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.

Tales of 100 Hearts

I never linger in sight. Last time I did, Bash screeched his head off the entire march down the stairs from his classroom, and Biff nearly pushed the child ahead of him down the stairs. So I remain around the corner where a small corridor leads to the church’s daycare.

February holds two major events for an elementary school: Valentine’s Day, and the 100th day of school. I don’t remember celebrating the 100th day as a kid, but Blondie assures me this is a big deal that requires special games and treats all revolving around the number 100. O-kay.

The boys’ school was in the spirit, too. I couldn’t stand far enough away to get a complete shot, but I was able to take a few close-ups.

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I loved studying the variety of writing styles, of what must have come from adults vs. tweens, of kids vs. teeny ones. And the choices made in both topic and writing fascinated me. Take that pink heart in the bottom photo–why history? And why write it with the teensiest letters possible? One seems to enjoy her cursive “friends” (because I’m guessing a boy’s not going to change font, let alone write the cursive so carefully), while another is equally writing friends so long as it can be in nearly invisible red ink. Two kids apparently like Spirit Week, though one’s definitely younger than the other…

I love the creativity little ones put into spelling words they don’t know, with letters big and proud. And then you have some who wrote at a weird angle–why? And one who really digs the teacher but must have forgotten how to spell her name, so a few letters had to go above the “Mrs.” Then, of course, there’s the over-achiever who had to explain why she picked what she did, and needed to make extra hearts to emphasize her love for it.

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Yes, being a Christian school, there were bound to be a few God-related hearts. But the heart in white is the one that really got my attention.

Bo’s certain it was written by a grown-up, but I’m not so sure. I studied that heart quite closely compared to the others, and the letters are a bit stilted and crooked when compared to the other more rounded, brighter teachery lettering.

The political climate of the United States has become a nightmare for many. I’m not going to lie–Wisconsin feels very cut off from it all. Milwaukee’s always been racially tense, Madison’s always been loudly liberal, but the rest of the state is, well, quiet. It can be easy to forget such a basic want is still very much a want everywhere: to be safe. To be where one is wanted, protected, and loved.

Every heart shares a piece of life tied to that school. I look upon how these words are rushed, curled, misshapen, stiff, and cannot help but wonder what else is tied to these hearts. That if I were to pick a heart from the wall I’d find a string, a string leading up and down stairs and around the playground and back into the room where the heart’s maker sits. I’d look upon the maker, tied to all the scraps and bits of life that brought the heart maker to write that word above all words.

And I’m betting I’d find a story.

Lesson Learned in Writer’s Music from the Rolling Stones: Don’t Misunderstand your Villain.

Featured

sympathy_for_the_devil_coverA rare moment when I get to listen to music of my own choosing during the daylight hours. The moment comes with sacrifice: no writing.

Normally, when I take the boys to school, I walk to a bookshop a few blocks away and settle in for a morning of school work and writing. Today, however, was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school one town over. “You can come this time, right Mommy?” Her toothless smile looked tenuous. She was so used to hearing “I can’t come because I’d have to bring the boys.” “I can’t leave the boys behind.” “I can’t when I have work, honey.” I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I’ve written before how hard it is to get time without her brothers. This time I gave her a hug and said, “I can’t come for the whole thing.”

She groaned.

“But, I can be there in the morning for a little while.”

Blondie’s smile broke loose and spread to her toes, throwing her into a hopping frenzy. “You can dance with me at brain break! And see my desk! And hear my story!”

So here I am, driving between schools, with, of all things, the Rolling Stones blasting because it’s the only CD that’s not Weird Al” Yankovic or Veggie Tales. “Sympathy for the Devil” comes on, and my mind starts to wander…

Why, of all beings in the big ol’ Cosmos, would we give sympathy to the Devil? Yet, well, as writers, that is what we want to do. I’ve read stories where the villain has less development than Snidely Whiplash of the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, all cackles and mustache twirling, and have been utterly, utterly bored.

Now 2-D characters do have their place, like, say, Michael Myers of Halloween, but slasher films are where cookie-cutter characters thrive best: The Virgin. The Jock. The Slut. The Jealous Boyfriend/Girlfriend. The Nerd. Etc.

When it comes to novels, we need more than one-note characters: we need songs, harmonies, percussion, the whole sonata. And not just from the hero.

We want to be just as intrigued with the one whom the hero is up against.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

There’s something to the tribal feel of the percussion here counter-balancing the piano. A unique style of class. It makes me picture a man with tailored suit and cane, someone at ease in the bar who for all his drink loses not one iota of wit, something like Alex from Clockwork Orange. Just listen to that opening stanza: He’s polite. Rich. Cultured. Seasoned. Sounds rather like a philanthropist, doesn’t he? One who smiles sincerely as he offers you a drink and a stool in return for your ear…

…and soul.

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

He starts with one of his oldest and dearest triumphs. You’d think this would turn you away, that you’d never want to listen to someone who sealed the fate of Christ. Yet you’re still sitting there, because here’s a man who reveals Christ had doubt. He takes the Big Good Guy and shows He’s no better than the rest of us. Everything feels a bit more level now, doesn’t it? Those Hoidy-Toidies ain’t got nuthin’ better than us.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

How curious this man wants us to guess his name. But he, like most villains, wants to be known. Understood. And what drives him? All villains need something to keep them on the path they’ve chosen.

And for this particular fellow, it is one of the most basic and most frightening of motivations.

He’s bored.

All that he shares with you is part of his “game,” and as he shares, the music builds and you find yourself awestruck and horrified and fascinated all at once…

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

How can we possibly sit at this man’s side and listen to him share all this like it doesn’t matter?

Hey, a game is not supposed to be serious. A game is fun, harmless.

But his actions are everything but. Why, why listen?

Because we like him. Because he’s not simply “evil”–he is a complete creature with a nature that gets bored and wants to have fun.

Just.

Like.

Us.

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

This must reside in the core of our villain’s creation: they must have some essence of us, of the everyday person. Even the most alien of villains can have a nature with passions and repulsions. When we forget to give our villain a nature, we deny our heroes a true conflict. Without conflict, we deny our readers a true story.

And you know the cost of such a sin.

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah

Songwriters: KEITH RICHARDS, MICK JAGGER
© Abkco Music, Inc.
For non-commercial use only.
Data from: LyricFind

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.

Gratitude in Numbers With a Coda of Writer’s Music

Ever imagine in words?

(My apologies, I’m pretty sure I’ve asked this before, but bear with me.)

Language has become a sort of filter in my life: sensations, reactions, and originations (new word!) must BE words before I can understand what to say, or think. What I want to write. So often I see not only dialogue, but action and setting in words, too. Only after I write them can my brain weave the threads together to wrap around the other senses.

So to receive such words of support and love after I faced The Monster was like a favorite blanket coming round my shoulders after a nightmare. My words back feel so feeble, but please know just how much I glow, I smile, when I say:

Thank you.

Now, not too long ago, the lovely author Shehanne Moore and her hamster crew nominated me for the “3 Days, 3 Quotes” challenge. While I would love to follow the rules to the letter, the War of the Potty means no chance to work from sunrise to sunset lest I miss a new addition of pee-pee water or poop to the carpet. That, and this is my 100th post, so let’s make it special by creating 3 posts in 1!

Oh, and it’s Thanksgiving Day here in the States. With my in-laws, including the battle-ax matriarch.

So.

Gonna bend the rules a bit.

The Rules (without the bending)

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you, and share their website. (Done! Click here to read some wicked humor, smexy stories, and writing tips most practical.)

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2.Post 1-3 quotes a day for three consecutive days.

3. Nominate 3 people every day.

Well, I’m only writing on one day, soooo guess I’ll just nominate three people. YAY!

Michael Dellert

Dyane Harwood

George Blamey-Steeden

Time to bend Rule 2.

~The Day of Bash~

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My youngest and most creative, Bash never tires of story-telling. He’ll gather a group of toys anywhere, and he’s in the groove.

Most plots hinge on emotion. His characters ask each other what he often asks me:

“How are you feeling?”

Something happens to make a character sad–he breaks down, another gets lost. The others team up to save the day. The story often ends “And now I’m happy!”, much like after I cry, or after he fights: we sit down, and hug, and smile. And now I’m happy.

Diana Wynne Jones also emphasizes the importance of emotion between writer and character in Reflections on the Magic of Writing:

“If there is one thing I have learned, it is that you must have at least some emotional connection with every soul who figures in a story. You may like them, love them, find them disgusting or hate them, but you must react to them in some way.”

I do my darndest to remember this as I write Middler’s Pride. I hope you can check it out on Wattpad, where the first scene of the story is now available for viewing. I’ve been sharing my character sketches of her on Wattpad as well. When I posted her last anecdote, a wee epiphany hit me:middlers-pride-7

I love Gwen like I love my daughter.

The maternal fibers in me sing when she hits her high marks; other times I want to shake the stupid out of her when she catapults herself into the lows. I roll my eyes at her snotty behavior, and can’t understand how the fruit of MY person can be such a rude pisser.

Gwen doesn’t see it that way, of course. She’s a downtrodden teenager who has finally, FINALLY been given a chance to prove to the world she’s the legend she believes herself to be. She even imagines her own ballad on her way to accept a sword and entry into the Shield Maidens:

At the peak of it all stood a stout manor home of mortared stone paired with the King’s Tower. No man could possibly scale such a thing, but Gwen thought the stones might allow a woman’s fingers.

Hail Gwenwledyr, Protector of the Tower. It was she alone who scaled its heights to fight the Flying Beasts of Evil sent by The Massively Evil Man.

Hmm.

The Massively Evil Behemoth.

Better.

She feels herself superior. Training–and some evil magic–will teach her otherwise.

~The Day of  Biff~

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“READ!”

Like Bash, I spent my pre-reading years creating stories with toys and pictures. Biff, however, can read already, and demands help in this department. “Read, Mommy? What’s this spell?”  He is not appeased with mere letters or pictures. He wants to know.  Those letters clumped together mean something, and he’s determined to learn it all. At times I think of my father, who began every sermon with:

“The Lord, sanctify us with the truth. Your Word is Truth.”

And I see his relentless pursuit of imagination, of faith, of knowing, all in Biff. Will he follow his grandfather’s Divine Calling?

He’d be so proud. Oh, he’d be proud of him no matter what, but to read with him…I can picture my father’s smile, the one that shows off his laughter lines. His absence is always felt more sharply over the holidays. My favorite hymn brings comfort at such times. Tears, too, but definitely comfort. I found a video that provides the lyrics, so please take that as another quote. 🙂

Biff is also my middler by a whopping two minutes. He scared me during pregnancy, so quiet and tucked away while his brother never stopped somersaulting in my womb. Now he’s the one who taunts and fights his siblings without a break. The only time the house is quiet is when he is stretched out on his top bunk, books and bear and blanket around him.

I wish I could read his eyes when I break up yet another fight. His inner workings will likely be a mystery to me until the End Days. Gwen can’t be a mystery to me, though. I have to understand her, inside and out, because otherwise readers won’t get the whole story. Diana Wynne Jones puts it best, of course:

…You can see what an audience, or a readership, expect from a hero is a very serious form of a game, in which the hero is expected to struggle on two fronts, externally with an actual evil, and internally with his/her own doubts and shortcomings. The hero, out there as a scapegoat, has to do the suffering for everyone.

When I set out to write Middler’s Pride, I did so with this very idea in mind: Gwen’s got to overcome more than just a monster out to poison the countryside. She’s got to overcome her pride, too. One victory cannot come without the other.

~The Day of Blondie~

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This toothless wonder loves to help, so today I asked her to help me pick the music I write about. No, no, she won’t pick a “kiddie” song. She knew the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” before “Jesus Loves Me.”

No, I’m not writing about “Sledgehammer,” either. 🙂

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One random trip to the library revealed a collection of music created for various DC Comics shows and movies. Some are old-school, like the theme for the 40s Superman, but others are more recent, like this theme from a Green Lantern animated movie made in 2009. Blondie surprised me when she asked for this track on repeat. Considering my daughter’s lack of interest in creative activities, I took this request as a good sign, and dared to find out why she liked this song so much.

ME: Blondie, what do you see when you hear this music?

BLONDIE: See where?

ME: See in your imagination?

BLONDIE: Me saving someone.

ME: Who are you saving?

BLONDIE: One of the guys from Veggie Tales?

ME: Who?

BLONDIE: Larry.

ME: Who are you saving him from?

BLONDIE: Bad guy.

ME: What’s the bad guy?

BLONDIE: A UFO.

ME: What’s the UFO want Larry for?

BLONDIE: I dunno.

ME: So what happens after you save him?

BLONDIE: I dunno.

BO: (looks up from peeling sweet potatoes) You asked.

ME: (laughs)

BLONDIE: I gave you the giggles!

ME: Yes, you did. You have for years and years and you will for years and years and ever after.

BLONDIE: In Heaven, too?

ME: Especially there.

And for that, I am so very, very thankful.

 

Children’s Writer A.J. Cosmo & I Wonder What Can–or Should–be Stuffed into Kid Lit

franky002AJ Cosmo has written and illustrated many books over the years, his latest being Poop, a Middle Grade tale of a boy learning to handle life at a new school as well as living with his body’s needs. After writing about how dark kid lit can gowe decided to take turns “debating” a few other elements of children’s writing.

What purpose do you think stories have?

JL– For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

 Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

 To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

 My favorite children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- Ha! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on them sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue, but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

JL-Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

 Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

 AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

 AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture; however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the foreseeable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

 AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉

 

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.

Presumptions

Summer’s heat crawls up the hillside where Bo and I watch the boys. A park outing is always special, especially one that allows for a walk down to the lake. We take our time along the wildflowers, point out all the fishing boats. Laugh in the shade over ice water and brownies.

I often see social media sharings from other mothers chronicling their museum outings, concerts, parks, kid yoga, blah blah blah. They assume I can meet them at the parade, or out to eat. Every time, I have to say no, and why.

My sister-in-law keeps pressing us to attend Green Bay’s city-wide celebrations: pumpkin trains, egg hunts, Christmas parades. Every time, Bo says just Blondie will come, and why.

Your boys can’t be THAT bad.

I look at them. I’d love to say: you weren’t there when Biff head-butted me repeatedly in the temple to the point where I could see nothing but stars and barely walk. You weren’t there when Bash had such bad diarrhea in the library that I had to change him by the movies and hiss at Biff to please for the love of GOD do not tip over the book cart, oh GOD he’s going to bring it down on himself Bash no DON’T GET UP stay THERE you STAY no NO NO. You weren’t there that evening, when the librarian called me at my home to explain that my sons’ history of “deeply disturbing other patrons” had gone too far today, and if I could please bring them back when they were “ready” for a library.

This wasn’t even the first library from which they’d been banned.

And yet other mothers think I joke. That my sons can’t be that bad.

My mother insists the boys are autistic. No boy hits their mother like that. They should be listening. Following directions. They’ve just turned four, they should be BETTER than what they are now.

I look at her. I’d love to say: your elder son threw furniture at you when he was 19. He punched holes in walls. Does that mean he’s autistic?

Bash holds my hand and walks an even pace with me up the hill, back to the playground. “Mommy, you’re my best friend.” The sun sets off the dark brown in his eyes and the white of his toothy grin. A tiny gap between the top two–may his grown-up teeth never take that from him. “Best friends come true.”

This from the boy I almost let die on the roadside.

We reach the playground, and Biff cries out, “Forks, we gotta get out of here!” He runs round us, growling with those toddler vocal cords. “Look out, I’m Big Mouth!” Turns, points at me, “You’re Scooper. Hi, Scooper.”

I start to say hi but Bash turns on his gravel-voice and says, “Big Mouth, we gotta squash cars!”

Off they go. Bo stands alongside me; my hand reaches for his out of instinct. Our sons climb ladders, bark orders about lifting loads to each other. Their small tanned hands grab mulch–aka, the “squashed cars”–and “dump” the cars down the slide to be scrapped.

The boys ignored each other for years; Bash even thought he was another Biff, so we had to tell him every day that he was someone else. When church members, relatives, or strangers saw the boys they always cooed, “They must have so much fun together!” and I always had to shoot that presumption down.

This past year has seen such a change in them: all of them, together and apart.

Bash’s imagination continues to wow and warm me. He wants to tell stories, so many stories about his trains or trucks. Every now and again I’ll borrow read-aloud stories for listening to in the car; Bash has memorized all these cues and builds on them: “Thomas wheezed weakly, and moved down the line. Suddenly, James arrived with a heavy load. ‘Oh no, the rain is coming!’ he peeped.” Barely 4, and he understands more about dialogue/action balance than I do.

Sometimes the boys tell stories together. Hell, I just thought the playing together without yanking hair or thumbing eyes to be amazing, but their creativity combined always pulls me from my work to their door–out of sight, mind, lest my presence sets their world off-balance. Lightning McQueen got lost in the desert, Dusty and Blade Ranger can save him, woosh! Then a brief argument over who gets Chug, then a concession–a concession! without fists or tears!–then back to the story, because it’s not worth arguing about Chug when Lightning’s in trouble.

When the boys are in no mood for each other, Biff can often be found in his bunk, reading. I mean, READING reading. At that age, Blondie had a helluva memory, and knew many stories, but not how the words she heard connected to print. Biff knows what he sees, and WE know he knows because he’ll pick up new books and bam–read’em. Sometimes I get a shriek of “MOMMY!” which most would presume an oh-my-god-get-to-the-hospital-pain cry, but no: he’s still in his bed, looks down at my panicked face, and asks, “What’s this spell?” After rolling my eyes, because of course it would be this and not a broken leg, we go through the letters and work out the word. If a book has no words of which to speak, such as his picture book of 1,000 vehicles, he makes up conversations and adventures between the wee trucks on the page.

I see my sons, and I see such imaginations that want to grow, and explore. Imaginations that deserve to be better stimulated than with trips to the park, but there is still little I can do with them out of the house and on my own when their tempers are so vicious. Museums and zoos invite nothing but running and tantrums with these guys. Events with loads of people make them nervous, ornery, angry. So we make the best of Bo’s free time with the simple things. And for these two, time on a hillside among wildflowers is far more than simple: it’s an adventure.

Blondie stares out the front window. Tonight’s the night: back-to-school shopping. Doesn’t sound like much, but we’re to go when Bo gets home from work, just her and me. No boys.

“Are you sure they’ll have the BB-8 lunchbox?” she asks for the 3,649th time.

“If they don’t, Daddy will go to Toys’R’Us tomorrow to get one.”

“Okay, and you’ve got the list?” she walks briskly on her toes over to my purse as though we’re by a swimming pool with over-attentive life-guards. “List, wallet. Mommy, your phone!” She packs it, then hands me the purse. “Here, you hold onto this.” I take it, despite washing up dishes and hunting down the boys’ pajamas. She’s been counting down the days for this, time out with just me. When I was small, I positively loathed such trips with my mom. Outings like this promised a dressing room, a pile of stuff we likely wouldn’t get because it wasn’t on sale enough but I had to try them all on anyway, and then I would have to walk around the store in said items because Mom never hung out by the dressing rooms for more than thirty seconds.

Yet my daughter thinks this the greatest thing in the world, because it means she gets me all to herself.

It’s been one of my greatest fears as a parent ever since the doctor chirped, “Oh there’s TWO in there!”: letting Blondie fall to the wayside.

And she has. I’d be a liar to say she didn’t. Everything’s been about what we can do “because of the boys.” Trips to the museum, the zoo, to special places with other relations are always done with Daddy because I need to stay with the boys. Mommy always stays with the boys. The boys, boys, boys…

20160809_204106The first thing upon entering the store: we find the lunchbox. She pays careful attention as we work through her list as well as her brothers’. All things gathered, and a cool new shirt for the first day (“Saturn has headphones on? That’s so weird!” she laughs) we get in line to check out. It’s late for her, but I ask anyway: “Should we get a treat for being so awesome?”

Her eyes go wide beneath her thin blond curls, hands cupped to her mouth, “Can we go to the place with the, the Thomas train flying around, and the Superman, and the submarine, and the train, and the…”

It’s late. It’s already past her bedtime, not to mention mine. But this isn’t about me. This is about a little girl who’s been told “Not now,” “we have to help Biff/Bash with A/B/C/D/E/F/G/H/I/J/K/L/M/N/O/P,” “I’m sorry the boys screamed/ran/fought/ect. Did you still have fun?” day after day after day. And those days are going to continue.

But today doesn’t need to be like that.

So I smile, stifle a yawn. “Sure, Kiddo.”

 

Ella’s Deli has been around for ages; though the Madison neighborhood has changed, it remains its quirky self, complete with carousel. We get there just in time for a ride before it’s closed for the night.

We order our ice cream inside and wander about.

Blondie laughs at the dancing feet, works the mini-carnival. Scarfs down super-chocolatey ice cream at a table depicting a Lego battle. We talk about what we see, what I remember about my own childhood visits here. I put her favorite Veggie Tales song on repeat for the whole 30-minute ride home as she marvels at the stars, the lights of the city and how they fade in the country. The dark farmland makes her nervous, so I drive one handed, the other squeezing hers behind me. Usually she hollers from her way-back seat: “Mommy, you’re supposed to have both hands on the wheel,” but tonight there are no boys, so she gets to sit by Mommy, and Mommy gets to hold her hand.

~*~

One of the great stressors of this life–this writer’s life, mother’s life, wife’s life and all-other’s life–is the the struggle to balance that which keeps me sane with those who need me to keep life liveable. The kids have grown since I wrote “To Create in Bedlam”: no longer placated so easily, far more fearless, emotional. Independent, yet together, too. Yes, together. Sometimes Blondie spends afternoons in the pool with Biff. Sometimes she and Bash go spelunking in his bottom bunk. And then there are those days where all three actually play together. These three: the one whom I nearly left on the road, the one who tried (and still tries) to play with fire, and the one who wanted the others to be returned to the hospital for months: they, together. Never in those first three years did I dare assume this would happen. Childhood told me as much: my elder brother was a nightmare. My kid brother came to me for a while, when we were both very small, but then The Monster came for me, and for him. Not in the same way, but yes. For him.

It is the single hardest regret I carry to this day: that I did not protect, or help. That I merely hid, and thanked God it wasn’t me that day. I left my kid brother to fend for himself, to build his own inner walls for escape. We attempted to bridge ourselves together in the teenage years, but already it was too late. My elder brother had decided the younger should be his friend, so off I drifted to the side, and remained there, as so many home movies show: apart. The runt of the litter.

My mother has it in her head that we siblings have always been and continue to be close. It is not a bubble I have the energy to pop. And while she sees what she wants to see, I watch my children fight one minute and laugh the next. Tickle each other, flee from each other. But they always come together. They always stop when one is hurt, or scared. Hug, and give kisses to make it better.

Today, and I dare presume for always: Best friends do come true.

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