#writerproblems: #technology #grief

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I stand in line at Geek Squad. Again.

The staff has grown accustomed to me over the past year, after my old workhorse of a Toshiba laptop died. Bo and I had just gotten a new desktop to replace the dead one; the budget for yet another technology expense was not there. But Bo couldn’t deny the need for a laptop–if I couldn’t, I couldn’t keep my job.

So when the staff, already astonished my Toshiba lived eight years, pointed to a Lenovo on sale for under 200 bucks, I bolted for a box and checked out. It’s not like I needed anything more than bare bones.

Silly me that “bare bones” meant a computer screen that turns off when I have more than four tabs open online. “Bare bones” meant a power cord port that breaks after six months. “Bare bones” meant a memory card that’s soldered onto the hard drive, so I couldn’t get a bigger memory card. “Bare bones” meant a memory that’s so shitty it couldn’t even function with Microsoft Office downloaded because Office is too big and I couldn’t delete the Office programs like OneNote or Access because Office is a UNIT. You want a taste of Word? Then you swallow Office whole and like it, bitches!

Barely a year owning the laptop–yes, just after the warranty expires–and I’m in line at Geek Squad because no power cord of any kind will work on the laptop now. It’s down to its last ten percent of battery. Windows 10 refuses to properly update due to lack of memory.

I put the Lenovo on the table. Again.

The Geek tries my cord. Goes into the back. Tries one of their cords. Then shrugs. “Yeah, you’re not gonna find anything. It’s a cheap computer. You need to spend at least five hundred to get a good one.”

End of service.

Fuuuuuck.

Just having the money to get the kids shoes is a problem. All three needed new sneakers this spring. That’s a hundred bucks right there.  The boys shredded half a dozen pairs of jeans this winter.

At least they’ll have cutoffs galore for summer.

I’m happy to wear stuff until the holes are so prominent I could be arrested for indecent exposure. I’ll eat what everyone else hates, what’s expired. Hell, I’m starting to give plasma to help cover the grocery bills.

Where the hell’s five hundred bucks going to come from?

~*~

If your only knowledge of pastors comes from the televised evangelists, you might assume pastors are quite the affluent folk.

If you know what a rural church is like, you know how that’s utter bullshit.

Every dollar counted at home. We lived on the hand-me-downs of relatives, on rummage sales, on gifts from farmers. Christmas meant presents from the elderly of our church, rarely from our parents.

So the useful going unused always stings me. All the more for my mother, as much of my father’s things still stand, sit, lay about. His books on doctrine. His comics. His carefully gathered Dr. Who canonized novels. His thousands of recorded sermons, bible studies, coloring pages for Sunday School. All just…sitting.

But today we’re not looking at those things. Today Mom’s pointing to a little Lego display Dad had in his study of Lex Luther in his robot fighting Superman and Wonder Woman. “Think Blondie would like this for her birthday?” she asks.

“Of course!” I say, happy every time Mom’s able to let something go without tears. I glance at Dad’s crown, wishing I could ask for it, but I know Mom still uses it with her own students.

I spot something else.

Dad’s computer backpack.

“I thought Pierce took Dad’s laptop.” Dad had bought a Sony Vaio the year before he died. Spent at least a thousand on a top model, knowing he’d need it for producing services for local broadcasts, bible study presentations, liturgy projections, the lot. Thankfully the church covered a chunk of the cost. That’s probably what kept Mom from going crazy about the price tag.

“He did. He tried to use it, but, you know. It’s hard for him.” Mom sighs and moves a few preschool assessments across the desk. Dad’s old desk.

Yeah, it’s hard.

But sometimes we don’t get to leave something untouched just because it’s hard.

“Are you using it?”

~*~

The first thing I do is change the picture: Dad and Mom outside their mission church in the Dakotas. That much I must do, because seeing him laughing there and knowing my kids have forgotten what his laugh sounds like turns the skin beneath my eyes hot.

Much of the software’s out of date, but Office still works, everything still works. The battery’s not much, but an hour of work time in the car is better than nothing.

I scroll through the files.

There’s so many.

Pictures. God, the pictures.

Pictures of my childhood, of his. I’m seeing more relations here on a dead man’s computer than I have since his funeral.

Hymns he wrote. Sermons. Notes for come-and-gone weddings and funerals.

A newsletter he was working on for Mom’s preschool to be handed out the month he died.

So many writings, begun.

Unfinished.

~*~

“Dad’s computer working okay for you?”

“Great. It’s really helped a lot.” I don’t tell Mom about the scraps of Dad I found in the backpack: post-it notes about contacting Grandma’s doctor. An old bulletin with bio stats and hospital info, all in Dad’s thin, clipped scrawl. I doubt Mom ever looked inside his backpack. I wonder if Pierce even made it so far as to open the laptop itself, with Dad’s highlighters and notes still jumbled up in the power cord.

“Good. It just seemed so wasteful, sitting here.”

I don’t tell Mom I still feel like I’m borrowing this technology with the intent to return it to Dad, say thanks. Share the struggles I’ve had with parenting, faith, maybe even writing.

But Dad’s heart broke a few months shy of his 60th birthday. Despite repair after repair to his throat, his stomach, his legs, one bad break rendered the whole lifeless.

End of service.

~*~

“Ooo, Mommy, you got a new computer!” Blondie peers over from her sketch of the Nautilus. After reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Bo, she’s fascinated with technology altered by fiction–especially if it involves a church organ. “What’s the sticker for?”

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I’ve put such a sticker on every laptop I own, A) because I love the coffee, and B) because it separates this one thing from all the other stuff in the house. I’m the only coffee drinker. Bo hates laptop-sized keyboards. Blondie wants a mouse when she plays computer games. Don’t ask what the boys do with a working piece of anything.

Now Dad’s good and faithful servant holds chunks of my own fiction, analyses, and interviews. It keeps me connected to my students. Right now it’s letting me type this post while “attending” a meeting about cornerstone projects in liberal arts education while also pulling Bash off of Biff in a fight over worms and dump trucks.

My words may not be poetic hymns or thoughtful sermons, but they are filled with study, feeling, and imagination. And now they share a space, however small, with the words of my father.

I think Dad would like that.

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#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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#Writing #Music: (Occasionally) Patrick Doyle

I love my husband.

I really do.

He knows me so well: his Christmas gifts to me consist of books, music, and a good mystery series. Even the candle is scented “Oxford Library.”

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But I hold up the CD, and scowl.

“Hey, it was on your wish list.”

“That was before I saw the movie.”

“And now you have something to remember the movie by.”

“The book doesn’t count?”

“No.” And off he goes to read his new compilation of Dick Tracy comic strips.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to write about music that is uninspired, but after seeing the latest film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express with dear writer-friend Ben Daniel ParmanI just can’t understand what Scottish composer Patrick Doyle was going for here. If one didn’t know the film, one would think I’d been given the score to a Hallmark made-for-television movie about railroad workers struggling with love or grief or blizzards or grief-loving in blizzards or blizzards in love or…you get it. It’s music that does not speak to its icon of a detective, Hercule Poirot. It is music that does not speak to its historic period of the 1930s. It is music that does not speak to the claustrophobic tension a snow-bound train car creates. It’s just…there. White noise to the mystery. And while some mysteries revel with distraction, a mystery–or any story, for that matter–cannot afford to annoy its audience. Which this music does. Exceedingly.

In his defense, Patrick Doyle isn’t all bad. Take his score for Brave: it has some lovely moments of both epic scope and intimate character reveal.

From what I see on Doyle’s IMDB page, the man’s collaborated with Kenneth Branagh for, goodness gracious, over twenty years. And I’m sure many of those scores are lovely. But as any author will have her clunkers, so will a composer occasionally make bland music.

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is creating the right ambience around me so I can, well, create. When the boys are trying to shove each other into the wall, when Blondie’s whining she doesn’t know what to do with herself, when the laundry and dishes and course work and cooking and….you know. It all heaps upon you, not just visually, but audibly, too. Take this very moment: I’m trying to finish this blog in the kitchen while the boys fight over a toy and the girl’s yelling at them to be quiet while The Lego Ninjago Movie plays at an obnoxious volume. I’ve got my headphones on. I put on Orient Express, and feel absolute bupkiss. I put on Brave, and feel the hint of Elsewhere swirl about my mind’s eye. I put on The Hobbitand feel the adventure promised in misty mountains cold…

Seek on, writers. Find the music that transports you from daily life’s craziness and unfetters story-telling’s power.

 

 

#writerproblems: Tripping On Plot Holes.

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Nothing irritates readers and writers alike like a plothole.

Take the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. When Lupin and Sirius Black confront Harry, Hermione, and Ron, they talk about the Marauder’s Map and how it never lies. This is how they realize traitor Peter Pettigrew is not only alive, but disguised as Scabbers, Ron’s pet rat.

harry-potter-marauder-s-map_a-G-14088189-0.jpgHow do Lupin and Sirius know about the map? Because they made it. Their nicknames—Mooney and Padfoot—are on the front. The book makes this a neat little reveal.

I doubt whether any Hogwarts students ever found out more about the Hogwarts grounds and Hogsmeade than we did….And that’s how we cam to write the Marauder’s Map, and sign it with our nicknames. Sirius is Padfoot. Peter is wormtail… -Remus Lupin, Chapter 18

The movie completely ignores it.

Without this reveal, movie-goers are left to wonder why on earth Lupin and Sirius know how the map never lies, let alone how it works. There was a special trick to opening it Harry had to learn from the Weasley twins. In this film, there’s no reason given why any adult should understand the map.

Such plotholes infuriate because they can be so easily mended with just a line or two. Just look at that excerpt from the book: three sentences provide all the explanation we need in regards to Lupin and the map.

Madam_Rosmerta_Cornelius_Fudge_Minerva_McGonagallTake another bit of the film version. Thanks to the invisibility cloak, Harry overhears Professor McGonagall talking to Madame Rosmerta, owner of The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, about the murder of Peter Pettigrew by Sirius Black. We get two crucial pieces of information: All they found was Peter’s finger, and that Sirius is Harry’s godfather. This scene only lasts a minute or two. There’s maybe half a dozen lines said. But these lines help provide some major plot points to the story: why Sirius seems to be after Harry, and how evil Sirius (supposedly) is. Without this scene, the audience wouldn’t know of any motivation of any kind for Sirius to act as he does. So why on earth couldn’t they take the time to connect Lupin and Sirius and the map?

To ignore a plothole, any sized plothole, is not only a disservice to the story, but careless, too. Why should readers care about a story when the writer can’t be bothered to care her/himself? Especially when so often these little plotholes can be fixed with just a line or two.

I discovered a similar situation in my own novel, Fallen Princeborn. My heroine initially asks a secondary character for her phone to contact a family member. One chapter later, she’s using the alarm on her smart phone. Why on earth is she asking for someone’s phone when she has her own?

It’s a small plothole. I could ignore it. Gosh, I’ve been ignoring that inconsistency in every draft.

13140843But as my favorite author Diana Wynne Jones has said:

You are doing to read [your draft] and admire all the bits you like…but, while you admire, you will come across bits that make you sort of squiggle inside and say, ‘Oh, I suppose that will do.’ That is a sure sign that it won’t do….think hard about these bits, what is wrong with them and how they ought to go to be right.
“Some Hints on Writing”

Lupin only had to say, “The map never lies. I know, because I helped make the map.” Plothole filled. In my case, I’ve only to note the heroine’s phone battery died. Another plothole filled.

When you take your editor’s walk through your draft, don’t just squirm and ignore the plot holes, leaving them for others to trip on later. Don’t be careless. Give your writing the attention it deserves, and every step readers take through your story will be a pleasure.

A Little #Memoir #Music for a #Writer’s #Christmas

Christmas divides Bo and me in a few quirky ways. He’s all about the magic of Santa Claus, Spritz cookies in a rainbow of colors and sprinkles and chips made with his mother’s cookie press, Frank Sinatra crooning as he crumbles ginger snaps over a ham, bordered by mountains of peeled potatoes and veg and butter as he cooks the blazin’ jingle bells out of our kitchen.

For me, it’s all about the music, and that music has always started with a blast of Mannheim Steamroller at sunrise the day after Thanksgiving.

Amidst the groans and pillows thrown at the door to shut it, I could never stop smiling, because that music announced the Christmas decorations had been pulled down from the attic. It also warned us to keep out of the living room, for it was now littered with strings of lights Dad was determined to save, and branches for our ancient fake tree we so often managed to fill with action figures and plush animals before Dad gave up on those blasted replacement bulbs and got new sets.

Mom always helped with the ornaments as a precious vinyl played: Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. One song in particular could make her laugh no matter what had happened that day, and drew out the silly side we so rarely saw during a stressful school year. She even pulled this song out while my kids helped her decorate this year, and the four of them giggled and danced enough to shake the snowmen watching from her hutch.

For me, music ripples through memory and carries back the echoes of laughter past.

The insanity of Advent and Christmas preparations tossed baking aside as an impossibility. Did my brothers and I miss out? Oh heavens, no. What better gift for a pastor’s family than a plate of cookies/gingerbread house/cookie bars/brownies/anything sugary? Our screen porch would quickly fill with gifted treats from our congregations. We could have made whole meals off of cookies until Lent. 

For me, stepping onto the cold wood into a sugary kingdom of plastic wrap and frosting always carried a hope for a glimpse of snow. See, snow’s not a common visitor in Wisconsin during December. Lord knows why: we get it at Halloween, often at Thanksgiving, sometimes as late as Easter, but in my three and a half decades on this planet I can only remember a handful of white Christmases. So when snow falls, thickly and heavily, it is a true Christmas miracle.

Christmas Eve Night has always carried the most magic.

For me, we had no Santa–not because my parents were against Santa, but because it just wasn’t practical in our house: we always opened our gifts Christmas Eve night after all the services were over. When I was small, though, and living in a small hunter’s town in the North Woods, we’d visit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to tell him what we wanted for Christmas.

No, I’m not making that up. No, I don’t know why renting a Santa suit and setting up a neat little booth was more difficult than constructing a giant puppet theater/stable with a great black sheet behind this giant, car-hood sized head of Rudolph with a red nose the size of a fist and a mouth that barely moved. (I sifted through all the photos in my house for an image, but alas.) I can’t remember much of those visits, but to this day my mother gives us a little something from Rudolph.

The magic of Christmas Eve night has always come with music.

After a day in itchy stockings and awkward dresses, sitting in church pews chanting “In those days Ceasar Augustus issued a decree,” running laps around the classroom while teachers stuffed us with Kool-Aid, cheese, and Hershey kisses only to go back into the church for another round of “that a census should be taken of the enTIRE ROMAN world,” fighting off the other kids for your coat and those aren’t my mittens Mommy someone’s got my right boot…after getting a ride home with Grandma and Grandpa and stepping into the house because Mom and Dad have one more candlelight service at church:

The door opens to the Christmas tree, glowing with thousands of lights. The whole house smells of chili and spiced apples from the kitchen, simmering all afternoon. The Advent wreath candles glow upon the table laden with Great-Grandma’s china and crystal.

And music: Dad always has music, often choirs, singing softly all day long.

To enter twinkling lights, savory scents, and sweet harmonies brought Christmas’ magic to life in me and around me. Add Grandma’s laughter, Grandpa’s turns on the piano, the long-awaited sound of the garage that meant Mom and Dad are home and at last, long last, it’s time for presents and sweets late into the night…

Music always flows around us, but its power heightens with Christmas. May the sounds of the season enchant your Christmas, wherever you may be.

 

 

 

 

Hard #Blessings

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Not my family. Too expressive, don’tcha know.

Summer sweat is always sweetest for the mosquitos on a Wisconsin farm. They grow fat on the lot of us, sitting in the tents my mother’s cousins constructed for the 80th H- Family Reunion. Gone are the days of riverboat races, volleyball tournaments, grill talk, and smoke-rimmed cackles. Many of the original siblings–11 in all–have become one with the Rock River farmland they so dearly loved. Yet still the cousins come together this one weekend in the year, dozens upon dozens of them, to meander through the past and catch up on the new generations. In the pauses between socializing, families tend to regroup: restock their coolers, check on their casseroles for the dinner, mind the children dumping bubble solution everywhere, nap under the maple trees, and so on. During one such pause I sit next to Mom and her boyfriend, sharing cookies and lemonade with Blondie, listening to the drawls and old laughter, when my elder brother Pierce speaks:

“Did you know Grant hasn’t made up his mind about The Call to Milwaukee yet?”

I flick an ant off Blondie’s cup and purse my lips. I do not want to be the first to answer.

Thankfully, Mom complies. “I know, I talked to him last night.” She reaches for James’ hand. Some walks into the past require a strong hand to hold. “Figuring out where God wants you to go. And it’s not just you, it’s your whole family, even though The Call is for you. It’s…it’s hard.” Blondie leans in on the pause to make a silly face at her grandma–she can sense Grammy’s sad voice from across the picnic table. “Every time your dad took a Call, I thought, ‘Okay, where does Bea fit this time?’ Like I was boxed up with the rest of his books. Unpacked at his church office.” White Christmas lights in the shape of an “80th” flicker behind her. “It’s hard,” she says again.

I kiss Blondie’s head, and wonder how she’d have handled it: to find out she has to leave her home, school, and friends because a church Called Daddy to be their pastor and Daddy said yes, so it’s time to box everything up again, won’t a new school be exciting again. To do that all, just, again.

It’s hard.

~*~

When Grant was old enough to say he wanted to be a pastor, and not be answered with a “That’s so cute!” from old ladies, Dad reminded him, and all of us: “Your family has to be a part of it. You can’t just make these decisions on your own. Any time your mother stayed quiet and insisted I had to decide, and I decided to accept, she’d be so angry she wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. One time it lasted a whole year.”

Pierce had little to say on the matter, being undecided about college and life yet again. My own direction in English, writing, and teaching outside the ministry had been grudgingly accepted by this point. Grant was still in high school. He still had a choice.

Are you sure you want to get into all this? I’d say in those rare moments the two of us were alone. Always working. Practically no time off. Almost always broke. Never really sure where you’ll be in five years. And what if you have kids and stuff? You know how damn hard it is. You, of all people, know how they’re almost never home, and even when they are home, they’re working on shit.

Grant’s face was often quiet in these times: his forehead smooth, mouth a line, brown eyes not quite in focus on the present. Facial hair struggled to frame his baby face, but to no avail.

I know. But it’s important, too. I want to help people. And there’s a lot of people who need help.

I did my damndest not to call him crazy.

~*~

Today, a few days before Thanksgiving, I write without fear of mosquitos. I write without my father, who’s last Call came from God Himself three years ago. I write without my kid brother, a pastor himself with a wife, kids, and a mission in Arizona. The possibility of seeing him more than once in summer is always impossible. Too much to do with outreach in the town, and don’t forget the special services, the bible studies, and now his firstborn’s in school, just so much to do…

Some blessings sure as Hell don’t feel like blessings. Pierce and Mom were both deeply disappointed Grant didn’t take The Call to join a team of pastors in a mega church here in Wisconsin. No more running everything solo. No more 80+ hour weeks. Surrounded by family and friends. Perfect, right?

Yet Grant said no.

Because some blessings are meant to be hard. Yeah, Grant’s on his own in a mission, but the church has blossomed under him and his family. Yeah, we moved around a lot, but every time, we connected with at least a few others who were feeling just as cut off, just as unsure of things. Such friendships would never have been made if not for these Calls to pack up, move forward. Yeah, I endured years of abuse. Yeah, I struggled for years with postpartum depression. But I’m still here. I now know what disguises monsters wear among us. I now know what it means to fight oneself, and win.

These blessings are the forge of the soul. They are what burn us, bend us, beat us down again, and again, and again, until that moment we think that surely we are too brittle, we shall break, we cannot take anymore–it is then we realize:

We are unbreakable.

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Where Some See Ignored #History, #Writers See The Beginnings of New #Fiction.

An Indian Summer gripped Wisconsin for far too long this September. Mosquitos rejoiced, trees clutched their green leaves. It was even hot enough to go to the beach for my mother’s birthday. But no heat wave would thwart me this year. I would have my fall foliage pictures no matter what Mother Nature said, dammit!

So when Bo suggested getting one more weekend at the family cabin up north, I gave an emphatic “YES!” Trees galore, beautiful lake, a well-timed cold-snap. Awesome, right?

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Just look at that gorgeous blue water. Surrounded by green leaves. Grumble grumble.

But there was no denying the joy of a lakeshore littered by wee rocks. Bo and Blondie worked on skipping stones. Biff and Bash enjoyed their “fireworks”–aka, throwing clumps of sand into the air over the water.

Bo knew I was disappointed. “Did you want take pictures of the fish hatchery for your blog?”

(Insert irritated glare here.) “No.”

The weekend over, we stopped at a nearby town for gas, coffee, and a playground before heading home. We passed something we pass so often when visiting this town, and an idea hit me:

“Can you handle the kids at the park for a little while?”

“I guess. What’s up?”

“I want to take some pictures.”

“Of what?”

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Many immigrants of German descent came to Wisconsin, which is why this state had such a large number of breweries for a while. Unlike the others, however, the Tiger Brewery has never been torn down, even though it’s been out of use since the 1930s.

 

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It’s not for public entry. It’s not a museum. It’s just…a monument? That requires power lines, and blinds in the windows?

 

I take care with my camera when I near the occupied house next to the brewery. Perhaps they’re the caretakers, or neighbors who loathe snoopers.

But I can’t help but wonder about this place. It’s not falling apart, it’s not technically in use. In this town, it doesn’t seem to be anything. Why leave it alone? Why not enter it, and invite others to do the same? What’s in there people can’t look at? What’s hiding in there? What is this town protecting? Even the apples hang forgotten, rotten, from its trees.

 

One window board upon the tower flaps open. Bet there’s a stairwell in there to the top, and even to the underground. Deep, deep into the earth, beneath the river running behind this ignored place, deeper still where another forgotten world awaits, where eyes blink in darkness and long nails dig through stone, hunting…

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Perhaps your own town has a similar street, where life hums at sunrise and sunset, but is otherwise left to a breezy quiet. What hides among the normal? What is the price this world pays to ignore its presence? What…where…when…who…why, why, why….These questions fly by us as leaves caught up in the wind.

Give chase, and don’t look back.

#Writers, Find the #Adventure in No-#Writing Time.

“Didn’t you know school’s cancelled for today?”

My sons’ backpacks sit alone by the door. My car is the only one in the parking lot. Biff and Bash ask yet again where the other kids are, why can’t they say hi to Mrs. L., why can’t they stay…and I’m wondering all these same things inside, but outside I say, “No, I thought, you know, since they had three days off last week, they had school this week.”

“Oh, never for parent-teacher conferences,” Mrs. A., says with a wave of her hand and a doughy grin. She’s the shape of a cupcake, and just as sweet–Bash adores her, which has helped make the shift to a new school all the smoother. But out of two months, the boys have only had three full weeks of school. There’s always been something to cancel pre-school: screenings, conferences, in-service. For all the teachers’ talk about routine and structure, how on earth is a kid supposed to know that structure if his school can’t function for more than a week at a time?

I could go on. I was ready to go on then, but another parent had come for conferences. I had to figure out what the hell to do with two little guys who didn’t want to leave. The playground was still wet from rain earlier that morning, the air chilly. But by the look of them running up and down the halls, locking them indoors was out of the question. So:

Nature walk!

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I take them down the path I visited alone just a few weeks ago. It was a peaceful refuge then.

Now, not so much.

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“Mommy, I can give the forest raspberries!”

Yes, I suppose so, Biff.

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Bash takes a break from his hunt for caterpillars and wooly bears. I try to tell him it was too cold, but he would not be daunted.

Keeping up with these two is nigh impossible, and there isn’t much for color…

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But I remembered my foolish disappointment from cloudy days before. Even in these days, where autumn wraps itself in a mourning shroud, I find life.

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Even in the days we have no control, the days where writing time is all but forgotten, there is life. There is life with the little ones who imagine worlds all their own…

“Mommy, this is where we go up!”

Up where, Bash?

“Up into the trees! We’ll walk into the sky!”

Biff is skeptical.

Yet there it is: a story. We could sit and tell a tale of a boy who walked the trees into the sky, who found his wooly bears and caterpillars, who helped them become the rainbow butterflies of dreams.

We could sit. And talk.

Or we could explore and see what else awaits us round the bend.

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It is such a day as this, filled with raspberries, chilled fingers, and leaf-covered suckers, that remind us the no-writing time is just as important as the writing time.

Never squander it.

Conflict of Interest

“Don’t waste your time on something you don’t care about,” Michael Dellert warns as I pour through my old posts on Diana Wynne JonesMy presentation for N– University’s Literary Conference is in just a few days. The theme for 2017 is Lessons Learned–perfect, right? Half of what I do on this site is share lessons I learned from novels. If someone could present on the costume design changes in Pride and Prejudice films at a LITERARY conferencethen surely, I was fine with my collection of past lessons.

But I want to be better than fine, dammit. I want to prove I’m not just another schlub trying to get an hour or two of professional development. I want my colleagues to see that I give a damn about myself as a reader, and as a writer.

I receive notice of the conference schedule: my nonfiction reading is midday. My DWJ presentation is just after Blondie’s school gets out.

Four hours apart. I’m solo with the kids. Bo can’t get out of work. I can’t hire a babysitter for that long when the presentations themselves are barely twenty minutes each. My appeal for a schedule change is denied. If I’m going to do it, I have to do it with the kids, and trust them to not burn the house down.

~*~

I’ve written before about the rare gift that is time for writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever said how bloody hard it’s been to maintain a job while being a full-time parent, let alone a job like college adjunct. Maternity leave, vacation? Those words mean nothing for those paid only $1,700-3,000 for a semester’s worth of class. If you take a break, you are out of the loop for upcoming courses, and Lord knows when you can get another one. I graded student outlines hours after giving birth to my daughter. I hauled myself from the hospital room to a computer lab during the boys’ first day in the world to lead a discussion on critical reading. A term only lasts a few months, and you don’t know if you’re teaching the next term until it starts. As far as stable employment, it’s about as unstable as it gets.

The ability to teach from home made it tolerable, in its way. I could do schoolwork when kids slept. Audio classes only happen once a week, so I scheduled those for when Bo was home, or when the kids were in bed for the night.

But as the kids got older, they needed more of me. And more. And more. And the postpartum depression snicker-snacked through, and creative writing gave my soul strength…at the cost of more time.

Which, until that point, had been for school work. You know, the thing that earns the grocery money around here.

~*~

“Can we go to the library after school?”

“No, Mommy’s got a special presentation for her school today.”

“Let’s go to the park!”

“No, Mommy has to talk to other teachers today.”

“But I don’t wanna go home!”

None of them want to go home. It’s a beautiful day, Blondie just finished her first day of 2nd grade, but Mommy can’t care. She’s got to drive through construction while dodging the books flying in from the back seat because we’re not going to the park, we’re going to fight, we never want to go home….

“Here, watch Dragons,” I give Blondie a kiss on the head as I hop over a pile of wrecked cars to open the DVD player. “When my presentation’s done, I want to hear all about 2nd grade.” Because I do want to know, but that presentation just eats the forefront of all thoughts. Don’t forget to mention this, and note that book, and make this reference to that event, this thing about her father, that quote about Tolkien.

“Snack?” Biff throws himself at the rocking chair where his posse of Blanket, Grandpere, and Mel the Koala await. “Let’s have a snack. Fruit Loops!”

“Can I go outside?” Bash asks as he runs out the screen door.

“Bash get in here NOW! Fruit Loops and Dragons, come on, dude!” I say as I hoist him up and under one arm while thrusting the door open and I’ve got FUCK ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES.

Cereal dumped in bowls. Dragons on. “I’ll be in my room. Just…please, sit nicely, and stay inside. We’ll go outside and talk about school stuff when I’m done,” I say as I back-run down the hall, trip into the Mother’s Day flower Blondie had taped to my door. I use tape from one of the fishy Father’s Day pictures to fix it (“We’re hooked on you, Daddy!”) and then frantically press computer buttons. My mic is a go, I’ve got my notes set, T-minus two minutes…

“Mommy I WANT to go outside!” Bash stamps in the doorway.

“Jean, everything okay?”

“Fine!” I say into the mic as I hiss at Bash. “When. Mommy’s. DONE.”

“No. NOW!”

“Bash, I am not doing this now. Go watch Dragons.”

He fights as I close the door. He bangs the door. Kicks the door. Screams into the door.

“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Jean Lee as the next presenter of–“

Screaming triples. Blondie’s voice pierces: “Mommy, you have to open up! Open up NOW!”

Oh for fuck’s sake–

“Jean, is something wrong?”

“I am so sorry, just one moment while I deal with…” I have no word for what I’m dealing with. I’m too angry, nervous, frustrated–all the things I feel when the boys erupt and try to destroy something a family member’s done for them, or when they lash out at a complete stranger for coming too close. I rip open the door, where all three of them stand with tears streaming down their faces.

“Biff threw a toy at me. And Dragons is done.”

“And I am in my meeting right now, and you’re just going to have to handle it.”

“No I don’t, YOU have to!” Blondie says with all the authority a seven-year-old musters.

And I’m…I’m done. “No. You have to work it out with Biff. Bash, move.” And I close the door in their faces. Lock it.

The banging is downright thunderous. Comments have sprung up in the presentation: Uh oh, someone’s in trouble. Oh those poor little guys! Sounds like someone misses Mommy. Etc.

“Again, I apologize for that delay.” I can barely hear myself above their roar. I carry my books in one hand and the computer with the other into the bathroom, where I close the door.

This professional, literary conference. This chance to showcase research and criticism to colleagues. Me, presenting next to the toilet.

~*~

Twenty minutes later, I open the door. Screaming and fighting: over. Biff plays with cars in the boys’ room. Blondie’s door is shut, but I hear her talking to her “pet puppies.” Bash sits alone, sniffling, rubbing his eyes, legs and floor littered with shreds of construction paper.

“Bash, what did you…” My voice crumples. Tears.

The door is bare.

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