The Eight-Hour Author

Today, I sit alone in my house.

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Sunlight plays on the silver streamers left over from Biff and Bash’s fifth birthday. The breeze chills warm ground–Wisconsin, in transition.  Life is still lush and damp with dew that never quite dissipates, yet some of the older trees have already given up their leaves to gold and red.

Today, the school year has truly begun. Today, and now every weekday, all three kids will be in school.

Some of the time, anyway. Biff and Bash have begun attending preschool (aka 4K) in the afternoon at my town’s public school.

Today, and many days beforehand, I’ve been asked with a smile and a laugh, “Well, what are you going to do with yourself without kids in the house?”

For the record, I have not responded with my fist, damn tempting though it may be. No, I just glare, and say: “Work without vehicles flying in my face.”

Awkward pause. “Oh.”

Today, and God-willing for many days to come, I don’t want this time to be sucked up solely by teaching. It’s a fine excuse for people who don’t know I write, but for you, friends and strangers, you know how precious quiet time is. Day care is expensive. Babysitters take their cut. Family members willing to “help” would rather just sit and chat and watch you do all the parenting instead of the job you were supposed to get done. And once every child’s in school all day, you know your partner’s going to give you that look: the “now you can earn more income” look.

I know it. I already got it. And only by breaking down the time frame with the kids’ school schedules did Bo see that me taking on a 2nd part-time job just didn’t make any logistical sense.

So I’ve got one school year to prove that writing can and should be my second job. That I can I teach for a [mostly] steady income, meager as it is, while I strive to create, research, analyze, and reach out with my words to others…and ye gods, maybe get a little monetary compensation.

z8079-writerdayjob11-200x300So many writing manuals intend to guide you in making the most out of spare time: you can be a “night-time novelist”; you can “write your book in a weekend”; you can make more of mornings “without sacrificing the important things”; you only need help to “boost your productivity,” and so on. Let’s be realistic: with little kids, you don’t have a night-time, or a morning-time. Bash will get up as early as 5:30am and will sneak out of his bedroom long after bedtime to use the potty…and to talk. And sing. And wake his brother Biff, who gets equally ornery. Oh yeah, I have a daughter, too, she needs some attention. Plus I’m supposed to actually hang out with Bo at some point because of this whole “married” thing, so there’s my night gone anyway. Weekends are family time and when I teach my classes, so those are gone.

But today, and for every school day after, I have approximately 3 hours.

So, fifteen hours a week isn’t bad, right?

No, not even that.

Because we must, again, be realistic: I have to schedule appointments in those hours. I’ll have projects to grade in those hours. I’ll have to get off my sorry ass and do some walking or other exercise because writing ain’t exactly a move’n’groove activity.

So with the errands, the job, the drives to retrieve children from different cities, and the attempt to be healthy, I’ve got: eight hours a week for writing. At most.

I haven’t had that much time a week to write since before motherhood.

And unlike that time before motherhood, I will not waste the time I’m given.

 

Perhaps you’ve been struggling with this time management thing, too. Well, feel free to let me know how you maintain productivity, because I’m all for ideas and options. In the meantime, I’ve plotted thus far:

1. No social media during writing time. No scrolling, no “just checking quick,” no responding to those little infernal dings my phone makes. Unless it’s the police, Bo, or maybe my mom (maybe), the phone and social media sites stay off.

Woops! My half hour is up. Time to work on a story.

~*~*~

I’m back! Let’s see, where did I leave off…Ah yes, my attack plan.

2. Have project objectives for each day. Nothing depresses like a pile of unfinished work. I’m notoriously good at not finishing things: half-done crocheted blankets, half-organized book shelves, half-completed baby books, and so on. I’ve got some WIPs that have been sitting on my computer for years. Enough already. We’re getting those suckers DONE.

But again, reality here: nothing’s getting done at once. It’s going to take several hours to make decent headway on any old project. This doesn’t even include my current MG fantasy-in-progress Beauty’s Price, or the co-writing project “Eowain and the Boar.” Plus, I like writing here. And here takes time.

So let’s break the time up into wee snippets. I read in Writer’s Digest a while ago that 38 minutes is the ideal time to allot for anything; why that particular number I have no idea, but I’m really not far from that. By giving a project half an hour of the day, I can at least get somewhere on it before I move on to another task. So, I could write a little BP, work on the blog, send Michael some thoughts on E&B, and then edit a WIP for sending out. Nothing may get done in one day (like this post), but nothing’s getting ignored, either.

3. Experiment. Like the squeeze-your-arm-flab autumn sweaters I struggle with in a dressing room, I want to try on other styles of writing. They may also be equally pretty and irritate the bejeezes out of me, but how will I know unless I try? It’s been years since I attempted poetry. I’ve simply ignored flashfic. And outside of fantasy, I haven’t done much toe-tipping into other genres. Now I probably wouldn’t dedicate weeks to a poem, but half an hour? Sure, why not?

4. Be okay not writing sometimes. Aside from exercising, I do like getting out to take pictures when I can. I’m no professional, or even an amateur, but this place, this land where I live means so much to my writing state of mind: its hidden roads among the hills. The forests under siege by farms, and the farms under siege by suburbia. The marshes, the cities, the rock towers, the lakes. Together these elements make a world, rich and complete and all its own on the page. I want to share images of these places as best I can.

~*~*~

Day 3 on this entry. Yay, snippet-writing!

5. Start putting myself out there. In the past three years, I’ve queried all of three agents with an incomplete WIP. Yeah, not my smartest move. Repeatedly.

With these new hours, though, I’d like to both experiment and learn. One can’t be a published writer unless one actually, you know, publishes stuff. Traditional and online journals almost never take 10K-long stories, but essays and stories 1K and under would at least get a once-over before a refusal. During the school year I hope to get at least one short story published of my own creation. More would be awesome, but as I’ve learned the hard way, too many expectations promise derailment. I’m not making that mistake again.

I already have a story in the works to be published online with co-conspirator and fantasy author Michael Dellert. He’s invited my cantankerous Shield Maiden Gwenwledyr to hunt alongside his King Eowain in the holiday short story “Eowain and the Boar.” Can a pantser and a planner co-write successfully? “Eowain and the Boar” will be the experiment to find out.

Just as every moment with my children is precious, so is every moment I have to write. No more wasting. No more moaning. This is the time to create people and places. This is the time to explore and to chronicle. This is the time a Mommy can let her imagination run free. And unless the cops call that Biff and Bash are playing with chainsaws on the school roof, that’s just what what this Mommy’s going to do.

 

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie, My Children, & Batman: A Single Quirk Can Go a Looong Way.

When we create characters, we want them to be a person we can reach out, touch, talk with. And they must be more than mere dolls with that scratchy speaker embedded somewhere inside its stuffing that rasps out a limited number of lines. We want to create people who have thoughts and beliefs all their own. We want characters to be.

But how to grow such characters? Sometimes, one quirk is all it takes.

20170829_120446Take my kids, for instance. Bash often lays on his back with his legs crossed in the air. It’s a startling image: my father used to do the same thing all the time. Bash often crosses his legs while sitting, just as my father, grandfather, and uncles all did. It’s a strange habit that, once noticed, reveals a familial connection.

Blondie, my amazing girl: gifted with my memory for words and her father’s humor. A girl of giving heart…and also some of the worst traits of her parents. Like Bo, she does not like to work very hard on something for very long. A task will get a flurry of attention, and then is left to rot into the oblivion. Like me, she is quick in temper and prefers screaming at her brothers rather than talking through the problem. I still struggle with staying calm and not blowing up at them for throwing toys or fighting.

And then, of course, there are the quirks that are unique to each child. Biff, who is no longer constipated, thank the Lord, insists on being Master of Toilet Flushing. The second anyone uses the facilities there comes a frantic, “Can I flush it can I flush it FLUSH IT?!?!?!” He doesn’t throw anything else into the bowl–hell, he doesn’t even stick around to watch the swirling. He just needs to be the one who pulls the handle. My aunt, my husband, and I have all made the grievous mistake of flushing on our own. The tantrum that results is both epic and pathetic, nor will it not stop until someone else uses the toilet so he can FLUSH IT!

Like the food coloring mixed in the water for carnations, singular quirks can influence other traits. Yup, Biff has moments of extreme OCD. He may leave a pile of crashed cars in his wake, but don’t you dare leave any book face down. Blondie will freeze when school work gets hard and gets extremely frustrated when the solutions don’t come via guesswork. Bash loves using found things to tell a story, just as the grandfather he barely knew would do for his sermons. (Though I don’t recall my dad insisting on eating with several forks so every kind of food had its own utensil. That’s just weird, Bash.)

Fictional characters can grow a good deal from a single trait, too. Say what you will about toy-driven movies like The Lego Batman Movie: it took a single character element–in this case, Batman’s ego–to extremes both hilarious and fitting for the story. I wish I could share the entire opening sequence, but this song should give you a fairly rough idea on how Batman views himself:

No one can tell Batman what to do or how to handle the bad guys. He’s the best at everything, and “no one [else] has ever had a good idea. Ever.” It takes getting captured by the Joker and being sent to the Phantom Zone for Batman to see just what kind of jerk he’s been. It’s a change of heart that might seem obvious to adults, but that means kids see the transformation clearly as well.

51688eac587843905538e43286823004--famous-books-crime-booksI recently saw this single-trait strategy work well for Agatha Christie, too.  In Thirteen at Dinner (also known as Lord Edgware Dies, a far more fitting title) we meet Jane Wilkinson, a selfish film actress who wants her husband dead. But since she doesn’t “seem to run to gunmen over here [in England],” she asks Poirot to persuade the Lord Edgware to divorce her so she can marry a duke.

“I think you overrate my persuasive powers, Madame.”

“Oh! but you can surely think of something, M. Poirot.” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes opened wide again. “You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?”

Her voice was soft, low and deliciously seductive.

“I should like everybody to be happy,” said Poirot cautiously.

“Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.”

“I should say you always do that, Madame.”

He smiled.

“You think I’m selfish?”

“Oh! I did not say so, Madame.”

“I dare say I am. But, you see, I do so hate being unhappy.” (7)

Well of course, someone murders Lord Edgware, and of course, everyone suspects Jane since she’s been talking of nothing else but wanting her husband dead. Of course, clues arise to clear her. Of course, Poirot and Hastings visit the widow:

She looked like an angel about to give vent to thoughts of exquisite holiness. “I’ve been thinking. It all seems so miraculous, if you know what I mean. Here I am–all my troubles over. No tiresome business of divorce…Just my path cleared and all plain sailing…I’ve thought and I’ve thought lately–if Edgware were to die. And there–he’s dead! It’s–it’s almost like an answer to a prayer.”

Poirot cleared his throat.

“I cannot say I look at it quite like that, Madame. Somebody killed your husband.”

She nodded.

“Why, of course.”

“Has it not occurred to you who that someone was?”

She stared at him. “Does it matter? I mean–what’s that to do with it? The Duke and I can be married in about four or five months…”

With difficulty Poirot controlled himself.

“Yes, Madame. I know that. But apart from that has it not occurred to you to ask yourself who killed your husband?”

“No.” She seemed quite surprised by the idea. (49-50)

Selfish to the extreme, I’d say. But this selfishness is both a clue and a red herring because it’s Agatha Christie, and we should all know better by now.

Jane’s obsession with her own life and goals gives readers the impression of someone so self-involved that she doesn’t get how the world works. “Things just go right for me,” she says, and believes it. Other scenes in the story show her lack of knowledge about the law, culture, politics, etc. She comes off as, well, a bit of a bimbo.

Yet by story’s end we learn she’s not dumb at all. Oh, she’s selfish, make no mistake, but she’s not dumb. She found an actress who does impressions and had that actress impersonate her at a dinner party to provide an alibi. In the end, Jane did indeed kill her husband, since the duke did not believe in divorce. Jane wanted that duke; therefore, the present husband had to go. This then means that answering Poirot’s question seems rather silly. Of course she knows who killed her husband: she did.

The book ends with a letter from Jane in prison addressed to Poirot, explaining how she had managed to murder three times and elude detection for so long. Even here, the selfishness shines as brightly as ever:

 “I thought of that all by myself. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. Everyone always says I haven’t got brains–but I think it needed real brains to think of that…I wonder if you are ever sorry for what you did. After all, I only wanted to be happy in my own way. And if it hadn’t been for me you would never have had anything to do with the case. I never thought you’d be so horribly clever. You didn’t look clever. It’s funny, but I haven’t lost my looks a bit…” (125-6)

It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of making “complicated” characters, with all sorts of goodness and wickedness and everything in between. And sometimes, complicated works very well, just as several different flowers together make a garden. But a single seed grows, too, in ways both beautiful and unexpected. You’ve but to plant it, care for it, and see.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday.

While I frantically prepare a presentation on Diana Wynne Jones for my university’s literary conference, please enjoy an essay on I wrote last year but never posted.

I distinctly remember the sensation of pins, countless pins, all over my body.

“Stand still, Jean.”

The pins held paper shapes to my clothes, and I’m sure my skin.

“Turn this way, Jean. No, this way.”

My grandmother and my mother titted and tatted over the pattern and its potential for Sunday best. I stared at the green shag carpet and thought of a great green plain that led to a waterfall there, where my grandparents’ blue comforter ruffled by the floor. To mountains, where the white metal closet door clanged shut as my grandfather got his hat and announced he was taking my kid brother for a drive to the park.

Sure. He gets to go to the park. I have to be a mannequin.

Grandmother lets out a loud arc of a laugh that verges on a bark, but there’s a music to it, too, like a drunk opera singer. I still get a “stand up straight, Jean” from my mom, but my grandmother laughs until my scowls subside, and I can’t help but smile. The scent of old cigarette smoke clings to her fingers as she removes some pins, HOORAY!…only to re-pin the back paper shape down a bit.

Blast.

So I take off inside me across the green plains for the white mountains, and wait for life to be not-boring.

~*~

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Isobel, Diana, and Ursula. Photo from Publisher’s Weekly.

Diana Wynne Jones took the initiative to make her life not-boring. As the eldest of three, she was required to look after her sisters, and occasionally other village children, while her parents ran a conference center where adults could spend a week or weekend to experience some culture. Nine years old, and in charge of cooking and cleaning for two kids younger than she. To entertain them she would write stories, endless stories, since their parents would not allow made-up stories in their meager library.

I, too, made up stories for myself. They rescued me from the boredom endured in fabric shops as my mother and grandmother pondered over fabric costs and pattern catalogues. I could see roads through the patterns, beasts in the shapes. There wasn’t a monster my trusty Pound Puppy Spike and I couldn’t handle.

Except for one.

~*~

Diana Wynne Jones’ mother often called her a “clever but ugly delinquent.” Jones and her sisters were never the priority when compared to work, which left the kids to fend for themselves. Often there was no food in the family residence, and if the kids went into the conference center, the cook shrieked at them to get out. The sisters’ garments were often cast-offs from the orphanage while the parents always had proper clothes. Diana’s sister Ursula even knotted her own hair to keep it out of her eyes. It took 6 months for their mother to notice. Sister Isobel was nearly strangled by the neck when they strung her up to fly about like a fairy. God forbid if they got sick; Diana went to school with chicken pox, German measles, scarlet fever and more because their mother insisted all their illnesses were “psychological.” No grown-up noticed them. Knew them. All they had was each other.

That kind of past is not easily forgotten.

~*~

time-of-the-ghost-1Published in 1981, The Time of the Ghost is Jones at her most autobiographical: neglected sisters whose lives mirror much of Jones’ childhood accidentally awaken an evil god. Time is not one of her most popular books—I’m not sure if it’s the time-jumping or human sacrifice that get people, but any time I hear of Jones, it’s never over this book. Maybe it’s because of her life story, and people take one look and think, “Yeah, right.” When I look at the past, cringe from the nightmare-years of sexual abuse no one else knew, and then see The Monster who made those nightmares still walking in the sunlight, I know how friends and family would react to such a revelation: “Yeah, right.”

It’s a harsh epiphany, realizing one’s “normal” childhood doesn’t fit the pattern of others. Memory darns the past to be presentable to the eye: there. Fit to be seen.

So long as no one looks underneath, and sees the desperate stitches and knots that hold the perception together.

Perhaps this is why I connected to Diana Wynne Jones as fiercely as I did: she pulled the old pain out of her closet, put it on, and stepped out into the world. Sure, it had the dark red glitter of a wicked fantastical god stitched on, but it was still her.

It only took her several decades to do it.

And if she could do it, then God-willing, so can I.

 

 

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 4: Know When to Collaborate.

Time is not my friend this month. Hell, it ain’t even a church acquaintance. It’s more like the medical assistant at the kids’ clinic that I had to call once a week for two months straight due to stitches in and stitches out and sickness and more stitches in and more stitches out: initially helpful, then busily surprised, then downright annoyed I need time made for me yet again.

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Good morning!

So yesterday I woke up, struggling to keep my face above the flood of first week student issues, and wondered: What can I possibly blog about this month? I really want to study Agatha Christie’s use of multiple povs in And Then There Were None and how despite being inside everyone’s heads, we still didn’t know the killer until the epilogue. I want to explore the struggle of following God’s Calling in life when all the certainty of that road is thrown asunder by yet another Calling…also, apparently, from God.

But, as said, time is not my friend, not with a literary conference to prep for, school prep for my own kids, my own school to work for, some birthdays to celebrate, and grieve, too.

My mind remained muddled as the boys launched themselves out of bed and right into their sister’s room. Blondie was having a special sleepover at Grandma’s, which meant all her toys were up for grabs. Eventually I lured them out with breakfast and books, especially Truckery Rhymes, our latest acquisition from the library.

Mornings are slow-going here even on school days, so I didn’t think much of their gabbing instead of eating. But then I listened…

Mind you, this isn’t all of it, and of course I wrecked the moment by opening my big mouth. In those minutes, though, I forgot my stress…well most of it. Collaborative story-telling can quickly digress into fighting when Bash won’t say what Biff tells him to. But this moment of imagination shared reminded me what a difference a partner makes.

Writing can be like that.

I still haven’t told many friends, and hardly any family, about the writing life. That lack of “real life” support means more freedom to write about the raw, festering pieces of my past, but also means I can’t count on others to help me in, well, months like this, when time is too beleaguered by “real life” to give any more for our passions.

That’s why I thank God every day for you, Friends, for being here. For sharing how you struggle to balance writing with everything else. How despite it all you still create because you must. Me, too. And that “me, too” ties all the unseen in me with you.

middlers-pride-7Now sometimes, that sharing goes one step further. Last year Michael Dellert gave me a character and a corner of his fantasy world to make my own. It seems he approves of what I’ve done so far with young Gwen in her story Middler’s Pride, for he’s asked to co-write a short story starring some of his Droma natives and my pompous–but decent (mostly decent)–Shield Maiden. It promises to be quite an adventure for me, since I’ve never written a story with another writer before.

Like Blondie, I usually do my creating solo.

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Blondie & her first epic, “The Wrong Pants.”

Jean LeeCurrently she’s got her heart set on making comic books, starting with a special edition collection of Super Mario Brothers stories. Me? I try to write about Gwen’s fellow Shield Maidens whenever I can, which hasn’t been more than once a week, if I’m lucky. But I’ll be damned if I give that scrap of time up to despair. If I only get one hour a month to write, then that’s what I get. The light is brighter in me when I write, stronger, happier. To give this up will only darken the way I see the world and myself. My family will not be submitted to that darkness, not again.

Bloodshed aside, summer has not been without illumination. Books are explored, toilets are used without a battle, and friendship continues its tenuous wrappings from one child to the next. They drive each other crazy. They make each other laugh. They lock each other out. They smell each other’s feet. They thrive together. They thrive apart.

And I love it.

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Biff of words, Bash of action, Blondie…um, gone at Grandma’s. 🙂

 

 

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 3: Imagination is, Like, Hard.

I turn off the midday movie, a common part of our summer schedule. Biff and Bash run off with helicopters, koalas, Batman, and garbage trucks in a complex story of friendship and adventure on Mystery Island. Blondie remains prostrate on the couch.

“What are we doing now?” she asks like clockwork.

You can do something. I’ve got to finish grading these papers.”

She lets out the sort of long, dramatic sigh only a firstborn daughter can give. “I think I’ll just lay here until the tv is back on.”

“You find yourself something to do, or I’ll find some cleaning for you to do. Got it?”

“Uuuuuuugh. Fine.” Stomp, stomp, glare at Mommy, stomp, stomp to her room.

When Blondie’s alone in her room, she could be doing a variety of things. It used to be staring at toys staring right back at her, but now there’s creativity humming in the air…

…sort of.

I walk by her room: she’s holding a palm-sized concoction of little Lego pieces. “What’s that?”

“It’s an ice cream maker!” She explains the function of every miniscule button.

“Oh neat! Will you put it in the Lego treehouse?” She received a treehouse Lego set for her birthday. After Bo had put it together, it sat as is in her room until her backpack fell upon it.

She looked at the pieces, scattered in her storage box. “But it’s broken.”

“You could rebuild it.”

“I don’t know how.”

“It’s Lego, Kiddo. You can rebuild it however you want.”

Her face scrunched, pulling dimples out of hiding. “But it’ll be hard.”

Breathe, Mommy, don’t roll your eyes–oh hell, roll your eyes. “You can build an ice cream maker, you can build a treehouse.”

This same halt comes at her desk, too. Our big seven-year-old has her own desk, perfect for coloring, writing, drawing, creating…

…sort of.

secrets_lg“Can I play computer games today?” She calls after reading a few chapters from her latest library acquisition, Secrets According to Humphrey. (A series right up your gang’s street, Lady Shey!)

“Not today.”

“Then what am I gonna do?” Her whine mimics the slide of a finger along violin strings. It grates, it stings, it makes me want to just close the door without a word and let her survive on her own until dinner.

“Why don’t you work on another Spoty the Dog story? Or your research on Egyptians and tornadoes? Or do one of those coloring projects Grandma gave you? Or do your word search? Or do SOMEthing?” Insert a dramatic gesture towards the desk surface, the only clean surface in the room.

Blondie continues to bury herself in toys. “I dunno,” she mumbles from under a pile of puppies.

Even when I try to get the imagination rolling, Blondie’s got a knack for burying it. While her brothers easily role-play themselves into stories about cars, or ponies, or planes, or astronauts, or animals, or any number of things, she tends to simply latch onto them rather than starting something herself. One morning she said she wanted to make a puppy school; after helping her make a school and little picture books for her puppies, what do I find? Puppies in a pile, her head in her hands, eyes on a Lego book. Why? “I’m too tired to play.”

Writing’s rather like that.

Story-creation is “fun,” but it’s also work. Bloody hard work. You have to take an entire world filled with people and places and screw-ups and miracles and somehow come up with the right combinations of the right words in the right order to help people you don’t know see what goes on inside your brain. We all know that the first draft is shit, of course it’s going to be shit, and yet we can’t help fighting with ourselves over each and every word we put onto the blank space. It’s just so, so much easier for it to stay inside where we can fine-tune it to our heart’s content, and daydream about our glorious debut on the publishing scene, complete with awards and carpets and active-wear models hanging on our arms. We are each of us filled with worlds, but the act of drawing those worlds up and out of us can seem like an impossible action. You may as well locate the physical point of my soul, or make Biff eat oatmeal. It ain’t happenin’.

Which is why as both a writer and a parent, I have to watch my expectations. Yeah, that first draft is bound to be horrid, and know what? It may take a while to even write that first draft. Maybe some character sketches, setting freewrites, and mini-scenes need to come first. I did this for writing Middler’s Pride, and it seems to be helping with Beauty’s Pricetoo. I’ve yet to start the story itself, but I’ve got over thirty pages of just, stuff. It’s all useful in the end, because in the end it gets me in the groove to do the impossible: create.

I walk by my daughter’s room. She hunches over her desk, pencil dancing about. “Need anything, Kiddo?”

“Mommy, wanna see my inventions?” Blondie stands up. Insert a dramatic gesture towards the desk surface.

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“It’s a Wood-Chopper Movie Starter!” The steps blur together while she talks, for I’m just lost in this image: where did this come from? I see more plans for inventions on her desk: wake-up calls for dads, dog feeders, pool starters. My heart swells, and I remind myself I can’t force this kid to be creative the way know how to be creative. If she’s going to explore her imagination, she should do it on her own terms. I can’t wait to help her tap that mad-scientist vein in that curly head of hers, unlock all its potential–

“So when can we build this? We’ll need some really big logs, and some springs, and the log’s got to come into the house, and…”

–sort of.

Ah, well. I still love it.

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Blondie with her trusty assistant Sledgehammer & top-secret Inventions folder. Shhhhh, don’t tell!

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 2: Experience Does Not Always Inspire Learning.

A lovely summer day, the kind of day that inspires so much hope and happiness in little ones, especially when:

“We go to the carnival today!”

Biff said it the moment I opened the boys’ door that morning. He talked about it all through breakfast, all through the agony of waiting for Grandma to come at lunchtime. He plowed through his food in a few minutes and literally hung by the door. He peed on command in the potty, found his shoes and sat without kicking.

We met my kid brother and his family, up from Arizona to visit relations, for an afternoon of kiddie rides and giggles. Yes, this the same place I wrote about previously that grips a peculiar air during the off-season, when all is metal bones and concrete in the cold.

But in summer’s light, sweet air, the heebie-jeebies are forgotten. Smiles abound.

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Biff and Grandma–yay, carousel!

Until, of course, this:

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It was one of the last rides of the afternoon. Bash had been throwing tantrums, while Biff had been an excellent listener. I felt he deserved a reward, and could pick the next ride. Of course, he picked the ferris wheel. Why not? We had ridden it last year without  trouble. He jumped about in line, beyond stoked, and sat quite still in his seat, enamored with the heights. I, of course, was petrified that he’d make a sudden move at any given moment, and gripped his arm and shoulder the entire ride.

And then, we were back to the ramp, our turn done. I let go.

I let go.

I let go, and he ran from the bench and fell off the ramp and his feet in the air and head down and I heard the screams and saw the blood and thought my boy, I killed my boy, my boy is dying right in front of me because I let go.

I cry even now writing this.

I gripped him and the towels on his head as people swarmed to me, to us. Bo got Bash and Blondie to my relatives and ran over. Ambulance, a policeman, it all…and me crying and pleading for it to be okay and I was so sorry because I knew if I had held on….

Biff calmed down far, far sooner than I, I think because a policeman was talking to him for the first time. Biff asked him his name, what he was doing there, did he want to ride the ferris wheel, too? My little Biff spoke so smoothly without stopping that the EMTs and officer thought the chances of concussion too small to be a concern. After a stupidly long wait at urgent care where even Biff tells me to “Calm down, Mom,” we came home to see the others going on a short walk.

What did Biff do? He launched himself from the car to run down the street after them.

He tried to run alongside the cars as family departed.

He jumped from furniture because he was Superman.

He head-butted Bash because, brothers.

With me, holler-pleading all the while, “Didn’t you learn ANYTHING from those stitches?!?!”

Writing’s rather like that, on two fronts.

We get very set in our ways, we writers. Something works for us once, and superstition swells about it. If people liked the prologue we wrote that one time, let’s always use it. I wrote my best dialogue in that chair; therefore, I’m annexing it to my workspace. I only get good ideas at dinner. I can only write in complete silence. These ruts form, and form quickly.

But life doesn’t “do” ruts. The other prologues kinda suck. The chair breaks. The new work schedule has you on the job right through dinner. Kids dare to age and, like, need stuff.

As writers, we’ve got two choices: despair, or crack on. I’ve done the despairing, and let me tell you, it does you about as much good as a fall off the ferris wheel ramp. What does cracking on mean? It means taking what you’ve learned from your environment’s changes and adapting. It means learning to write with noise, to write in any position, to try new story structures and styles. It means trying, learning, growing, just as our characters do when conflict rises in their worlds.

Sometimes.

It occurred to me while pulling Biff and Bash apart yet again that experience and learning do not always go hand in hand. It seems to, because in books that’s how writers so often have it work out. It makes the plot all nice and tidy, don’t you know. Well, you don’t know, because sometimes, human nature just doesn’t jive that way. Bash, who got stitches in June from running around the house and crashing into a wall’s corner, continues to run around the house. Biff…well I told you about him. Even Blondie, who got stitches last year from jumping on the bed, continues to jump on furniture (sans beds) and trampolines any chance she gets.

That night after urgent care, with me still in tears wondering how, how can we keep these kids from killing themselves, Bo said, “With these guys, the only way they’ll stop moving is if they can’t move. It’s going to take a broken limb. Or two. Or probably three, knowing them.”

And I think we need to remember that our characters’ lives can be like that, too. Job wasn’t tested with only the loss of wealth, or only the loss of a loved one. He lost his entire family and all he possessed, even his health, before God blessed him anew. When a character totally alters over something piddly, we as readers call it out because we know human nature doesn’t switch so suddenly between “nice” and “jerk.” It evolves in time, and time rarely paces problems for our convenience. So why should we make it convenient for our heroes? Rather a boring read, I’d think.

Though I admit, I wouldn’t mind some boring days on the mother-front, such as yesterday, when all three were content with little super-hero cars built from Legos. I watched Biff fly the little Superman around and make friends with Doomsday. I remembered his feet in the air, the blood. I grabbed him, kissed his head.

And found myself chasing him down the hall because he’d grabbed the helicopter Batman from Bash’s side of the table and was now laughing maniacally from the bathroom with Bash ready to inflict fists of vengeance. Biff’s is a spirit that simply cannot be broken.

And yes, despite everything, I love it.

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A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 1: Every Pebble Has Potential.

“Mommy, look! It’s a magical stick!”

“That’s nice, Bash.”

“Can I take it home?”

“No.”

“Can I pleeeeease take it home?”

“Look, you can put it on the porch, okay?”

Bash’s speech follows two patterns: wistful questions and squeals of delight. (Flat out screeching is a separate matter.)

“Look, a pinecone! Can I keep it?”

“Look, Mommy, a red rock! I’ve always wanted a red rock!”

“What a pretty flower! Can we take it home?”

“Is this a rock, or is this bird poop?” (He takes special care to ask this before picking up the “rock”…he does now, anyway.)

So it grows, Bash’s collection: flower petals, bits of chalk, wood chips and tire bits from other parks, broken toys, pine cones, walnut shells, feathers, nests, little crab apples, those wee white tables put in the middle of a pizza to keep the delivery box from crushing it, wilted berries, stickers whose adhesive sides are coated by hair, fuzz, and crumbs, fragments of plastic left in the dirt by the previous homeowners, nuts, rocks, dirt clumps that look like rocks: all must be gathered up, for all are precious somehow. He’ll build rock factories, line up the sticks according to size, put his own plush animals into the nests and dirt and make himself a zoo. In Bash’s world, every single itty bitty whatzit has potential. Even torn up bits of boxes can become treats for animals or meteors from space. Every scrap of paper is a map, a note, a ticket to somewhere. My son hoards like a magpie, but with a purpose, too.

Writing’s rather like that.

For all the freewriting we muck through, there is always a find: maybe a name, a sentence, a detail, that has all the potential in the world—or in this case, in a story. Drafts always come out with quite a few holes, slanted walls, plumbing mixed with the wiring. It may as well have been created by the Three Stooges. But it’s in those moments where we dig into our collection of rescued words, a collection we could never live without, and discover just the patch, the nut, the stone that fits in a way we never thought possible.

I can’t imagine my home without Bash’s collection on the front porch. My eyes watch how his little hands reach into the grass of our yard and hold up yet another treasure the rest of the world overlooked. These tangibles feed his imagination in ways I can never predict.

And I love it.

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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 “time suck.”

I’ve sat through webinars on sexual harassment in the work place (I teach from home), the importance of making time for yourself for the sake of your students (um, have you met my kids?), the costume choices used in different versions of Pride and Prejudice (because a literary festival requires a book to be present in some fashion, ha ha), and all sorts of meetings where we cheer on and on for our ever-present awesomeness for students all over the globe. “You are all so awesome!” My chair/CEO/dean/provost/etc. roots from my screen.

Yay.

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 somehow, and I was sick of “how to keep students focused/use stand-up comedy in seminar for engagement” 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. These people, especially the Dr. So-and-So in charge, should be better at this sort of discussion. 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. Here I’d managed to write about my sexual abuse, but 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)

I couldn’t do alcohol, not after losing one uncle and nearly one sister-in-law to it. 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

Authors Should Always Stay Clear of the Top of the Volcano, and Other Tips from Famous Author Blondie

Two years ago, I introduced you to my daughter Blondie. At the time I was befuddled by her refusal to explore her imagination with words or pictures. These days? Well, let’s talk to her and find out what she thinks of writing. In honor of her 7th birthday, I give you: Blondie.

We start talking about her poetry and proceed to her story, but then the boys cause a ruckus in the yard and I have to pause.

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Biff decides to add his own two scents…from the toilet.

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Then Bash just had to get involved, too.

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Am I keen to push Blondie to do more and more with her writing? Two years have shown me Blondie adventures creatively on her own terms. It’s so easy for a parent to hoist those passions onto the kid and expect the little one to love it just as much. A child’s got to find her own way through her own imagination, as well as her own way to express it. Maybe she’ll complete her 12-volume set of mysteries, or maybe she’ll start writing about tornadoes.

The joy buzzing through me when she’s eager to create makes any wait totally worth it.

Days of Walkmans Past

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Earlier this spring the ever-lovely lady & author Shehanne Moore set me to the “Music that Means Something” Challenge: five pieces of music with meaning to be shared over five days.

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Well of course I never got to my computer in time to fulfill the challenge properly, and her own choices gave such lovely visits to her family that I couldn’t help thinking on the music of my own childhood. Plus, when I think of music from those days, I can’t help but think about Dad.

Those who knew Dad strictly as a pastor tended to assume he only listened to choirs or Christian contemporary. While he willingly listened to such things during Lent or Christmas, he rarely had them on just because. I mean, come on–St. Olaf’s choir is nice and all, but they ain’t Pink Floyd.

Yet I can’t share Pink Floyd. Oh no. I gotta share the music I hated when it was on: Renaissance.

According to my kid-self, the singer’s voice drove me nuts. The lyrics made no sense. You couldn’t day-dream anything exciting going on with the music. And worst of all, these songs go on forever. The video I found to share here was one of the short ones, and it’s FORTY-FIVE MINUTES.

But Dad just loved this stuff. Peer into his study any given night. Greek and Hebrew texts are flopped open and piled on one another with Post-It confetti. The Fourth Doctor Who stares frog-eyed from the calendar. Three cans of flat cherry Coke all on the verge of spilling on Minor Prophets. And Renaissance, because of course Renaissance, whines on that big relic of a boombox while he clacks away on the old IBM. There was no escaping it, not even on the road, thanks to that ancient 1980s wonder known as The Mixed Tape. Imagine being eight and on a road trip for twelve hours, knowing there were tapes of John Williams and James Horner soundtracks locked away like the Ark of the Convenant beneath the passenger seat, while this was on, and on, and on:

No wonder my brothers and mom slept for hours while Dad drove. Meanwhile, wee me in the way back of the van struggled to read, or just stare out the window. But sometimes, I would catch Dad’s eye. He’d smile, or start dramatically lip-singing. I can still remember the way his eyes would twinkle, like a goodbye, just before he turned his focus back to the road.

I was so very, very tempted to go with James Horner for this list, as his Star Trek scores were thankfully played during road trips, too, but I’d rather dedicate a post to Horner later. Besides, there’s another composer who had a huge impact on me.

il_fullxfull.1216505053_iphyMy elder brother was an avid reader of books by Tom Clancyso when a movie version came out, he and Dad would usually see it. The Hunt for Red October was such a hit with both of them that Dad invested in the CD. (Buying a new CD was a pretty big deal with three kids and a shoe-string budget.) I made my own cassette copy for the portable cassette player I earned with Kool-Aid points and made myself deaf with a Russian choir whenever that Renaissance tape ka-chunked into the player. It was the first time I heard a choir singing something not-religious with so much power. There was height, and depth, and terror, and joy, all in the first minute of the first song. Basil Poledouris’ score has a few slow moments, but the thrills elsewhere more than make up for them.

When my kid brother was old enough to inherit the relic boombox, he took to rooting through Dad’s CDs for music. Unlike me, who only took from Dad’s movie soundtracks, he took to the rock…sort of. Look, I just don’t know if this Alan Parsons Project song qualifies as “rock,” or even progressive rock. YouTube users say it’s “underrated.” All I know is that one night a twelve-year-old boy tossed aside his algebra and performed a lip-sync and dance routine with his desk chair to this song that could never, ever be repeated in any universe ever again, and I was the only witness.

Mom listened to these various genres with the patience only a mother can have. Some of it was to her taste, some not–she never really complained. As a kid I didn’t get it, but gosh do I ever now. I’ve let the kids have the most irritating songs on repeat for ages, just because it kept them laughing and/or quiet. This “song” was on repeat for an hour once. No joke.

So apart from some particular Christmas songs, I don’t have many childhood connections between music and my mom.

Beauty and the Beastthough, was a game-changer. My mother adored this movie, and I’ll admit, it’s one of the few animated Disney films I genuinely enjoy. Knowing how much Mom loved the story, Dad splurged when the broadway musical came to Chicago and got the whole family tickets. Mom HATES big cities, but seeing Chicago lit up for Christmas and this story performed live? Worth it.

For this list, though, I’m not picking any of the musical numbers. Those songs are okay, but they weren’t what hitched me to this story, even as a kid. Nope. It was the very first sequence, the prologue. The hushed piano and strings, like fairies flittering just out of sight. That first shot of the lush woods, the hidden castle, and those windows! Again, I grew up with stained glass being just for God. To see it tell other stories just as beautifully stayed with me ever after, even coming into my own writing.

One more song to go. (That Weird Al snippet does NOT count. It’s not a real song.)

When I met Bo, my music knowledge was, um, limited. I had my movie soundtracks, and some Christian contemporary from my years working at the Christian bookstore, and that was about it…well, and Monty Python. And The Firesign Theater.

Anyway.

Bo’s mother died of cancer when he was in college; that same year his girlfriend of over a year dumped him. He was currently studying for the ministry, but no longer felt like God wanted him there, or anywhere. The only thing that seemed to connect to him was, of all things, Quadropheniaa rock opera by The Who. He even wrote to Pete Townshend, thanking him for the music and how it helped him through this point of life.

Pete wrote back.

Bo proudly displays that postcard still.

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This was one of the first albums Bo shared with me: the narrative gripped and still hasn’t let go. The melodies hit hard, every damn one. The sounds of the sea are such a perfect touch. I loved this album so much that it became the core support of one of my protagonists. I could not write the story without those songs. But what if by some miracle of God I publish? It’s not like I could refer to these songs without Townshend’s permission.

Unless…I write to him for permission. There. Done.

Nah, he’ll never write back. What’s he going to care about some random American writing a story?

Totally forgot about it. Putzed with the story some more, finally discovering the key problem with its voice. Started reworking it.

An email a few months later from Pete Townshend’s rep: show us where the songs are used, please.

Bo: Holy cow, that’s awesome!

Me: HOLY SHIT I’M SCREWED.

Because of course, I was barely one act into my rewrite. Bo calmed me down, got me thinking about the specific scenes I knew Quad came into play. Fucking blitzed through those and sent them back in tears, because they were shit, of course they were, and now there would be no hope for this WIP at all.

An email one week later.

Townshend approves.

Peter Townshend of The Who approves.

The shock of that moment still ripples into my present.

Bphilipnov2016efore this, when my WIP was barely a WIP, Blondie barely a toddler, and the boys barely done with colic, we learned Bash had acid reflux. If we kept him upright a little while after the last feeding of the night, he–and therefore we–had a better chance of sleeping all night. To fill that time between stories, feeding, and bed-tuckings, Bo started putting on music videos. Sometimes it was Peter Gabriel, sometimes Genesis, sometimes ZZ Top, and sometimes The Who. It took some ninja-skills with the mute button to hide the occasional”fuck” and such, but The Who’s live concert at the Royal Albert Hall quickly became a huge favorite with all three. As the boys grew bigger, Biff took to playing guitar on his blanket complete with Townshend’s signature windmill move. Bash still insists on wearing one of  our three The Who shirts every day. Heaven help me the day he outgrows them.

Music always has and always will contain a piece of the divine to me. I’m not just talking about religious music, which, yes, the right hymn brings me to tears and stirs the faith into something tangible. But the right song at the right time always transcends me. I can feel the lift, the change inside. I know when hope blossoms again. I no longer cringe from the world. I want to move forward. I want to try, to do.

hope. 

know. 

live.