighting the teacher again, Mrs. S forgot this at church can you get it again, Jean we need to talk about the party food again, I need to clean the house again I need I need I need

I. Needed. Out.

So did Kaag. He does indeed leave his first wife, and he does indeed write about his alcoholism. Yet while my colleagues saw these as reasons to put the narrator down, I couldn’t help but think of my own postpartum depression, how my own marriage struggled with the arrival of children. Unlike Kaag, I couldn’t fathom writing about the purgatory my marriage wandered in for years.

Maybe another well-meaning American philosopher would find the library, but not the books. Maybe, on the drive back to my unhappy marriage, I’d get in the fatal crash I often imagined. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. (38)

I thought nothing of salvation and immortality at Durgin-Park, opting instead to drink myself senseless. At the end of the night I stumbled home and tried to convince my wife I wasn’t drunk. I was looking for help in all the usual places, all the wrong places. (14)

Motherhood: some days, it just fucking strangles the soul.

When that kind of feeling wraps round the heart, I knew I had to get out. If I didn’t, all the poison inside would dig itself in and suck my love dry. I lived through that once. Not going back there.

I envied Kaag his ability to simply uproot and begin again. What started as a small conference away from Harvard diverted to an exploration of self and of William Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher who gathered thousands of books and letters that together charted the roots and growth of American philosophy. In Hocking’s library, surrounded by old lives and skittering rodents, Kaag felt something new:

Alone in an empty library, in a deserted wood, in a nearly forgotten field of American philosophy, I felt momentarily at home. (32)

I’m betting that, for the first time a long time, he could breathe.

I’m familiar with such a moment.

~*~

But eventually I came across, quite by accident, what I desperately needed to find. (31)

Another fun piece to May was the road work that cut off my town from the town where Blondie’s school is located. Thank God for Google Maps–a new road to the north, and a cut through hilly farmland. On the way out of town I passed this sign: Charles Langer Family Park.

20170513_152136[1]

A park? Where? Farmland as far as the eye could see. For the kids, invisible = nonexistent, so we continued in our new ruts.

Then one day–in May, for like I said, all things happened in May–Blondie had to attend yet another birthday party, but this one was rather short. It wasn’t worth going home just to rile the boys up with “WHERE’S MOMMY GOING!?” when it was time to retrieve the girl. I could drop Blondie off and–gasp, read! But where to read? The library was packed with their book sale (not worth it). The riverside park was packed with geese, who don’t much care for human beings.

And then I remembered. And knew.

20170513_151939[1]

I watched the tractors work before driving on.

Where would this road take me? Considering the proximity of Madison, a small part of me hoped that I, too, would discover a forgotten library, or at least some literary treasure of equal awesomeness.

20170513_151358[1]

I parked. The place looked popular, but…no playground? At least the nature trail looked promising. Once again, I’m out before spring’s taken full effect. Oh, Wisconsin, you are so temperamental. Yet you cannot dim the sun’s magic cast upon the water and the leaves, nor can you silence distant birds, calling together. Perhaps that’s why these rocks were set up as an auditorium: for nature talks.

Ting!

I think nothing of the goofy metallic noises and watch the river.

20170513_151252[1]

I walked on.

The point, if one could call it that, was to experience the sublime in the mundane. And this experience, so common yet so rare, had intrinsic value, the sort of value that made a life worth living. (70)

Ting!

What the–

20170513_145030

DISC GOLF?!

You mean to tell me that my town, unable to support a grocery store or a pub or any normal amenity, can maintain a large, gorgeous disc golf course?

I couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I pissed off one couple, who seemed to be doing this as a date (she sure looked thrilled) and a group of hipsters from Lord-Knows-What-Suburb.

I kept walking, and laughing, probably looking a little crazy, surely feeling a little crazy, but the more I walked along old tree roots, the less I felt like drowning. I was on dry land after all, with life still moving forward if I didn’t clean that day, if the retirement table wasn’t ornate enough, if the cake wasn’t to my in-laws’ preference. The kids would fight, but they’d hug, too. They’d wrap their little arms round me so tight, so strong, and hug until I laughed myself out of breath.

kids

And it occurred to me: I was breathing.

Ting. 

For all the love and wonder we hold for words, there is a time when words are the last thing we need. Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves up and away to a place so utterly outside of our normal, we can’t not take it in.

20170513_145708[1]

Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
-J. Kaag