#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.

34043886Light 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.

 

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Monday…

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…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.

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“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…

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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.”

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#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.

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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.

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Take this creature, for instance.

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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.

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Is this normal, to have captions of guesswork?

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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–

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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.

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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.

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

Expectations & Derailments

The railway lines of Wisconsin are old and fragile, like the veins on a grandfather’s hand. Few are used for freight, even fewer for people. One runs parallel to the county highway I drive weekly to take Biff and Bash to school. Unable to work with a dead laptop,  I milled about, catching a few lousy photos on that lousy grey day.

When Bo had decided to take a few days off, I told him I needed him to do more with the kids so I could work. I expected swathes of time to revise the website, write several chapters of Middler’s Pride, and establish realistic writing goals with essay revisions and book proposals. “I need BIG chunks of the day. Six to eight hours, at least,” I said. “Okay,” he said.

Well, guess what didn’t happen. Did I let Bo know it? You bet your ass I did. Every night: “I needed to get that done.” “You’ve got to handle the kids more.” “Can’t you take them out? I need to get stuff done.” “Dammit that should have been done by now.” The days sped by, and what happened? A little bit of reading, barely any writing. And of course, if lack of time wasn’t enough, both computers had to up and die.

Enough pictures. The wind hurt my cheeks like matchbox cars wielded by angry sons. Where was I even going to put these? It could be a week before we have a computer running properly at home. Never mind writing, how the hell was I going to teach?

Fuck never mind. Who was I kidding? Even when Bo had off of work, I couldn’t accomplish shit because the boys hoisted everything at me. How in Heaven and Hell did I think I could make a writer’s life for myself when my family needs ME, and needs me NOW. I may as well have picked up the rails at my feet, slung them over my shoulder, and plopped them by the Rock River to make a fun little bridge, perfect for a child’s adventure into another…

Stop it. The Motherhood Line never veers from its goal. Any car that runs its rails better be Mother-related, or it gets left on a siding to rot.

~*~

The lousy day turned to a lousy night. My black mood put Blondie on edge. She hovered on some invisible border, watching for an in. “Mommy, can I do the dishes?”

“No.” I didn’t even look at her as I clanked a new pile into the sink. “They’re fragile.”

“But I wanna help.”

Clank. Rinse. “You can help by keeping your brothers out of my hair.” Clank. Rinse.

She slid back to her chair, face down.

Bo came over from laundry. “I can do that,” he said with a hand full of clothes.

“What are you–” I snatched what was in his hand. “These can’t go together. This is a delicate, and this needs to go in a bag first.” Back to the clanking, rinsing. Thoughts washed in gunk that stuck fast: He PROMISED to help and he fucking DIDN’T, HE failed me, it’s HIS fault, I could have done more if Bo would have fucking stepped the fuck UP

Everything grew so rank inside I couldn’t even read to Biff and Bash. Instead, I complained about what never got done, what has to get done tomorrow by some miracle of God, that I was stupid to think I could even do this writing shit in the first place–

Bo rushed the kids to bed, hardly closing Blondie’s door before hauling me into the living room, kicking the boys’ Thomas trains aside to make room for my ass. “Stop. That. NOW.”

I rolled my eyes at him. He didn’t get it, of course.

“For the love of GOD, dear…look. Just…why don’t you go somewhere tomorrow and work. Do your website,” he practically growled the words, “do your writing. Get out and do it.”

Huh? He had wanted his last day off to be for the two of us. Mom was taking all three kids for the day–no small offer, I promise you.

I could just see it: me in a silent place, new computer all set to go, hours for my work…but…”Don’t you want to go out tomorrow?”

“YES! Of course I want to go out with you! We haven’t gone on a date since what, July? But…fuck you’ll think me an asshole…but why should we bother?” He tossed a piece of train track into the bin, such a loud THWACK would surely wake the kids, if they’re not up anyway. “All you’re going to think about is what you didn’t get done. That’s all you’re on.” THWACK. “It’s like you can’t see how far you’ve come in one year. I mean, you got the blessing of Pete Townshend. You get to use songs by The FUCKING Who for your story.” THWACK THWACK. “You’ve got thousands of people on both sides of the planet”–THWACK–“reading your stuff but all you look at is what you should have done by now. Like nothing you do is ever good enough.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeves as he shoved the bin of train tracks aside. “I believe in you, Jean. But it’s fucking hard when you don’t even believe in yourself.”

My mind and lungs froze on the formation of those words from his lips: I believe in you.

Never had Bo said those words. When I started this all in 2015 he saw it as something to quiet my whines about not writing. Whenever my motherhood/teacherhood/depression threatened to quash it, he would go silent, blink it off, wait for the threat to solve itself, or for me to solve it.

But today, Bo believes in my writing. My writing, and of all crazy things: me.

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I had always thought this writer’s path, muddy, cold, and unknown, to be a lonely one. The further I’ve gone, the more I’ve met on this same path: others struggling against the elements of their lives to still press on and discover the treasured language we know is hidden up ahead.

That night, I found a hand I could hold, physically hold, on that path. I grabbed it then. It grabbed me back. And for a good long while we held ourselves together, glued by love, tears, and snot.

I’d given up long ago on finding support for my writing from within my family. I was faith-less, and without that faith, I was blind to the growing support Bo wanted to give me. He may never understand my stories, but faith isn’t built on logic, is it? It comes from Hope. Love. Joy. Sacrifice.

Jesus once said that if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.

I’ll settle for rails.

 

 

Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

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When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

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Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

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When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

In the hours before my in-laws arrived for Blondie’s Christmas service, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is  talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

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The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

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How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

#Lessons Learned from #CharlieBrown: #Dream Big, #Writers!

mv5bnte5nzmxnzkwnl5bml5banbnxkftztgwotq0nzk5nze-_v1_When one walks under the weight of depression, life itself aches. Despite therapy and the writing regimen both creative and confessional, I have felt little hope for the future. My school has me on reserve to teach not just 40, but potentially 80 students. Bo’s schedule has gone haywire, and we find ourselves in survival mode. I can’t get ten minutes’ peace on the computer when the boys were awake. The church wants me to do A, B, and C in a month–wait, actually 7 days. That’s fine, right?

All this over the past few months, plus taking notes on The Tellinga memoir about recovering from sexual abuse by @ZoeZolbrod, as I prepare to face The Monster of my own childhood.

A rather not-fun time here.

Music, thankfully, alters my insides for the better.

Desperate for a change from Veggie Tales sing-a-longs, I got a copy of The Peanuts Movie soundtrack. My folks both enjoyed Peanuts comics, toys, and cartoons, and that joy passed down to me and my kids. When word came of a new film, I remained skeptical.

Now? My whole family loves it, and I strongly recommend you watch it with or without little ones. Oh, the kids love it when Snoopy the World War I flying ace saves his beloved Fifi, and Bo enjoys all the tightly executed homages to the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas, but I see something else: I see the journey of a writer.

No, not Snoopy (though he’s quite the author with his typewriter!). Charlie Brown.

He’s the odd one out, the one never really understood by others. He keeps trying to succeed with his passions such as kite-flying, but just. Can’t. Do it. The same old obstacles, like the kite-eating tree, snatch his hope away. He’s scoffed and ridiculed by his peers. When a new kid–the little red-haired girl, no less!–moves onto his street, he is awestruck. All he wants is a chance to show her the real him, the Charlie Brown no one else sees.

“Charlie Brown is not a quitter.” -Charlie Brown

How many of us have felt misunderstood, simply labeled and discarded as hopeless cases? How many of us come down with “a serious case of inadequacy,” as Charlie Brown puts it?

He tries different things to impress her: he prepares a magic act, only to give up his chance so he can help his sister Sally instead. He learns to dance for the winter dance competition, only to slip and set off the sprinkler system. He spends the weekend reading War and Peace and writing a book report for their team grade only to watch his paper get shredded by a toy.

Time, and time, and time again he gives his all and gets nothing in return. Even the star he wishes on falls from the sky. All he can count on is his dog, who remains loyal and loving no matter the disaster. (Dyane, I can’t help but think of you and Lucy!)

When I hear Christophe Beck‘s piano melody for Charlie Brown’s moments of defeat, I’m on the verge of tears, especially here, during his school assembly.

And yet, despite all the hopelessness, Charlie Brown dreams on. He sees the success of another kid’s kite-flying attempt, and hopes for his own. Don’t we have those moments as writers, too?

Then, out of beyond-nowhere, the little red-haired girl wants to be his summer penpal. His. Charlie Brown’s. All he’s been through, all he was ready to give up on, and…and he didn’t even DO anything this time! Why, why now? She tells him: she had watched him and all he went through over the year, and felt him a friend worth knowing.

How many of us have reached out with words, and wanted nothing more than to feel a reader’s hand find ours?

Perhaps you’ve been feeling nothing more than the football pulled out from under you. That the world has deemed you a failure because:

“You’re Charlie Brown, that’s why!” -Lucy Van Pelt

Well, guess what? Charlie Brown may be gullible enough to still run for Lucy’s football, but he’s also a thoughtful, kind, and giving person who never gives up, no matter how many kites he loses. He dreams of a chance to meet someone who can see him for all he is and could be, not just his failures and shortcomings.

Dream big, fellow writers. Charlie Brown is worth knowing. So are you.

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Protected: #lessons Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: Face Myself.

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Three Mice Blind: A Q&A

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WAAAAY way back, Scotland’s gem of an author Shehanne Moore and her diabolical hamsters threw a ball full of questions my way. Tucked in among those questions was an award:

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I never realized Hamstah Dickens and his crew thought of me so highly, and my deepest gratitude to Shey for the honor. 🙂 Now, as for those questions…

What made you choose your current blogging platform?

Naiveté. After reading time and again of the importance of platform, and that all writers simply must have a website, I decided to see what forms were out there. After five minutes of half-assed research, it seemed WordPress was the most flexible with the imagery and text.

 Introduce yourself and tell us about your blog

(sheepish wave from the back of the room) Hi.

I’m Jean Lee. You meet me in the street, you’ll see me defined by marriage and motherhood. Appropriate involvement in church life and PTA. Part-time teacher.

But you’ve met me here, haven’t you?

Here, I struggle as many others do: to read, to write, to discuss both with an iota of intelligence. Also, in the hopes of easing the struggle of others, I share the music and landscape that inspire me so.

 Are you a once in a while blogger or a daily one?

Once a week is the best I can manage with the rest of life’s obligations.

 Do you wish to publish and if so, what type of book?

Publishing would be the shot to the moon, yes. As for type…not literary. That’s best as I can narrow down for the moment.

 What is your favorite thing to do besides write?

Read. The time to not focus on Life Out Here is one of the most precious luxuries a mother—and a writer—can have.

 ~*~*~*~*~

After these very professional questions, I came across the hamsters’ furry lines of inquiry.

What is your favourite line of poetry about a hamster? Oh okay, we mean a small furry creature, or animal.

Oh, dear. I’m not much for poetry…

Wait, dear hamsters! Don’t fly over the Atlantic and seek out my house! (stall stall stall) I will say that mice were primary characters in two of my favorite children’s books: Reepicheep in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Ralph in Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcyle.

Whew! Found a line from Seamus Heaney’s Squarings I marked long, long ago:

 What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul

-xxii

What was your favourite children’s book if it was not Mrs Tiggywinkle?

I didn’t know of Mrs. Tiggywinkle as a child (runs and hides). Seriously! When I was 8, I discovered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of all the stories I read in my formative years, I latched onto those the most. They influenced my taste in mystery and the love of murder described with a foreign accent. Sure, I still enjoyed the ripping good fantasy every, but the mystery became the epitome of Good Story. I even tried writing my own when I was a kid. Kind of hard when one doesn’t know the intricacies of human anatomy and forensic science…

 You’re in the forest. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s mysterious. Suddenly, the bushes part and there snarling before you is a savage, giant hamster. What happens next?

I drop the giant vegetarian wrap I was gnawing on and flee, screaming my little girly head off. I’ll storm to the local Field of Care Wizarding office, pound the door until the bugger wakes up, and file a complaint while talk-gasping my way through the paperwork, and then refuse to let him go back to bed until he’s followed me out and found the thing and given it a good talking-to for scaring me.

 Is there any place in the world you would like to set a book or poem and why?

Honestly, I’ve always been content with where I am. I don’t understand the draw to writing about urban life. Not that it’s bad, mind, but I’m not at home in the city, so unless I need that out-of-place feeling for a character, I’d rather avoid it.

No, Wisconsin’s always felt like The Setting, with the forests and farmlands, its forgotten roads and secret rivers.

You can have dinner with your favourite book hamster character. Who is it and what will the first course be? Recipes are welcome. Of course if you can’t find a hamster, just choose another animal.

See, here’s the thing about being a frugal Midwesterner: everything’s a casserole, or something that can eventually become a casserole. If you can’t just throw it into a crockpot (aka slow cooker) for eight hours and top it with cheese, it ain’t worth eating.

So when I’m asked what I would eat with someone, I am so totally caught off here that I have no clue what to say, because I can’t just say “leftover casserole.” (Though I have a feeling that Basil of Baker Street wouldn’t give a toss about what he eats, so long as he has the energy to keep working.) Hmm. Best play it safe, and say Mrs. Brisby and her children from The Rats of NIMH, and that we would share a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of tomato soup and a cup of cold milk, with chocolate chip cookie bars for dessert. (I, um, don’t do courses. It’s all and done.)

Forget all this hero stuff. You’re being cast as the villain and it’s your choice who you pick so long as they are from a book.

Well that’s full of all sorts of delightful potential. In terms of my reading experience, Livia from I, Claudius is the THE greatest spider ever to spin the villain’s web. She manipulates dozens of people over the course of several generations. As one character puts it, “Time means nothing to her.” Because her ambition is on par with her patience, she doesn’t care how slow others move, so long as they move in the direction she wishes and carry out the actions to which she leads them. Sure, the in-your-face-bwa-ha-ha villain is fun, and so long as he/she has a clear motive for being evil, I’m all for the volcano lairs and plans for world conquest. But the spider web…damn, that’s wicked fun.

What was the last book you read?

I recently finished The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee, which was recommended on Fiction Advocate. A vivid and entertaining read, though I never understand when a writer refuses to use quotation marks for dialogue.

 How much of you is in your characters or your poetry?

 I…I, um…

<Stop squirming and just skip, the little dudes won’t notice>

 Who or what inspires your writing?

Back when I was a child, the answer “who” was simple:

My dad, first and foremost. As a pastor, he was always writing his own sermons, liturgies, bible studies, and hymns. So often I would visit him in his office, typing on that god-awful blue DOS screen of Word Perfect. His voice was always beleaguered by allergies and acid reflux, but never his real voice: writing in sickness and in health, for the celebration of a marriage or a life passing on through Heaven’s gates. Writing fortified the soul against life’s terrors. So I, too, wrote stories, endless stories, and shared them with Dad. We’d sit in front of that blue screen for hours, talking about character and plot, just him and me.

But then I grew older.

Time to set aside the childish things, prepare for God’s Calling. God’s real gift to me was in music. Time to go to school, learn to be a music teacher. Play in church. Sing in choir.

But then I grew older, and set aside the music instead for prose.

Well. God’s children need good stories about Jesus and the power of faith.

But then I grew older, and started to write about the tarnished base of shiny Jesus school.

Why are you writing about that? That’s not a good testament of your faith, Jean. That’s not what people need to learn about Jesus.

My dad stopped reading my stories. I stopped offering. There was no point in sharing them with someone who no longer had faith in my writing.

And, I guess, that’s when my own faith died.

~~~

There’s a line in a Christian contemporary song (as opposed to a 15th century hymn) that came to mind as I considered walking away completely. Just, let the blog die. Pull the WIP out of my room, and pack it up in the basement. Pack away the childish things. Grow up. Focus on the little hands tangled in my hair and punching my thighs. I once wrote about my focus being torn into strips. It was time to sew them together. To piece myself together. Wasn’t it?

Anyway. The song’s line: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Those who inspire me and support me now, I have never seen face to face. Yet I know them better than blood relatives. Each has such beautiful imagery to share, be it photographs or prose. Life dictates to them, and yet they somehow maintain control, and drive themselves forward no matter what Life demands. No criticism stops them. Every trial is transformed into a newly discovered strength. This is why I nominate them for the Epically Awesome Blog Award, which calls for them to answer the non-hamster questions at the beginning of this post:

Dyane Harwood: Birth of a New Brain
https://proudlybipolar.wordpress.com/

Michael Dellert: Adventures in Indie Publishing
http://www.mdellert.com/blog/

Inesa MJ Photography: Making Memories
https://inesemjphotography.com/

Nathan Filbert: Becoming Imperceptible
https://manoftheword.com/

Peggy Bright: Where to next?
https://leggypeggy.com/about/

Shey, who’s already received the award, lifts me time and again by showing me her own journey, and that the trials encountered on the Writer’s Road are worth pressing through for the tribulations that await.

Another name comes to mind: a college friend, the only one who also writes, who told me to take on a new name and write myself into existence: Ben Parman: https://bendanielparman.com/

The friendship formed through theater and writing, then he went on to film school, I to grad school. His faith and homosexuality fought inside him for years; few saw the bloodshed’s toll. But for all the counseling, rehabilitation camps, family and friends, it was writing, really, that brought about the ceasefire. That writing transcended into a play: Starlings. I attended, and saw the facets of my friend reenact their war.

Perhaps that is what I need: a bloodletting.

Somehow, I have to uncover the faith I lost in myself. I cannot be a fighter until I do.

Tell us a bit about what you are working on now.

Which brings us here.

Normally, this question shuts me down. After all, what was I working on? The same damn WIP I started a few months after my daughter was born. She just turned 6.

Six bloody years on the same story. Adding characters, taking them out, changing pov, changing plot points, changing descriptions. Never happy. Never sure. Never ready to walk away because it just needs one more change, one more time and then I’ll start something new. Whatever that is.

I look at my story, and all I feel is embarrassment. Shame. I don’t want it out there with my name on it, any kind of name. It’s not worth anyone’s time. It’ll prove that for all the talk about writing, I am only that, talk. When it comes to finally showing what I can do, I’ll show I can’t. And for all the wishful language of writing and story, I am incapable of drawing any imaginative life from inside me onto the page.

But I can’t let the WIP go. It got me out of postpartum. It was the closest thing to light I had in the fog of those years, even though now I wonder if it was merely a trick my eyes played on my mind.

Those who can’t do, teach. And I do teach, but it’s just basics. Remedial writing. Hey, this is how to write a paragraph! Maybe we should focus on sentences, first…no a verb doesn’t work like that…

The basics. As basic as it gets.

Maybe that’s where I need to start. Everyone moves forward from a beginning. It’s time I did, too.

So I looked to a writer who’s done more to instruct me than all my undergrad and grad years put together: Diana Wynne Jones.

(Hush, like you didn’t know.)

I compiled all my posts about her from the past year (Good God, it’s been over a year since I started this) into a single collection. Her stories are a marvel in craft and imagination, not to mention just plain fun.

Hmm. Not quite done. Not quite done reading, true, but it’s the blogging that wasn’t done, either.

So I wrote two new pieces on the influence myth and her own traumatic past have had on her writing. They’re not for the blog.

They’re for you.

Whatever piqued your interest about my site, I humbly thank you. You’ve read, shared, and commented on my rambles week to week. You’ve made me feel my words are worth something after all.

You’ve helped me uncover the embers of my old faith.

But like a fire fairy, they are fast and fragile. If I grasp them too roughly, they’ll crumble in my fingers. If I chase them too quickly, they will fly out of reach, and become indistinguishable among the stars. So we will move slowly, you and I, beginning here.

Next week’s post will offer my Lessons Learned collection to those who sign up to follow me. Perhaps a word or two in them will bring a fire fairy to you.

Don’t let it get away.

 

 

 

 

Protected: Growing Pains

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