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

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Hung in Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

Last Christmas, my sister-in-law tried to kill herself.  This year our relations with Bo’s side have been tense, but nothing…out there, into the darkness again. And for that I’ve been thankful. They even wanted to come to our house last week for Blondie’s Christmas service and my birthday.

In the hours before they arrived, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

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

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

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

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

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

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

Part of me just wants to punch her.

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

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

No one acts like anything happened. They carry on just as we were directed to do last year: lots of plastered smiles and talk without substance. I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

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

Why, Aiden?

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

I learned as a child to live two lives: the life locked away with The Monster, and the public life of the Preacher’s Daughter. I learned to smile and joke and shrug and separate the pain and confusion so it felt like an other-life, like it couldn’t possibly impact the world outside my bedroom. Did Aiden live as two selves?

And it never even occurred to me to get it out, to really talk about it, until these past couple of years. Between the writing and the reading of Zoe Zolbrod’s experience as an abuse victim, I hadn’t physically felt just how deep that pain had saturated me. It’s been a long, nasty time, working the poisons out. And until The Monster agrees to family therapy, the poisons will never be out completely.

What kept the poisons in Aiden? Or did he not even know he had been poisoned at all?

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Work

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

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

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

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

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

These Words Are Knives & Bridges

I’ve been unfolding and refolding this paper for months.20161116_091359

“It’s very possible it won’t go the way you think it will,” my therapist says, tissues at the ready.

How she thinks I think it will go:

Tears. Blubbered admissions, plea for forgiveness. Transparency. 

How I think it will go:

Hissed threats. Bruised skin. Fear of his car in my driveway, don’t you DARE tell ANYONE

Thursday

Biff’s been coughing a lot. I get an email from the school that there have been cases of hand, foot, and mouth in his grade.

Our boys are doomed to get it. They’ll get it tomorrow, and Saturday I will have to drive by myself to Milwaukee to face The Monster all alone and even if in a coffee shop I don’t care, I’ll be alone and he’ll talk me out of what I know like he’s always done and I feel so fucking weak–

Bo has to remind me multiple times that Biff has boogers, not a fever.

“But what if they get sick? We can’t put this off.”

Bo doesn’t know.

Neither do I.

A text from him: Are we still on for Saturday?

I don’t breathe while I text back: Yup.

Friday

Jittery. Half-listening to my kids. My daughter has a family fun night in the evening. I don’t want to go. I can’t concentrate on nice things. I can only think of burning coffee being thrown in my face, of being shut out by my family for making the past matter.

I unfold the paper while my daughter plays freeze tag with friends. I do not know these other parents, and tonight I’m not the kind of parent to chat with, anyway. So I read, and read again. My eyes stay with that last line:

If repentance does not occur, the victim can still forgive by offering bold love,

but relationship cannot be restored.

My relationship with The Monster has felt like the rope bridge in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, only without a blind Terry Gilliam asking me what my favorite color is before flinging me into The Gorge of Eternal Peril. I’m scared as Hell to get on it. I never know where to grip. I don’t dare trust a single board with my weight lest it gives and I fall. I fail.

And I cannot fail.

My kids cannot afford such a failure.

I’ve been climbing this rope bridge for 6 years now. Time’s only made it worse. Time will continue to make it worse.

For the sake of my children, for the sake of my sanity, one of two things needed to happen:

We must repair the bridge together, as a family, one and whole. This would mean family therapy–that we all, like my mother and his wife–be told about the past, so that we may work through the penitence and forgiveness together. To build trust, together.

–Or–

Cut the ropes. Walk away.

I describe this image to Bo for the umpteenth time as we get ready for bed. He pulls the quilt up and over my bare arm. “Jean, no matter how many times you rehearse, it’s not going to go that way.”

Hours in the dark with tears and threats and withered hopes. Sharpened knives on frayed ropes.

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Saturday

The air cuts my lungs with leaf-smoke and frost-thaw. I want to hold Bo’s hand as he drives, but traffic is heavy, and deer collisions common. Biff and Bash are thrilled to be going to Great-Grandma’s house, a glorious place filled with trucks, helicopters, and all the donuts they can eat. Blondie is not quite as talkative, having lost yet another tooth down her gullet. (Anyone else have a kid swallow THREE out of six baby teeth? The tooth fairy in our district’s getting exasperated.) We arrive, get the kids settled. I do not take off my coat.

“Where are you and Daddy going?” Blondie’s lone front tooth is also perilously loose. The kid’s going to have to live off of ice cream pretty soon.

I can’t picture the meeting place–it’s a coffee shop unfamiliar to me. I can only feel the hate and fear rippling from the future into this moment with my daughter, whose birth cracked all the old hurts open. “Out,” I say. “Just for a little while.” I kick my inner self for making such a glib promise.

I do not say goodbye to my sons.

Bo gives vague answers to his grandmother’s questions about what we’re doing and follows me out.

We arrive.

The wind’s nasty as we walk. The skin of Bo’s hand is so calloused I can barely sense his warmth.

I step in. The shop’s empty but for one older gentleman at his computer. An open space, easy to overhear others. Do I watch my words? Do I get into detail, spit my own acid of memory in his face for the baristas to hear? Do I–

He’s already there.

He sits in the one nook of the place, a pair of leather chairs stuck into the corner where one can find the restrooms.

He waves.

I want to turn around.

I want to turn around and just not do this.

I want to leave and breathe air and be by other people, people who haven’t hurt me.

Bo orders coffee. Looks at me.

Does he see the panic? Does he see how I’m shaking?

Fight or Flight.

This is what families do for each other

No.

He will never say that to my children.  He will never do any. of. that. Not to my children.

No.

He already sits in one leather chair. I sit in the other, facing him. There’s no support, and I sink back. My instincts wobble–this off-balanceness is unexpected. Awkward chuckles from all of us as I right myself. Bo cannot sit by me, so he sits across from us.

I breathe.

The barista brings a customer over to talk about the beans on display behind me.

FUCK.

How–how am I to use the words I need to use with strangers flittering in and out like house flies?

He picked a place like this on purpose.

Wait.

No, I did.

I didn’t want to risk being alone. Well there’s a consequence to that, Jean. This, strangers or no, is your shot.

Find the right words.

“We need to talk about the past.”

And we do.

Sort of.

“What you did to me made me hate myself, hate my life. I wanted to die for so, fucking, long. I didn’t feel like a human being. Bo helped me find that again. I thought, I thought it, what you did, could be in the past, just, back there, done. But motherhood changes that. I see you, and I see my kids, and all I can think of is what you did to me.”

He says nothing. He leans forward. He is shaking a little.

“I’m tired of being so angry and afraid all the time. I want my family to be safe. But the past has consequences, and one of those consequences is that I cannot trust you. I’m incapable of trusting you. And if you have any respect for my feelings, you’ll understand when I ask that you do not go near my kids if Bo and I aren’t around. Even if they’re at my mom’s. You, you just don’t go.”

He holds his chin in his hands. He says a very quiet “I understand.”

I think of The Monster I knew as a child, the golden boy as tall as a tree and just as wide, with fists that let loose stars before my eyes when he hit me. I see The Monster sitting before me now, hunched over. Shaking. Eyes on the floor.

I look at him, my demon. I’m looking at him with my spine straight. I’m not shaking anymore.

“We’re a family, all of us, but I…” I pause, yes, I can say what I’ve been rehearsing– “I feel like I’m only connected to you by a single rope. If we’re going to be a true family, we need family therapy to build the bridge together.” Pause. Do I threaten to cut him off, here and now?

He’s not disagreed, or lashed out in any way.

I was told he might need time. Jeez, how many years has this moment needed to come into existence?

“I’m not asking you to agree to that right now. But the therapist has strongly encouraged me to tell my mom so she understands why I act as I do when I’m around you.” He goes very still. “Just…just…trust starts with transparency. Family therapy would give that.”

He nods, and starts…well…questioning himself and giving one-word answers. Does he have a lot of regrets from that time of his life? Yes. Does he think about what he did? Yes. Does he respect why I’m asking what I’m asking? Yes.

For all those questions, he never flat-out says: Am I sorry? Yes. Did I fuck you up? Yes.

At one point he says: I don’t know what I could say that could make any of it better.

Now I want to scream: YOU COULD FUCKING SAY YOU’RE SORRY

But I don’t want to have to demand it. It wouldn’t be any better than asking Bash to tell Blondie sorry for kicking her. Just a hollow parroting.

I want him to want to say sorry and say it. To finally hold himself accountable for what he did to me.

But I can see from the question-answers, from the tangent he enters about his marriage, about my mother, that this moment isn’t coming unless I demand it.

I want it to come from him because he wants it to come.

And if the past is any indication of the present, that will never happen.

So I cut his tangent off and tie it back to the family therapy. “I’m not asking that we start it now, but it will have to happen if I’m ever to trust you. I hated you for so damn long.” I pause, and the words surprise even me: “I don’t hate you any more, for the record.”

He coughs. Thank you for saying that, he says.

I nod, a little bewildered inside. But what else explains how I dug myself out of all the anger and self-loathing to reclaim my humanity? How else could I both find and keep love, experience joy, challenge my skills with language? For all the Hell I experienced at his hands, I still managed to live.

To thrive.

I am stronger than he is.

And now he knows it.

I look at the words I’ve been wearing to keep up my strength since we agreed to meet.

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I look back up, and say it:

“I forgive you.”

We part.

Not sure what other shoppers think as I fall in and out of sobs. Bo is glowing. My shakes are back, and my coffee’s cold. But Bo still manages to kiss my snot-coated lips and whispers, “I am so proud of you. You did it. You looked him in the eye, and you told him. And he knows I know, which proves you’re not afraid to talk about it anymore.”

I think about the bridge. I had walked into that coffee shop with knife in hand, ready to cut it and The Monster loose completely. That didn’t happen. A small part of me dared to hope he’d want the bridge repaired for the sake of the family. That didn’t happen, either. The future remains in the mist, guarded by a blind man whose questions–and the consequences of their answers–remain unpredictable.

As Sir Lancelot says: “Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.”

Nor am I.

~*~

Thank you all, from the heart and soul of me, for sharing this journey that started with Growing Pains” and continued through “Lessons Learned from Zoe Zolrod: First, Face Myself and Second, Find My Voice.”  You cheered with me in “And through the mist you’ll find hope.” Now here we are, on the precipice of a new chapter in my life. Thank you, dearest kindred spirits, and God bless you. 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Pack it on Every Page.

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27fWhen we think “cozy mystery,” we think of a manor, or someplace isolated, with a limited cast and one, maybe two murders in a tight amount of time. Subtle clues that we didn’t understand come to light when the detective gives his Great Reveal in Act III. My study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles fulfilled such requirements, as do other major Agatha Christie novels, like Murder on the Orient Express, Cat Among the Pigeons, or Murder on the Nile.

So let’s not talk about any of those and look at A.B.C. Murders instead.

This particular mystery takes place in and around London. The victims are not known until they’re dead. The killer has no face–in fact, the only clue that connects the murders is an A.B.C. railroad timetable. That’s the mark of a serial killer. The cast morphs and sprawls with each death.

All the while Poirot’s little grey cells ponder over long periods of time.

Now I will admit to my own little crime: I am writing this post before finishing the book. I read it once as a child, but, as suggested by Damien Walter, I wanted to give A.B.C. a serious study for craft’s sake. Arrangements to face The Monster in two days’ time have made it hard to focus, but I did manage nine chapters, and that’ll do for the topic I want to cover:

Pacing.

In my earlier study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles,  I noted just how quickly Christie gets the story moving in that first chapter with character introductions. I wondered how every line’s got to count in a mystery, be it for the character or the plot. This time, I decided to see what Christie accomplishes on every single page of A.B.C. Slow work, but already I find it most worthwhile.

Rather than give you my notes–well, here’s some of them. Now go and be thankful you don’t see my handwriting on a regular basis.

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Chapter 1’s header already engages us: “The Letter.” Consider the book’s title: Are we talking about the letter A? Correspondence was still a primary form of communication–are we talking about a posted letter? By page 4, we find out it’s both: the first note from our killer, taunting Poirot with a murder to be committed in the city of Andover. Hastings, of course, does not take it seriously, but Poirot does. On page 9, the killer’s predicted day comes and goes, and Hastings calls it a false alarm. By page 11, we learn differently. Come page 12, we get one hell of an eerie statement from Poirot:

“This is the beginning.”

Every single page contains a clue of sorts: testimony from a witness/suspect, scene of the crime, Poirot’s critique, and so on. Trust me, I looked for a page that could have been cut for its insignificance. As of nine chapters, we have two murders, two different groups of suspects and witnesses, two different towns, two different inspectors.

On page 24, for instance, Poirot took time to study the only three photographs in a victim’s apartment. You just know that’s going to be useful later, right? On page 25, Hastings tells us what he sees in the apartment; no overlap, and it sounds mundane, and yet in a mystery everything counts, so one of those items just has to stand out sometime.

By page 37, Poirot has met with the first victim’s family and usual suspects, then visited the scene of the crime. At this point, all leads to dead ends, and Poirot tells Hastings that there is nothing that can be “done” until the murderer strikes again. Hastings, being British, loathes this not-doing-anything, and spends page 38 lamenting Poirot’s clear loss of detecting powers. Sounds pointless? Not at all. The page puts doubts in reader’s mind as to whether or not Poirot really can solve this crime. For those who have read from Hastings’ perspective before, we know he’s not a reliable narrator, yet we can’t help but feel our faith shaken.

Then comes page 39, and another letter predicting murder with a B. Christie breezes over weeks of time by distracting us with Hastings’ doubt. From pages 40-42 we get the new victim, the conflict with a new inspector, and the increase in doubt of Poirot’s abilities.

By page 48, we start to see at least one connecting thread between victims thanks to Poirot. No, not the railway guide, that’s the obvious one left by the murder. Poirot remarks on the beauty of both victims. Why? Hastings doesn’t think on it, passing it off as something foreigners do. You’d think Hastings would know better by now…Anyway, that makes nine chapters.

It was as if every couple hundred words Christie took care to stick a useful02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6 tidbit in. Maybe she counted, maybe not. But I could certainly see why The New York Times said that this book is “The very best thing Agatha Christie has done”–at least that’s what it says on my edition, a 17th printing (SEVENTEENTH!) from 1967.
Christie lets no page go to waste. Only one page of genuine reflecting in nine chapters, and not general reflecting, either–it has an underlying agenda. Setting details are given quickly, almost waved aside:

“A dingy little place…A commonplace little shop, one of many thousand such others.” (23)

“Situated on the sea front, this was the usual type of small tea-room. It had little tables covered with orange-checked cloths and basket-work chairs of exceeding discomfort with orange cushions on them.” (45)

Did I mention the one departure from Hastings’ point of view? Chapter 2 focuses on a man named Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust? A man in a “shabby bedroom,” who smokes “cheap cigarettes,” and cults a “railway guide” and a “typewritten list of names”? We get this on pages 6-7.

He’s not been mentioned since.

But cheap cigarettes and railway guides sure have.

Such little things, and yet because of this single departure  from Hastings we hunt through the little details Christie places on every page, measured and sprinkled like chocolate chips for muffins. Too many and they’ll just spill off and melt on the pan. Too few, and the children will gripe and revolt and demand better muffins. (What, that doesn’t happen in your house?) Measuring out the placing of details gives readers reason to read not just the good chocolatey bits, but the whole thing. Give readers a sweet on every page, and they will not walk away until you’re story’s devoured completely.

 

 

 

And through the mist you’ll find hope

The first of October was meant to be The Day: the day which I met with The Monster, and talked to him face-to-face about the past, and how we needed to be in the present for the sake of a civil future.

He was sick.

Well, dammit.

Not that the meeting was the only item on the day’s agenda: an old friend from church was getting married that afternoon, so we had already arranged with my in-laws the Varinskis to watch our brood.

“What about Holy Hill?” Bo asked as he stroked my hair. I lay curled up against him, still choked up from crying (again). “You’ve talked about going there. For pictures, right?”

I nodded. Another booger streaked his shirt. Oops.

But it was true: I’ve always wanted to have a photo post dedicated to Holy Hill. As a child, I occasionally caught site of Holy Hill from the highway on our way to various relations. On a clear day you can see the steeples from dozens of miles away, vice versa for standing in its observation tower: my first time was in autumn, and all of Wisconsin’s countryside was firey bright, a patchwork of crops, city spires off among the clouds–

And October began tomorrow! We’d be able to see the color changes! I could feel my despair shift. No, the day would not be what I had wanted, but it would most certainly be a day worth having.

~*~

Rain.

We dressed the kids as they fought over banana bread (“NO, I HAVE THE MOST CHOCOLATE CHIPS!”) and drove to Milwaukee with minimal toy-throwing.

I hated the dimness of the day, the lack of definition to the expanse overhead. Hell, it wasn’t even dramatic, like The Nothing from The Neverending Story. It was just…there. Cold and misty and there.

Well, dammit.

We passed circus-size tents where Christian rock thrummed in celebration of the St. John Bosco Youth Festival (Catholics, you’ll have to help me on this one. Lutherans don’t get the saint-fest stuff.). This was supposed to be a quiet autumn day. Colors. Sun. Life. Not a desperate summer green shivering beneath the gathered mist-drops.

 

 

Why the HELL did we come today? I can’t even see past the hillside!

 

And yet. Yet there’s something rather cool about the crosses atop the spires being lost in the clouds. Of losing the world to the mist, and finding oneself in a place of faith. Of soul.

Bo and I eat in the monks’ dining area (yes, there are still monks there) and head for the main basilica…only to get befuddled by all the visitors, and wind up in a strange concrete atrium with a utility door fit for a moving truck. Through what looks like a chapel door, and we find ourselves in a sort of basement sanctuary. Small, bright windows, and a very pain-filled Christ. Where was everyone?

 

 

Aha! The scenic tower, where I could touch low-hanging heaven…

Nope. Closed due to fog. (And youth, I bet. They keep throwing things like apples for some reason. Rowdy Catholic teenagers.)

 

Well, dammit.

On the main terrace, I struggle to get what shots I could. Having but a meager camera phone, I couldn’t possibly capture the basilica in one shot, but I tried anyway.

 

 

Families abounded. I found…huh. I found I didn’t mind. A church should feel this kind of life, what with toddlers whining, fathers chiding, and old ladies kissing. Yes, there was goofery about, but a respect, too, even from the teens, when one reached that entrance.

We stepped through, only to find the main doors shut. Mass.

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“Do we wait?” I couldn’t bear to get this far only to be forced back into the mists.

Bo checked his watch, shrugged. “We’ve got time.”

So we watched the closing pageantry. Listened to the choir, so light, so in tune (we Lutherans are not known for our singing.). Watched an older lady stick her water bottle in the holy water to…um…save some for later? Should one be drinking that stuff, or was she preparing for a showdown with a vampire?

Mass over at last, we go in.

 

 

 

 

I can’t do this place justice, of course, nor its parishoners. Arguments of religion being the opiate of the masses have no sway in such a place, where crutches and braces are left by the miraculously healed, and light itself sings as it passes through the colored glass. Where saints and God mingle with the incense. I looked into the eyes of those here, and saw faith. When a priest can speak to the struggling, and ignite a hope another can sense even at a distance…that’s true faith.

 

~*~

A new church…well, for you. An old church for me.

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This was my father’s childhood church. Even his kindergarten teacher still attended in a wheelchair. Decades later, while Dad was serving in central Wisconsin, she wrote to him in delicate cursive, begging him to come and heal their church before it was too late. After a formal Call from the church’s council and weeks of deliberation, Dad felt Milwaukee’s north side, full of poverty and racial tension, was where God wanted him to be. He served here eight years, even officiated my marriage to Bo here, then moved where God called him, and called him…until He called him to his heavenly home.

I sat in a pew my father likely used as a child, and wanted to cry.

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Dad would never be in that pulpit, or any pulpit. Loss, so much fucking loss. I clutched Bo’s hand, desperate to sense a soul again.

Wedding music. Bridesmaids, flower girls throwing autumn leaves.

A pause in music. Now a delicate melody. My friend, radiant in lace and pearls. She’d gone through her own thorny trials with love. Today marked her triumph over all.

I cried, clapped. Pretty sure I whooped at one point, much to my mother’s embarrassment.

But by God, did it feel good to cry for something other than pain.

~*~

These past several weeks have seen me struggling with boxes of old memories. The Monster’s presence inside those boxes had finally leaked through, and turned all they touched black-green with rot. I couldn’t experience anything in the present without that taint.

At last, I found something new: A box of memories The Monster couldn’t wreck. It took physically stepping into the past to open it, but once there, the painful anxiety of moving into that which I had feared dispersed like mist in the sun.

The world glistened for the first time in ever, and I found I could not stop smiling as I held those memories to my cheek and remembered their loving touch.

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Their hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: Second, Find My Voice.


A thud strikes the house while I sit on the floor with my sons. 
Not quite ready to walk, they roll and crawl about for their animals and trains. Bash has already made two successful trips across the room for my coffee.

I stretch myself upright, and see a smear the size of a baby boy’s leg on the window. The smear is white and red.

I peer outside, and see a large bird on the porch, a head of red feathers, grey breast, black wings. It’s blinking. Gasping.

The red head was not intended by creation.

Its chest heaves.

My sons gurgle, topple the zoo again.

Its eyes flutter, close, flutter, close.

My sons cackle at one another. I hear the ting of a train against my mug.

The porch turns red beneath its neck. Its chest rises, falls. Stays.

~*~

I’m here to write about a failure.

20160830_121809Everything seemed to be churning so well, like that wave of relief you get after finally vomiting all the bile. Back in May, I accepted the word “victim” in its connection to myself. After reading Zoe Zolbrod’s The Telling, I finally found words to fit what I had felt from those years ago: the pain. The anger. The confusion, lots of confusion, as Zolbrod put it: “I could not find a place for myself” (215). When you don’t really know you’re a victim, you don’t know what you need to tell. You believe what you’re told–this is what families do for each other–and there’s a part inside that hisses:

Your parents are doing God’s work. If you tell, they won’t be able to do God’s work. God won’t reach others. God is more important. His ministry is always more important.

So you make yourself believe what’s going on will have to end sometime, and then it will be done, boxed up with all the other past days where it can’t slip beneath your clothes. Breathe heavier, and heavier, while all you go cold in the world and pray to Not Be.

~*~

I turned away from the bird and took care to my own. Surely enough creatures lived around here who would love fresh bird. I saw a fox the other day. Cats lived nearby. Hell, I’ll take a snake, just…Nature, take care of your own.

~*~

When something is horrible and commonplace, especially when it’s caught in the web of loyalty and blood, it’s easy to look away, make the bet it won’t happen again, assume if it’s really of great consequence, someone else will force it to stop.

-Z. Zolbrod, 218

~*~

Bo came home and took care of his own. Our duties formed by expectations and obligations: Bread Winner, Stay-at-Home Mom. Admittedly, not an easy marriage then.

“Did you see the bird?”

“No.”

“There’s a dead bird on the porch.”

Pause. “Okay.”

“It’s been there all day. I was hoping something would carry it off, but nothing’s come.”

Shrug. “I’ll handle it in the morning.”

Morning came. He left.

The bird still lay there. Odd feathers blew around in the whirlwinds caught by our porch. The beak went slack: open, shut, open, shut.

~*~

While Zolbrod faced her memories and her family before she got married, I did my best to shove that box into the dark recesses. I can remember days in high school of being so bloody angry and unable to verbalize why. Because…God? Because everyone was going into the ministry but me? But now I can see it was because The Monster had started to take an interest in my friends. I wanted to protect them, but I couldn’t say why. I had scrawled “nightmares” on the box, hoping that would make it easier to contain. Childhood nightmares are just a part of anyone’s life, right?

Only in college, the first school where no other family member ever attended, was I able to create some sort of identity for myself….until The Monster announced he was enrolling there my second year. My parents thought it a marvelous idea. “Jean, you’ll help him, won’t you?”

I broke down crying with the college chaplain, and he recommended that The Monster and I address our family together. No healing could come without unity.

To be true, to be me. To open my mouth, and say, “This happened to me, and it’s affected who I am.” I could not finish what college had helped me start without this moment.

The Monster’s reaction to the chaplain’s suggestion: “Look, it was a bad thing I did back then. They don’t need to know.”

End of conversation.

And like a fucking coward, I did what I always did: I silenced myself.

~*~

Spring, beautiful spring. My firstborn sleeps on my chest. I’d barely had ten minutes’ sleep all night. I still reeked of ravioli vomit from labor that night. But I was a mom with a healthy baby. A daughter.

Family came round later that day: Bo’s father, then later on my family, including The Monster.

Oh, God.

I have a daughter.

Every family gathering thereafter put me on DEFCON 1. The Monster showed little interest in baby Blondie, yet I always kept my distance, always nursed out of sight. When I told Bo I wanted to speak up, he pointed to The Monster’s behavior and said, “You don’t know if he’s going to do anything. Just leave it be.” He saw me as paranoid, fed the part of me that thought like Zolbrod did: The Monster was working through his own growing sexuality. He wouldn’t do anything now.

The morning after Bondie’s first Thanksgiving, I walked outside to say good morning to my father. I remember the bright blue sky, and giant elm in the yard half red, half green. The dog, sniffing for squirrels. My father turned to me, and I could see nothing “good” was meeting his eyes.

“I don’t know what’s going on with you and ___, but you need to grow up.”

…wha?…

“You always look down on ___. You need to deal with that. Now.”

Here. Now. NOW, Jean, say something! All the missed chances in the past, all the pain and anger and dreams of killing The Monster, just open up and FUCKING SPIT IT OUT

I remember shaking all over. Visibly shaking. “Do you ever wonder why I act like that?”

My father bit his lip. “Yes, I do. And maybe you’ll tell me some day. But it’s still something you have to work out.”

End of conversation.

~*~

Zolbrod wonders, as I do, what would have happened if she had told. She learned after her first child’s birth that the cousin who had abused her was arrested for molesting another child. I see The Monster come and go at family functions, and hate myself because I don’t know. Were there others? Are there others?

Or maybe I was it. Maybe it really was “a bad thing he did back then.” Maybe everything is okay now. I once tried to make myself believe that, but motherhood rewired me: how I walked, how I ate, how I slept, how I even went to the bathroom. But especially in how I viewed the past.

When the Josh Duggar scandal broke, my mother blamed the media for slandering a “good Christian family.” “They took care of it themselves, like they should,” she said while my sons played at her feet. “Besides, it all happened a long time ago. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

I had to leave the room, bite my fist to keep from screaming.

The past so. fucking. matters.

My children shouldn’t share my nightmares. The same self-loathing that makes it so damn hard to accept any compliment from anyone, because who compliments garbage? Who can look at me, this thing used and discarded, and somehow see me as worth their time?

No. My children will not have that tar slathered on their souls by The Monster’s hands.

~*~

I hate being afraid of my own porch. I can’t have the kids grabbing a dead bird–let’s not have that be a generational thing.

I’m sick of being afraid. I need to be what my kids need me to be:

Unafraid to do what must be done.

I gather up some newspaper and a shoe box. With Thomas the train distracting the children, I step out. Drop the newspaper over the body. Kneel. Lower my clawed hands over the newspaper where it lifts from the ground, and slowly clutch.

It’s still so soft. Light.

Into the shoe box. A small red patch on the concrete holds a single feather in the air.

~*~

My therapist does not consider me ready to face him.

I had wanted to do it this coming weekend, when my children are to be watched, and my mother–The Monster’s biggest ally–will be occupied elsewhere.

Yet I’m being encouraged to wait. And with every day’s wait, I grow more and more afraid to speak.

The holidays are coming. Holidays mean family for long visits, attention drawn in one direction while kids go in another. I think of this, and I think of the summer shindig my mother threw: everyone outside, Blondie goes in to change out of her swimsuit, I see The Monster go in after her, and I pound through another door and shout my daughter’s name.

The Monster was staring at his phone by the kitchen table. Blondie looked at me from the hallway, confused. I…I had to make it sound okay, just….it’s okay, Kiddo, I just wanted to make sure I knew where you were…and I could see he wasn’t near her, but–

Why did he have to go inside just to check his phone?

I think of that moment, and I think of the holidays, and lose my breathe to fear. I do not see how others can tell me to wait.

Because this isn’t about me. I can’t alter the past, but I can prevent its recurrence. All it takes is the voice which crawled into the back of my throat time after time let’s play a game to come back to my lips, to look into the eyes doesn’t that feel good? and push back the hands this is what families do for each other

The voice that failed then. That fails now.

This failure has to stop.

Writer’s Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

51tandu2qrl-_sy355_Do you imagine in words?

I do sometimes. When I’m working through a piece of life, as I am now with The Telling and my own history of sexual abuse, I tend to see in words. It’s a strange switch from seeing a story: I don’t smell, feel, or hear. My eyes see nothing but words an inch from my face, and even they have a fuzz to them, so it takes a few tries to decipher. The more I read, the more my senses follow, and life within me finds a focus.

 

Music helps me see more than the story. Music helps me see the language of me.

I knew how to read notes before words, having started piano at the age of 4. My father loved to write hymns, and my mother often directed choirs. We kids learned numerous church-friendly instruments, and sang in the choirs. (Bo likes to think my father secretly aspired for us to become a Christian version of the Partridge Family. Thank God THAT didn’t happen.) Even after Dad died, my mother and elder brother continued to give to the church with music, while my kid brother went on to become a pastor himself.

Despite all I have experienced–all the time-stops on those afternoons long agoor the endless days with my newborn sonsmusic and stories always propelled me forward. One word follows another; one note comes after another. They emote. Inspire. Begin. End. Define, yet live on without limit.

Which, at last, brings me to that which I wanted to share with you.

Whenever I’ve written about parenting, depression, or abuse, I pull up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Some of the tracks are more narrative than others; these I ignore. But a few have such a…it’s a tense hope. Like Mychael Danna’s Capote, the score is dominated by strings and piano. Capote, however, has more menacing undertones to it than Assassination–a result of the bass and fewer harmonies, I think. I also feel more of a time-stop with Capote, especially during the solo piano I love so much. Assassination‘s “Song for Bob” has a very slow build while strings are added, and added. A sense of resolve comes through when the violin joins at the 1:30 mark, and even though the rhythm of the harmonies repeats, the build goes on. When the piano joins, the strings seem…not forced, but their harmonies alter, and for some moments the viola provides what feels like the final monologue in a Shakespearean tragedy. The return of the original rhythm and harmonies is different, yet the same.

How like us, we who undergo the shift within to reclaim our total selves.

 

Lesson Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: First, Face Myself.

Before my kid brother or true nightmares existed, I came across a blue jay on the sidewalk. Its plumage looked beautiful despite all the little bugs crawling all over it, and was it a problem its eye no longer stayed in place? I didn’t think so. I knew it wasn’t properly alive; a properly alive bird flies away when you get near it. But I really hadn’t thought too much about death apart from “Jesus died and rose again.” Death had no sense of permanence. When the time came, the bird would be properly alive again.

There is a difference, I think, in knowing something is not-right vs. knowing something is wrong. I knew the bird wasn’t alive like me, but I didn’t know it was wrong to put it in a dump truck and drive it around like any other stuffed animal. You better believe my mother made sure I knew after scrubbing my hands for several minutes. The disease, the dirt one can get from playing with the forbidden. It transfers. It festers.

telling-cover-3I still carry a dirtiness on me and in me, and I’ve never been able to scrub it off. Zoe Zolbrod used the same term: “my dirtiness, of which my victimhood was a part” in her memoir The Telling (71).

It was the first time I had seen the word tied to the Feeling. Experience. Person.

And through reading, that Person was me.

Zolbrod sent me reeling with the stench of old wounds and fears. When she recounted the first night her cousin came into her room, I remembered the hall light in my bedroom, and The Monster’s silhouette as my parents were occupied elsewhere in the house. Let’s play a game. His hands slipped under the elastic waistband of my pajamas. It felt wrong. It had to be wrong, but…but he’s family, so…so it couldn’t be THAT wrong, could it?

When Zolbrod wrote of the cousin’s coming in the day when her parents promised to be gone, all those afternoons pulled me back, those hours when The Monster knew my parents were bound to be at church for hours, got my kid brother to be quiet in the basement while he kept me in my room, knowing there was no way I could overpower him as he talked so damn calmly as he reached in. Pulled down. Slipped his tongue in. Put my hands there. This is what family does for each other. Don’t you want to be like other girls?

I didn’t. Yet The Monster spoke time and again, turning the wrongness into something normal-ish, practically traditional. It wasn’t properly wrong, just not-right.

Zolbrod takes readers through life after the abuse, including how she began to move beyond her cousin in a new “float of physical bliss” with the boyfriends of her youth  (76). She took back her sexuality, her body. I, on the other hand, retreated as far as I knew how. I wore sagging clothes that would have made my father look a wastrel, refused to do my hair or face. I was often mistaken for a man by strangers, and didn’t care. I didn’t want to be seen as other girls. I didn’t want to be seen. And no one could, not the proper me, so long as I hid it deep enough. Zolbrod calls it “personhood vacating” (121). I fled into myself where The Monster could never reach. Like Zolbrod, I discovered my own “inborn intricacies,” and thought that In Here, The Monster could never really hurt me (94). A body’s nothing, the soul everything. And he’ll never get that.

Until now.

Words make worlds, do they not? Writers create with language. And I had created a wall with the words of stories, metal so thick surely no villain could penetrate them.

But in reading Zolbrod’s memoir, words twisted into sinew and skin: the hands, calloused and hot, across my body. How does it feel?

Words betrayed me. They burned me so that every emotional poke from my children felt like an axe on firewood.

Little Loves, you’re better off tossing Mommy out with all that’s broken. I’m no good for you. You deserve someone whole. Clean. Better.

Does a phoenix feel like this when the fire finally comes and cleanses its rigid body of all the creepy-crawlies?

I have written of phoenixes before. They, too, live anew and beyond death. When I finished Zolbrod, I felt as she after reading Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: “I sensed some truth about armor and pure resolve arising from violence and shame” (41). For years I have struggled to make sense of why God put me through that pain. God’s plan is always sure and right, He never gives us more than we can bear, God knows best, etc. So apparently it was in my best interests to be abused?

At this point, a “Fuck you” screamed at heaven sounds near-logical. Sounds, but doesn’t feel. Perhaps it’s the preacher’s kid in me, who has always thought faith a second-breath, as important as blood and unable to be transfused if lost. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve already faced such horrible parts of myself during the years of post-partum that to look back on something even older and disown God on THAT seems…Petty?

Or maybe, and I think this may be the truth, it’s because I could feel the armor and resolve grow with me, and take me beyond the Monster’s reach. I have knowledge others do not: to be tortured year, after year, after year, to suffer on my own without hope of help, yet live. I fucking lived. My husband, my children, my friends, my masters, my teaching, my—well, this, here. MY words. They’re mine. And they don’t hurt.

Now the real duel awaits:

I must face The Monster, hands and all, in the present.

Click here for more on Zoe Zolbrod and THE TELLING.

A Potluck of Kith

slideshow101933_2My father loved his Divine Calling, so much so that you could tell it took an effort for him to wrap up a sermon. Bo and I would play The Amen Game whenever we attended my father’s church: we’d listen for his dramatic pauses and tally how many times Dad could have declared “Amen” and therefore endeth the sermon. I believe Bo has the record–10 spots during one Lenten service.

Dad knew himself longwinded, and while most churchgoers didn’t mind (outside of football season, anyway), my grandfather, who was mostly deaf and therefore clueless about the concept of whispering, would always say in the greeting line after service, “TOO LONG, DAVID!” To which my father would always say, “Thanks, Dad,” smile and blink, and then roll his eyes as we hugged hello.

But to even get to THAT point, we’d have to survive the after-church announcements. They were like a second sermon sometimes, because of course, Dad just had to make a joke about so-and-so’s cookie bars at the potluck in the church basement, how well the playground fund is doing, reminders about the food drive for the community pantry, and so on. Everyone’s got their coats on, parents are anxious because the snack stores are depleted and the toddlers are restless. Even I’m raising my eyebrows at Dad with a clear look of “GET ON WITH IT, DAD!”

So I’m hoping today’s post feels more like the potluck of goodies awaiting us in the church basement rather than that endless list of announcements.

First, the bounty of crockpots (you may know them as slow cookers) filled with various baked beans, pasta and meat concoctions, and the one weird one with only vegetables that have gone an icky brown color for cooking too long.

I’ll skip that one, just for you.

Three writers have bestowed upon me some marvelous honors: Mike Steeden, A.J. Cosmo, and S.J. Higbee. Cosmo is a children’s writer and illustrator who invited me to write a couple guest posts on children’s literature; I’ll be sure to post an announcement when they’re up for viewing. He’s currently sharing a selection from my Lessons Learned collection–I do hope you’ll check it out!

Mike Steeden enjoyed my e-book Lessons Learned so much that he wants to write a review. I never thought I could market this book—I just enjoy giving it to others! So to know someone dug it so much they want to write about it was quite a tear-inducing moment. I’ll post his review soon.

Lastly,  S.J. Higbee is a sci-fi/fantasy author that has nominated me for the…

real-neat-blog-award

Thank you, S.J.!

Of course, accepting such an honor requires answers to certain questions.

No hamsters bent on world conquest are involved this time, so I SHOULD be safe. (furtive glance in Shey’s direction)

  1. If you could meet any author, from any time (past and present), who would that be and what would be your most pressing question?

Oh, heavens, Diana Wynne Jones, of course! I’ve written a few past posts about my childhood, as well as hers in my Lessons Learned collection. I would want nothing more than to sit with her by a fire, pet her dog, and just talk about the past’s impact upon the present. Sadly, she died only a few years ago, but she didn’t completely abandon us: Neil Gaiman was one of her dearest friends, and her sister Ursula Jones grew up to be an actress as well as writer in her own right. While I know their work is all very nice, all I’d want to talk about is Diana.

  1. Who is your absolute favourite character, ever? I know you’re probably groaning and rolling your eyes but there must be one character that springs to mind immediately – probably followed by a host of others – but, I want that first knee jerk reaction please and why!

Gah, but I’m TORN! Okay, knee-jerk: Hercule Poirot. Sherlock Holmes was my gateway character into mystery, but reading his stories still makes me sad, for to read them brings my father back into the room as a ghost. Hercule Poirot was my own discovery; I do not associate him with any loss or grief. His mysteries are always a pleasure to read, one where the brain works, but not too hard—rather like a nice walk around the neighborhood and peeking into windows just in case one catches something out of the ordinary, like MURDER.

  1. What is your favourite series out of all the books you’ve read? The series you would recommend without hesitation.

Definitely Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. Or her Howl trilogy.

*%&$#@ Choosing is hard!

Okay, um, I’ll go with the Howl trilogy then, because the last Chrestomanci book IS, to me, not up to Jones’ usual platinum standard. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air, and The House of Many Ways, the characters are all full of flaws and quirks, and the stories aren’t just about Howl—the main characters change from book to book, so the story always feels fresh inside that universe. Just trust me on this.

  1. What’s your preferred reading format, book or e-reader?

I teach online, so I stare at the screen enough as it is. Paper book, please.

(That, and I LOVE the smell of books. Why isn’t that a cologne?)

  1. Who is your favourite animal character, and why? This can be a mythical creature like a dragon, or real, like Elsa in Born Free.

Oh, gosh, it’s been a while…and just because I’ve hardly made up my mind for the other questions, I’ll say I’m torn between Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Mrs. Brisby in The Rats of NIMH. I’d mention Ralph from The Mouse and the Motorcycle, too…did I not read of other animals when I was a kid? Huh. Odd.

ANYway, I always admired Reepicheep’s fearlessness, and Mrs. Brisby, a widow, goes through terror after terror to protect her children. Personally, I find her to be one of the most amazing mothers in literature.

  1. What is your most anticipated book for the remainder of 2016?

New or old? Here, I’ll just cover all the bases:

Future: Michael Dellert intends to publish the fourth book in his Matter of Manred series, The Wedding of Eithne, by the end of the year. Since I’ve already devoured the first three books like a plate of chocolate peanut butter bars, I’m highly anticipating the next serving.

Present: Waiting for my copy of Zoe Zolbrod’s The Telling, which came out this year. Since it’s the memoir of Zolbrod coming to terms with her own history of sexual abuse and its impact on her life, I know it’ll be a heart-gutting read. Still. It’s something I need to face and overcome in myself, so to see how another writes through it may help.

Past: For all my talk about Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, I realized I never finished that epic fantasy series, so I’m going to snatch those up toot suite.

  1. Imagine someone has given you a magical Audible account and you can order up your favourite narrator to read aloud the book you’ve always wanted to hear. Who would be narrating the book and what would it be?

Well if this was a truly magical account, I would request Alan Rickman reading anything. Seriously, anything. His voice was delicious. I suppose I could request something prolific, like Alan Rickman reading King Lear, I suppose.

But I suppose I should pick someone alive. Then I’d want to get a hold of Stephen Fry narrating Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, I know that product exists, but the magic involved HERE would be that I’d have time to listen.

So now here’s the mish-mash of cold salads and vegetable platters and the one fruit bowl with an odd-colored syrup….wonder if that’s from the same family. Lift up the bowl and look for the name in masking tape stuck on the bottom. It might be on the spoon, too. We Mid-westerners are a territorial sort when it comes to potluck gear.

At long, long last, I’m going to start up another Lessons Learned! I spent a good long while on Jones, and Eco…um…maybe I’ll get back to him sometime, but I officially exhausted The Name of the Rose…and exhausted myself of Eco in the process.

Why genre writing isn’t used more to teach elements of story is beyond me. In graduate school, genre writing was seen as the choice of imbeciles, those too dumb to write REAL literature. If you were going to write, it had to be about struggle, or death and struggle, or loss and struggle, or sexual deficiency and struggle, etc struggle etc. Make sure the ending’s sad.

GAG. That was a warm mayonnaise pasta salad with wilted broccoli if I ever smelled one.

So that’s another reason why I tend to study genre lit than “literary fiction.” Yes, of COURSE there’s plenty of good ones out there, but genre gets such a bad wrap in the writer’s learning environment.

Take Agatha Christie, for example. If you know a school that actually uses her as an example of GOOD writing, please tell me, because I’ve yet to hear of one. I have no intention of spending the same time on her as I did on Jones, but I am looking forward to studying some important story elements through two or three of her novels and some short fiction. No, not Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None. Other ones.

Oh, look! The table overloaded with brownies, cookie bars, fruit breads, and cakes with frosting slipping down the sides! At least half of any congregation brings desserts, you know. And an obnoxious number of those people put nuts in their desserts. Philistines.

As many of you have said to me with greatest care and friendship, I should be taking time to write stories. But with kids and teaching and LIFE and writing here, I never thought I could take that encouragement very deeply. Sure, I’ll write fiction…in a few years…

But then Michael Dellert prodded me to take a character on his Tribe of Droma facebook page, a sort of role-playing realm based on his Matter of Manred series. I’d have to give her things to do, challenges to face.

I’d have to give her a story.

A what? I…I don’t do stories. I’ve read stories, and I’ve been writing about reading, but writing, myself? What? I haven’t done that decently in…shit, at least a year.

But then I thought of Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, and a story started to form in my head. This could be a coming of age story, a girl who wants to be treated as a grown up but must grow up first. A girl who’s got to battle one of the most dangerous enemy’s a human being can face:

Pride.

But the more I thought, the more I got wishy-washy about it. I never did this role-playing thing before, I won’t have a clue and it’ll show like the maraschino cherries on Grandma’s Green Torte. I can’t write in another person’s universe. I don’t have time to do the character justice.

Michael listened nicely, then not-so-nicely, and then finally told me to shut the f**k up and stop psyching myself out. Stop strangling the unborn story and DO IT.

So, I’ve started doing it. Not writing scenes yet, mind. Just freewrites based on prompts he sends me out of his #13WeekNovel. The way I figure it, if I keep myself on a timeline, I shouldn’t end up with another six-year-old WIP. You can even see some of my freewrites on facebook, if you’d like. Once I start writing scenes, I’d like to share them here, which is…well, utterly terrifying. I’ve never opened my fiction in public, not since grad school. And these’ll be extremely rough drafts, to boot. But I have wanted to try a Middle Grade story for a while now, one I know I could share with my children in a few years. The Middler’s Pride shall be exactly that.

To do this, though, something has to be cut in return. So I foresee my typical blog fare getting mixed up, or taking brief hiatuses, depending on where I’m at with this fictional work.

~*~

Some people can balance three plates’ worth of goodies from the potluck in one go, but I’m just not that kind of person. I’ve got to move by the tables as slowly as possible to figure out what I have to take (Mrs. Hildegard has no family to cook for so any compliment on her beans makes her day, ew what is that SHIT oh yes Miss Tigglesworth I’d love some pasta salad, oh ICK who put carrots in the jellow AGAIN?) and what I want to take (brownies brownies brownies GOOD GOD WHO PUT NUTS IN THESE).

Here, let’s take a spot over there, where the folding chairs aren’t too bent, the ceiling tiles not broken. It doesn’t echo so badly over here.

When I look around, I see such a wealth I could have never imagined. No, not money. These tables are as old as my dad, the plumbing moreso. This building is being held together by scraps at liquidation stores, duct tape, and prayer. No, this basement is filled with a wealth of talent. You all have so many gifts: the gift of language. Imagination. Kindness.

Thank you for sharing your wealth here, with me, and with the fellow writers here. When I see writers come together like this, I feel nothing but bright promise for what’s to come.

But don’t touch the coffee—church coffee’s always gross.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing Pains

As a final Mother’s Day gift, Bo handled the kids so I could go to the Olbrich Gardens in Madison and spend some time by myself—sort of. The place was packed for poetry and graduation photos. Still, I spent over an hour speaking to no one, which, as a mother, was AMAZING.

Originally, I had planned on taking my mother, her sister, and Blondie to the Gardens on Mother’s Day. When my aunt declined, my mother decided we shouldn’t bother. “Nothing will be growing anyway,” she said with a sniff at our home’s lackadaisical attempt at landscaping.

To a degree, I can see she’s right: many of the blooms remain closed against Wisconsin’s temperamental spring. The green is bright, a true spring green, the kind of green that mothers know well as “baby vomit a la pois” (with peas). The color I do find is luminescent against the green foliage and uncertain sunshine.

These flowers linger in their transition, eager for the warmer season.

I, too, linger in transition.

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“You need to stop living a duplicitous lifestyle,” my therapist says. “Be authentic. You can’t heal until you let yourself come together.”

I nod, shake off the tears. Inside I wince at the word “duplicitous.”

Duplicitous. It sounds…evil. Dark. Full of wicked intentions under a happy mask.

A mask I’ve worn for many, many years.

I have always lived the public life, the Good Girl of the Pastor’s Family, the Perfect Daughter who plays in church and sings in the choir and does all her work and plays all the sports and helps at the nursing home and does and does and DOES

The mask grew with me, the Good Girl who gets the scholarship and goes to school and works the jobs and gets the grades and works and works and WORKS until she’s married, and a Good Wife, and a Good Mother, who fulfills all the family needs and cleans up the vomit and teaches online while two boys suckle at her breasts and sings with her daughter and cooks for the husband and hosts the holiday parties and does and does and DOES

All this fills the Outer Life, the Out Here that sees the mask, assumes all is well, and carries on.

Had my original plan worked, and I had come here for Mother’s Day, I could have witnessed my daughter’s delight as we stroll through shower after shower of white and pink petals. Too late—the petals wilt on the dirt like false snow for a performance. A fairy’s dance in a ballet, perhaps. Every bridge, trellis, archway of crossed branches feels like a portal to Elsewhere Fantastic, Anywhere But Where I Am.

I have written before of my draw to portals (“The Forgotten Portal“) and forest paths (“My Narnia“). Of course many writers are enticed by such things. But this bridge, that arch, mean more than fantasy.

They mark a fresh route of escape, a hiding place from what I am told is the only true way to heal:

To face myself, and The Monster who made me this way.

My Inside Life is very different.

In Here are worlds strange and complete, peopled by beloved characters real and created. My worlds are bridged by lightning and rainbows. Every world has an evil, and a good, and the evil never quite goes away, but hope never stops fighting, either. In Here, my soul found sanctuary against The Monster, and forged walls with my confusion, pain, and fear. Tears hissed on the hot metal. The walls locked the poisonous secrets away, protected my worlds. My soul learned to thrive in pieces.

It never occurred to me my soul could be anything but broken.

I thought my walls impenetrable, but then Jason Voorhees arrived with motherhood, and my walls were nicked, hacked, and finally breached (“The Machete and the Cradle“).

Motherhood does that: exposes old childhood fears. Nightmares you realize you lived, that you never, ever want to touch your children. Three lives have grown in me, and now grow in walls I help keep clean of strawberry jam and yogurt. Their souls burn so bright around me, I have a hard time believing a broken soul such as mine could have had a hand in their becoming. But then I think of my daughter’s age, my own age when The Monster came, and I run away to retch.

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Words are themselves duplicitous. They free and bind us, all at once.

Daughter.

Mother.

Victim.

Abuse.

Each word is wrapped so tightly in connotation and presumption that we never quite see how our individual connections alter their power. Maybe we are all too eager to wear that “Proud Mommy” shirt. We don’t know how to remove the “daughter” apron strings that our mothers have knotted around our necks. Other people are “victims,” but not us. Not us, we’re not like them. What happened back then, everyone goes through that. That wasn’t “abuse.” That was normal. That was how things were. What’s abuse, anyway? Everyone went through it, it’s life, it’s in the past, it doesn’t really matter because it’s all back there and not up here and the past doesn’t matter grow up be good be GOOD

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I watch a robin wash itself in one of the many waterfalls in the garden. All the creatures here have evolved to not fear people at all; birds nest right next to paths, chipmunks practically run over my feet as they find new patches to dig. Even the bees don’t give a toss, humming along as they weave among the open blooms they find and return to their hives along the Gardens’ perimeter. The numerous couples—hand in hand, a few feet apart, the boy purse trolley for the girl photographer—have a bad habit of posing right where I wish to shoot, be it bridges or waterfalls, but for once, I am alone. The robin takes one look at me, looks up at the sun (likely a bird’s version of an eye roll—“bloody tourists”), and goes back to bathing. The wings make a muted splash of soft, sparkled droplets. Bathing twin boys has made me forget one can splash without sending a gallon of water out of the tub.

The robin reminds me of a memoir promoted on a blog I follow about author Zoe Zolbrod coming to terms with her past as a victim of abuse. How she has shared it in her own way over the years, and how it has helped shape her life.

I find a gateway formed by a treebranch and leave for another garden.

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The Rose Tower feels like a good sanctuary, despite the children pounding on its floorboards. Clouds pass over then, and the cold stone of the tower’s room, with its four arches to four different gardens, feels like a crossing to other worlds.

Do I hide?

No. My children cannot afford for me to lock myself away in tears and darkness.

Do I go on as before, broken but functional?

No. I am exhausted by the forced smiles to cover the isolation and pain. My children need a mother, not a mask.

Do I bring my writing self and my real self together?

I…I don’t know. This scares me, truly, for my writing, my worlds, have always been a sanctuary. The only member of my family who understood writing’s pleasure died two years ago, and even he didn’t understand why I couldn’t write about the goodness of Jesus and a happy Christian life.

Do I bring my past self and my writing self together?

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This does seem to be the arch I take, doesn’t it? Here are the words as proof. I have written “victim,” and know I write about me. I have written of fear. Of pain.

But somewhere in all this, I wrote of hope, too. Of a soul.

If I want to write, really write, I cannot use a mask and call it a character. Characters are beings of bodies and souls. They have their own reasons to hide or fight.

The only way one create a complete person to inhabit a complete world is to make oneself complete.

My feet crunch upon the gravel. Out Here, among the pools and walkways, I search for the path that turns widdershins and guides me back into myself, to my soul.

To a fighter.

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