#writerproblems: catching #characters

Often times writers are told to go people-watch for character inspiration. This is certainly all well and good if your senses are allowed to wander about the town, in the library, at the pub, and so on.

And then, there’s parenthood.

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(Yes, both Biff and Bash are missing their top two front teeth. God has a sense of humor.)

I thought for sure a trip to the North Woods would give me at least some opportunity to catch a few interesting characters. After all, this is the land of the columned white arrow signs. You better keep your eyes open for these, or you’ll never know where stuff is.

 

This is the land of quiet waters, of river-kissing mists departing with dawn’s light.

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Of eagle homes hidden among the oaks and evergreens.

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Unfortunately, the only eagle we spotted all week was this one:

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Still, the kids were all able to find their special little somethings. Blondie found snail shells.

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Bash found his grumps.

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Biff found his chainsaws.

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No, he didn’t grab one (this time). Bo was able to keep the kids a safe distance away from the carving demonstrations at the Paul Bunyan festival.

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I’m not sure what was so Paul Bunyany about it–there was no blue ox, no giant lumberjacks. Plenty of beer and football signs, though. Nothing says Wisconsin like sports and alcohol!

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Just guess how many of these signs are about drinking. I dare you.

Surely a festival drawing in a wide range of tourists and locals would provide SOME opportunity for characters, right? Bo knew I wanted to walk around with my camera, so he took advantage of the chainsaws and stuffed the kids with chocolate-covered graham crackers so I could take a quick look around.

I did spot one crazy individual. Honestly, who dares wear Chicago Bears gear in Packer territory? This woman’s lucky she didn’t get a cow pie thrown at her back.

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Biff notices my absence all too soon, and jumps over to my side of the street. Despite the lumberjack quartet trying to strum banjos and harmonies, Biff belts the theme to “Ghostbusters” at the top of his lungs and dances down the walkway. I hold up my phone to take a video of him singing, but then…oh, but then…

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Who in Sam Elliot is THIS? An older man–70s, I’ll say. Jeans and flannel despite summer warmth. Cowboy hat. Glasses, mustache. Baby carrier. Dog. A wide-eyed, scared-stiff, shaky little dog. In the baby carrier.

Character. FOUND.

So don’t fret if you can’t get out much, writers, or you’re not able to let your eyes wander. Sometimes it’s when our focus is distracted from the hunt that we find what we’re hunting for, and then some.

Speaking of hunting, if you’re looking for a wicked read to welcome Autumn, then I do hope you’ll participate in the ARC giveaway to celebrate my debut dark fantasy YA novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.

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In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.

Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte is running away with her younger sister Anna. Together they board a bus. Little do they know that they’re bound for River Vine—a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shapeshifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.

I’m giving away 1000 copies of the ARC starting September 1st. Why? Because this book has been a part of my life as long as Blondie. It’s the book that helped me fight postpartum depression eight years ago, and those characters have become a family to me in my imagination. I’m proud of them, each and every one, and would be happy to introduce them to you if you’d be so inclined to visit either BookFunnel or Instafreebie.

 

 

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

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#Author #Interviews: #writer @Moss_Whelan discusses #writing #YA, #strongfemalecharacters, & #worldbuilding with the #psyche.

d5-4xRVl_400x400Moss Whelan (1968) born in Vancouver, British Columbia, is the Canadian author of Gray Hawk of Terrapin published on January the 12th, 2018. His work depicts a return to transcendent self-esteem in contrast with worldviews that shape perceived reality. He received the President’s Award at Douglas College and the M. Sheila O’Connel Undergraduate Prize in Children’s Literature at Simon Fraser University. A survivor of PTSD, he hopes to be a voice for continued access to mental health.

Writing Young Adult

Choosing the age of the hero is one of the toughest decisions before starting a story. I know I experimented with one character’s age in a story, and everything around the story changed when the girl went from 12 to 17. When you chose to make your main character in Gray Hawk of Terrapin thirteen, you placed her right at the beginning of the YA age range. Why 13, and not 11, or 19?

I’m addressing my own messed up experience. Teens are asked to put aside the wonder of MG and transform into YA teenagers. But there has got to be a balance between play and work; we’re not robots. There has to be facilitation, a rite of passage, which connects an MG persona to a YA persona in a healthy way. All to often, it’s presented as abandoning who you are in order to become something you are not. You lose the best part of yourself in the process.

Do you consider this to be the most challenging part of writing YA, or is there something else that is tough to tackle with this particular age group?

Tackling the reproduction narrative. I’m like a blithe idiot in my first draft, but during rewriting I start to see the motives behind characters’ behavior. I see hyper cliché love triangles of eros (outer love) without agape (inner love). It’s a recipe for disaster. Eros has a beautiful packaging, but as soon as you unwrap it you see an adoration for codependence. And yes, reproduction of the species is important. But can we do it without destroying people? Can we rise above the star-crossed: “I am nothing without someone. You complete me. I still don’t feel complete. I am nothing…”

There’s also a good deal of YA that likes to get the glam on, with all sorts of fame and fortune. You have such a moment in Gray Hawk, too, with a a kind of masked ball near the end. Why do you take readers there?

That’s the flipside of freedom and democracy. YA are bombarded by products promising to fill the void rather than encouraging them to turn, face it, and fulfill it themselves. Rather than addressing the cause of addiction we glamorize the symptoms. Heroin chic—for example—glamorizes mental illness. Can you imagine music, literature, and movies—fashion—that glamorizes mental health? We’d be super-human, interstellar, and transcendent!

So how do you battle this YA bombardment? What message do you give readers in stories like Gray Hawk?

Ultimately—and this is my experience—I’m saying everyone has a center. We don’t talk about it. We dress it up with translations that are confusing. But each of us has a psychological center. I’m saying, “Let’s get in our story car and drive to that place. Let’s find that common center and see what’s there. Let’s explore.”

DUo7LVJWsAEYgLMYou’ve called Grey Hawk’s protagonist Melanie (aka Mool) center-eccentric. I love that description for a heroine! You must enjoy storytelling with her a lot.

Yes, Mool is a center-eccentric surrounded by a bizarre family and friends who care about her—and they’re fun. I live in a tragedy and Mool saves the day. She’s a super heroine. She can save the people I can’t. She can fight my dragons and live the life I can’t. She can go to the underworld of the psyche and bring her father back from the dead. I can’t. She can end a world war and travel in outer space. She’s a super rock star.

A Male Author Writing Awesome Heroines

Now when I was writing years back, I always wrote with male leads and rarely with females. It took me a long time to work out how to write strong female characters. Why did you choose a female protagonist for Grey Hawk of Terrapin? Society’s got some pretty heavy expectations for female leads right now. 

It took a long time to find Mool. It was a process. I was asked to draft three characters in a Creative Writing class. None of my classmates liked the male characters and preferred my female character. A further writing group suggested her as a thirteen-year-old girl. And they were right; it brought me back to examine the loss of wonder that Tolkien talks about in his essay “On Fairy Stories”. As far as expectations, what I’ve learned first and foremost is that a female protagonist is a person. Whatever baggage after that, women are people. From that vantage, I can share attributes and common ground; this is a human being, with hopes and dreams, like me.

How do you take care to write characters that don’t depend on stereotypes related to gender? 

One of the best pieces of advice I got on writing a 3D character was to flip their sex. I’ll write my female characters as males and vice versa. I’ll flip their sex or gender roles if I’m getting stereotype vibes from them. I’m interested in stay-at-home fathers and bring-home-the-bacon mothers. That said, some people are stereotypes. With them it’s a matter of digging deep and finding out what makes them that way. By extension, what makes a person racist, homophobic, or sexist? What event or events made them that way?

World-Building & the Psyche

The world of Gray Hawk of Terrapin is very much connected to the mind. You establish this fantasy world as existing “…somewhere between dream and imagination”. Later, you describe a flower of light as, “A soul… if you believe in that sort of thing…A psyche if you don’t.”

Spirit and psyche share an etymological root. I have absolutely no problem with seating the spiritual in the Imagination. That may raise the hackles of the religious, but I’d like to point out that everything exists in the mind. Political spin, product advertisement, and literature—everything in our lives is shaped by how we imagine it. Gray Hawk of Terrapin is a reflection of my mind. I’m exploring a psychological realm. It’s my act of sublimation: taking tragedy and spinning it into gold. As a person with PTSD, the world war in Terrapin is my own pyschomachia or war with myself. I’m the creator of a fantasy world; I’m created by my culture; I have created a by-product that mirrors my creation.

One of the characters Mool meets is the creator of Terrapin. How does a creator-character play into a story about the psyche? 

That’s about the construction of an Axis Mundi / a psychological center / or omphalos (world navel). It’s like Black Elk’s sacred mountain (via Joseph Campbell) that is everywhere. Originally, my archetype of the One—Azimyodi—didn’t have a clearly defined place other than a rose garden and a tree. From the beginning, it was important that Azimyodi’s paradoxical age and gender complicate interpretation. As I explored the setting and character, I imagined a city of golden stone that surrounded Azimyodi situated on an Atlantean island in the middle of the sea (inspired by Tolkien’s Valinor and C.S. Lewis’ Aslan’s country). For the eternal city, I was inspired by Moorcock’s Tanelorn and Blake’s Golgonoonza.

Holy cow, you’re inspired by quite a few different classics! 

A confluence of influence! Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” was a huge influence as far as the purpose of the story. Azimyodi’s bright brow is my nod to Tolkien’s interpretation of Faerie and the notion of Return. Another connected influence is the opening of The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spencer, that lays out the intention of the work as shaping the mind of the reader. “Wow!” I thought. “Can you do that?” I want to shape a mind! Carl Jung’s own interpretation (via Campbell) to the Celtic underworld played a great part in defining what I was doing.

I love using Wisconsin to inspire my stories’ settings–both its beauties, and its nightmares. In Gray Hawk Mool begins in rainy Vancouver and travels to rainy Perlox. Would you say you’re giving a little commentary about Vancouver in your book? 

Very much so. The city of Perlox is definitely Vancouver where it rains often. Both are beside rivers by the sea. I dug into the colonial history of Vancouver and used bits and pieces. The cultural genocide that is still going on here while we’re waving the flag of multiculturism. People are dying in the streets because no one is talking about the cause of addiction. My community tries to cover up and not address the cause of child abuse at the CRCA Co-op. I keep striving toward the center.

Thank you so much for sharing your inner creative workings, Moss! May your adventures toward the center guide readers to find their own center of the mind and spirit. I hope Terrapin finds new ways to grow with your experience here in this reality! 

I hope so. It’s like building an Artificial Intelligence with lines of code and subroutines. Sometimes, I’m there. Sometimes I can rewire my mind and transcend time, space, and identity. Huzzah!

Check out Gray Hawk of Terrapin 

from Prodigy Gold Books today!

 

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Ever since her father’s death, Mool has been talking with an imaginary green lion named Inberl. When Mool’s mysterious uncle gets sick, she and her mother take the train from Vancouver, Canada to the inner world of Terrapin, where Inberl is arrested because he’s looking for Gray Hawk. Springing into action, Mool sets out to rescue Inberl.

Mool’s know-it-all cousin, Olga, helps track down family friend Parshmander who might know how to save Inberl. They corner Parshmander at home, where they overhear mention of Gray Hawk, but the girls are captured and interrogated. Upon release, Mool feels success when she sees a secret map, finds a hidden bridge and crosses it with Olga. On the other side of the bridge, they find a secret city that keeps Terrapin at war.

Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey laced with evil, chronicling histories of cruelty, kidnapping, and false imprisonment in search of meaning and justice.

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And stay tuned next week for the official release of “Dandelion of Defiance,” the next short story in my Tales of the River Vineas well as some exciting news about my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

Baptized in #Imagination & #Hope: the Gifts of the #Writing Spirit

Because it’s hard to write a few thousand words of novel every day when you get called into the principal’s office, called into the classroom, or simply called to take a particular child home several times over the past couple of weeks (seriously, Bash!?), I need to take a minute, and breathe.

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Sure, Bash looks happy now. You didn’t see him a few hours ago. 

We’ve all known these rough patches. We trip and sprain an ankle, tear the sole in our boot and step in a muddy puddle. Slow to a halt when a gaggle (herd? pack? hay bale?) of farmers turn their tractors off to chew gossip. And don’t get me started on those roads diverging in yellow woods.

Now’s the time for camaraderie and thankfulness for the authors who have walked with me in the blogosphere these past three years, and those who move me to keep on walking. Sci-fi writer J.I. Rogers‘ kind nomination provides me the chance to do just that.

Rogers is author of the sci-fi novel The Korpes Files, co-writer of Last Horizon: Collapse, and contributor to the speculative fiction adventure anthology On the Horizon. Do check them all out!

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“According to Okoto Enigma, ‘Mystery Blogger Award is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.’ ”

The rules

  • Thank whoever nominated you and include a link to their blog.
  • Tell your readers three things about yourself.
  • Nominate bloggers you feel deserve the award.
  • Answer questions from the person who nominated you.
  • Ask your nominees 5 questions of your choice with one weird or funny one.
  • Notify your nominees by commenting on their blogs.

My nominees

SJ HigbeeBecause she shares so many wonderful stories, and keeps me inspired to get my own stories out there, too.

Anne ClareBecause she’s one of my oldest friends, whose faith so often helps me center my own.

Callum StanfordBecause his drive to overcome all obstacles professional and personal stirs new strength in me every time I read his story.

Questions for my nominees

  1. Think back to the first story you ever wrote/drew. What was it about?
  2. Does your creativity spread into other skills?
  3. If there’s one book you wish you could UN-read, which would it be?
  4. Favorite tea or wine? (I’m always looking for recommendations)
  5. If you could visit one location on this lovely earth to study it for a story’s setting, which would it be?

Now me I decided to approach J.I. Rogers’ questions in a more nontraditional manner. Her questions came at a time when I was fretting in and out of prayer, and for some reason the gifts of the Holy Spirit fell into the mix, too.

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And here’s an inspiriational-ish image from Max Pixel just to set the mood.


Gifts of the Writing Spirit

Respect

First and foremost, there is this awe, this legit fear of the power in imagination. My memory sucks–you ask me about a major childhood event, or high school shenanigans, or what we even spoke about yesterday, and I’ll blink at you blank. But I can recall nightmares that are decades old, and haunt me still. Nightmares from the age of four, when I dreamed my parents and a man with a handlebar mustache stood talking before a gothic cathedral while unseen arms picked me up and stuck me in a station wagon’s backseat. My folks’ heads never moved as I  pounded my little fists on the window. Their bodies shrunk as the gothic cathedral’s stone infested the world. I can describe the nightmare of being trapped in a house, gagged, with walls peeling open to pink, translucent tentacles. I can tell you the dream of the shadow that chased me through a dark church, flattening against the walls and then popping out, always in front of me, its bright blue eyes never blinking. And those are just the nightmares of imagination, not real life. 

If we want readers to respect our imaginations, to be trapped in our worlds past 3am, talking to the the typed letters like they’re real people–“Don’t go in there! Yeah, you tell’em! Wait, you can’t walk out on her now!”–then we need to treat our imaginations and all that live in them as real.

Counsel

71sst0-sdELWe all know we need to read well to write well. Sure, I’ll bust out the Shakespeare and the Austen every now and again, but I’ve always found more pleasure in reading books by Diana Wynne Jones. Her worlds never feel slipshod or half-done. The characters always have a bit of snarky wit about them, and they never do anything that feels out of sorts. The pacing, too, is a great thing to watch; just when you think she may be giving too much exposition, you find out quite a bit of plot’s been moving along right under your nose. One of the best guilty pleasures is re-reading Howl’s Moving Castle for fun.  It’s a beautiful example of two real characters, complete with stubborn streaks and conceited airs, still somehow falling for one another in the midst of working magic errands for a kingdom at war.

Fortitude

Must have coffee. Sometimes tea.

And peanut butter. Lots, and lots, of creamy peanut butter.

Knowledge

Ever watch or read something to learn what not to do? I find riffing shows quite useful in this department. Robot Co-Op, Rifftraxor old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000  always teach me something as they roast games and films into hilarious remains because many of their jokes are rooted in the lousy writing. They give Writer Me a Reader’s reaction to the poor character development, lame dialogue, or muddled plots a half-assed story uses. If you don’t want your story to become infamous like Manos: The Hands of Fate, then do the story RIGHT!

Wisdom

We all of us have talents outside of writing. Anne Clare can make stained glass windows, for instance. Shehanne Moores an actor and director. We have these extra channels that help us pull our creativity out of a rut, even renew it.

Music is mine. At one point I was learning piano, violin, clarinet, and even organ. Fourteen years of lessons are going to leave their mark; that’s why I write so avidly about music, and listen to music whenever I write. It’s another realm of creation and adventure we have only to hear to believe. Even my heroine in Fallen Princeborn: Stolen is a pianist because I know how music mends the torn soul.

Piety

It’s not just about the reverence, it’s about the belief. You need to know it, feel it in the furthest reaches of your gut, in the callused skin of your fingertips. You have to move forward with the faith that you will succeed, that you will get your stories to readers. I kept that faith for thirty years: doodling stories, recording stories on cassettes, writing stories, going to school to learn about stories, hating school for what they said about stories, and then finally saying piss off to everyone and writing what I wanted to write.

And now here I am, signed on with Aionios Bookswith plans to publish my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus.

The first novel, Stolen, will be out this fall. Tales of the River Vine is a collection of six short stories I’m releasing one at a time for free download. The first two, The Boy Who Carried a Forest In His Pocket and “The Stray,” are already available, with the third, “Dandelion of Defiance,” coming out in August.

 

Understanding

When I was checking the list of what constitutes gifts of the spirit, I came across this notation for “Understanding”:

“To grasp faith’s mysteries.”

So it goes for writing.

As much as we may stand in awe of our imagination’s power, we must also journey through it to find its roots, and learn how it grows. As a child raised in a minister’s family, I was baptized in Word and Spirit: the water, the Bible passages, dove symbolizing God, etc. I was raised to believe that which the world deemed impossible: walking on water? Feeding thousands with scraps? Rising from the dead? Bah. Fairy tales.

Perhaps it was my father’s study, where Dr. Who figurines stood in front of Hebrew texts and Dragonriders of Pern sat shelved alongside doctrine commentaries. Somehow, my father’s love of fantasy and science fiction grew right alongside my faith. I accepted all the impossible: the wardrobes, the fairies, the dragons, the Highlanders–all felt as proper and real to me as Scripture.

And it’s this sense of realness, of trueness, that keeps my hope alive. There are so, so many worlds out there. Can’t you feel them? Found on a flight of whirligig seeds, hidden beneath the floorboards of the long-forgotten school outside of town. We have been baptized in imagination: we are the ones who see these places, feel their life force humming in the air. We have been baptized in hope, the hope that in our story-telling we will bring sight to the eyes that cannot see these worlds. We hope to find kindred souls who search, like us, behind the crumbling walls and through the old photographs to rediscover mysteries long forgotten.

We are blessed with such gifts to tell our stories. It is our power.

May we use it well.

 

#Music & #ComicArt Help Fill The #Imagination Room for #Writers

Many students and writing comrades have told me of their need for silence when they write. I’ve never been one for silence; my ears quickly become distracted by any noise, be it a plane overhead, some neighbor’s car door, the heater. This could just be due to the fact I’ve got a squirrel’s attention span.

Or, it could be due to the fact I’m a parent with kids who are always, ALWAYS noisy: cars crash, transformers explode, trains go off cliffs, animals eat each other–they are all of them dramatic, violent little buggers. If they’re quiet, then that just means they’re using stealth to accomplish something even more devious, like treating the oven dials as spaceship controls.

So quiet’s not exactly a writing option round these parts. I need to isolate my imagination’s internal senses with visuals and sounds.

It begins with snapshots, like slides on a projector. Just pictures at first, distant and untouchable, until more slides come, a photogenic click click click of a paperless book. The cassette player ka-chunks and music sneaks into the space, quiet and wary until it meets the beat of the slides and then maybe, if I time it just right, I can jump into the images like double-dutch and land, smack. I’m there. I’m in. And I can feel it all.

With Book 1 of the Fallen Princeborn Omnibus due for release this fall, I’m already hip-deep in Book 2. New world-building needs arose involving some minor characters, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I couldn’t see their world. I’m just sitting in a blank room of silence, the projector shining this white rectangle of nuthin’.

And with the kids on spring break for two long, LONG weeks, the time to focus my search was not coming. I’d dust off one snapshot of just a character’s arm, or some sort of shadow-blob in the background. The next day I just get a bruise-ish color, but no shapes.

It was so infuriating I even vented to Bo about it. I need something that looks alive, I said.

“Living buildings.”

No, not alive, just looking alive.

“Looking…?”

And in the water. A dark place, but they gotta see where they’re going.

(Oh yes, he’s furrowing his brow through this entire exchange.) “Dark, but…there’s light?”

Yes.

“And that’s supposed to be here, like, on Earth?”

Yes.

“O-kay.”

Hopeless, I thought. I’m stuck forever.

An hour later, after the boys have read about outer space and trucks, and Blondie learned what Roald Dahl’s Mathilda will do to anyone who rips up a library book, Bo emails me a search result of images. Take a look here. Notice where they come from? Comic books.

Duh. Why didn’t I think of this? Marvel and DC both have lords of the sea in their lore: Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Aquaman.

But in studying the Aquaman archive, I find my own shoulders hunching into a “meh” position. I don’t want to make yet another version of Atlantis.

Then two things happen at once: a happy accident, you could say.

First, I open a different file from Bo:

new-atlantis

Click.

The blue. The cold darkness balanced with light. The living feel of the dome and rock…at last, a clear slide! In my mind’s projector I can finally sit on the bench, staring, waiting for the cassette player to come on, or another slide to click into place.

Nuthin’.

Oh, Imagination is shaking the box for the other slides. It’s crawling on hands and knees to search under benches and that sad excuse of a cart with rust on the bottom shelf and a cracked wheel.

Still not found. Not for three. Damn. Days.

On a borrowed computer, I find an album I haven’t listened to in ages:

Dune.

Yes, the David Lynch film, scored by Toto.

As a kid, I only paid attention to the film when Captain Picard and all the good guys with the weird blue eyes rode on giant worms and blasted baddies into smithereens. The music was super dramatic with its drums, choir, guitar, orchestra. The first minute here should give you a sense of that (Ignore the second minute with the creepy kid):

Way, way back, in the corner of the storage room, Imagination digs up an old cassette tape. Something eerie. Distinctly awed. Cautious.

It was from Dune.

I start skimming the tracks, and by God, I find it.

Ka-chunk.

Imagination turns up the volume. The slide deepens. I step forward, as cautious as the choir. The rhythm is slow, deceptive. Imagination nudges me into the minor harmonies and invisible currents. Will I tangle them, ruin their power? Will I fall, bloody the ground?

I might.

But it’s a risk worth taking, every time.

 

#Writers, Discover Portals to #Fantasy in the Beauty of #NaturePhotography.

Winter’s a curious time in Wisconsin. As I mentioned in my post “War Against Writer’s Butt,” we can go from fifty degrees and mud to twenty below and ice-roads in a couple of days.

Capturing this transition is all the more difficult. Fortunately, good friend and professional photographer Emily Ebeling gave me permission to share some of her photos from a trip to Cedarburg Bridge.

 

 

 

 

Winter trees have such a sadness about them. Once I referred to them as “gravestones over their summer-selves.” The way their fingers bleed into the ice below turns the river into a portal, an other-world that I so often sense on solitary walks in my homeland.

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The way they huddle together as if caught, and freeze, waiting for you to turn away.

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The way a river calls to you, promising safe passage through nature’s spectral giants and their clawing bones.

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The way a bridge impresses safety, dominance over nature. Sure, walk on water, I won’t let anything happen to you, for I was made by man.

As far as you know.

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The way you stand at water’s edge, and peer down. Rocks both tall and flat, a mix of mashed teeth. Nothing stirs at the water’s surface, nothing peeks from the depths. Do you dare kneel, and cross the boundary?

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Some winters will barricade you in your home, forcing you to find new worlds in “the solar system of the mind,” as Blondie once put it. Of course this isn’t a bad thing, but look at what curiosities await out there, like this covered bridge.

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Where will this bridge take you at the break of dawn? At the dead of night? If you’re the tenth daughter walking on the tenth day of the tenth month in the tenth year?

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Moments like this make me both envious and thankful for a friend like Emily; one who’s able to get out and document such beautiful portals, and does so with both the skill and equipment necessary to do these portals justice.

This is why I’ve always been a sucker for photography that captures both the intimate and epic scopes of landscape. I may never get back to Ireland. I may never return to the Dakotas, let alone travel farther west. Heck, I may never find this covered bridge right here in my state. We each of us live surrounded by beautiful portals to other worlds, many of which we may never get to find. But someone, like Emily, may stumble upon the portal before winter breathes the portal shut. She may steal it away in her camera, and share her findings with you. Then, when you are alone with your jumbled words and these borrowed photos, the magics may spark all on their own. Those sparks may burn open a new portal, and that portal may beckon to you, and you alone.

Don’t return without a tale worth telling.

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Many thanks to Emily for giving me permission to share her work. I’m so blessed to have her as a friend! She has a special gift in capturing special moments like weddings, such as the nuptials of dear friends like Rachel, my comrade at Polish Fest. You may even see Bo and me in the wedding party!

http://emilyebelingphotography.blogspot.com/2017/06/introducing-mr-and-mrs-w-appleton-area.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Insert irritated glare here.) “No.”

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

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

“I guess. What’s up?”

“I want to take some pictures.”

“Of what?”

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Give chase, and don’t look back.

#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday.

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

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

“Stand still, Jean.”

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

“Turn this way, Jean. No, this way.”

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

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

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

Blast.

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

~*~

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

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

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

Except for one.

~*~

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

That kind of past is not easily forgotten.

~*~

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

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

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

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

It only took her several decades to do it.

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

 

 

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

“Mommy, look! It’s a magical stick!”

“That’s nice, Bash.”

“Can I take it home?”

“No.”

“Can I pleeeeease take it home?”

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

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

“Look, a pinecone! Can I keep it?”

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

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

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

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

Writing’s rather like that.

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

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

And I love it.

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Writer’s Music: Ramin Djawadi II

While I often use music to enter my hero’s head or work out a new voice, music also has its uses for entering the dark side, too.

In writing my Shield Maiden stories, Gwen had a mix of antagonists: parents, fellow recruits, captain, and herself, too, but this was all due to her own ego and narrow-mindedness. Only the giant snake created by the Cat Man was a bona fide bad guy with a goal: poison everyone.

With the snake dead, though, I realized Beauty’s Price couldn’t follow the same formula. Wynne really is up against her family, who sees a marriage to the obscenely wealthy Prydwen as a win for everyone. No one seems to mind that Prydwen has more wealth than any law-abiding trader should have, hasn’t aged in over ten years, and insists on marrying all five sisters or else. Wynne’s family sees money and status, and therefore success.

Wynne, who already loves someone, sees no joy at all.

But I didn’t want this conflict to be like another Beauty and the Beast, where Gastan just looks great and wants Wynne and Co. simply because they’re pretty, too. There has to be a reason.

I needed to see what Prydwen sees when he looks at Wynne. That begins with getting him out into the open , to see him interact with Wynne.

His movements would be slow, smooth, calculating. One who moves about in plain sight with ease, whose true gifts are only discovered when it’s too late.

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The music needed to stay fantastic and period, so I dug through the scores of Legend, Chronicles of Narnia, Cadfael–no luck. Nothing, not even the White Witch’s music, had that right touch of creeping, subtle menace. All I could hope was in a big enough mix of albums I’d stumble upon the right theme.

And wouldn’t you know it: on the last day of the boys’ school, I found it.

The rhythm slithers on the ground. The melody distracts, draws attention away from the percussion so we think nothing when it fades only to return, stronger, faster, surrounding us, defeating us.

One heartbeat later, and the horse jingled into view at full gallop. The rider pulled hard upon the belled reins, stopping it at the garden’s edge. Beast and master shone with golden hounds embroidered upon crimson cloak and covers. Rings of red and orange gems glittered round every gloved finger. Such wealth displayed with such ease and without a single guard felt wrong, very wrong.

I could feel his gaze upon us, unrelenting as the sun in the heat of summer. If not for the horse’s content chewing, I would have screamed but to break the silence. “Pray forgive me, but I feel as if I should know you both.” He clicked his tongue, and the horse closed the distance between us. I could see every thread of his hounds, down to the points of their teeth. He had approached me, so there was no choice: I had to look up at his clean, polished face. “Perhaps my business has brought me to this town in the past. My memories are not always my own.” His smile revealed teeth white enough to be pearls.

No lord looked so perfect, not in body or status.  …. “You, more than the boy, are far more familiar. I am now certain I have met you before.”

No, you are wrong! I wanted cry out, to leap into the Gasirad and beg sanctuary, but my mind, curse it, thought otherwise. “Perhaps you think of my sisters? They meet many who do business with my father, Master Adwr of Hafren.” Surely he was thinking of them. Let him deal with their Sly Accidents before his horse, forcing him to carry them in all weak and wounded and be compelled to attend them. Let them coo and paw upon his chiseled jaw and ringed fingers. He can have their choice of them, for all I cared.

“Sisters?” He swallowed the word down. My own stomach burned. “How many?” The question came hard and fast. No smile, however warm and easy, covered the odd strike that came with such a question.

Yeah, why did Prydwen care about there being five sisters?

Jean LeeWhen I  initially brainstormed Beauty’s Price, I liked the idea of five sisters because it mirrored the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice. But when I met Prydwen, I could see he had a thing for five: five identical jewels on each hand. He later comes with five guards. He jumps at the knowledge of five sisters. There’s something about the number of a thing that suddenly makes that thing matter. Considering his wealth, that need is related to power: the number 5 is powerful to him somehow. The more collections of 5 he gathers, the stronger he gets…

…and I could see a moment where a collection is broken, and the rage that rises. He cannot afford to lose a set, any set. I could see a moment in the story, far and away, where Wynne steals a horse to escape. I can see him standing upon the hillside, watching as she gallops off in the rain, pounding rain, yet he can spot his crest upon the horse. His horse. The wretched girls who have clearly influenced her against him, terrible friends, and only three of them, not a good number, they made her take his horse and they’ll never give it back. He can see them stop on the other side of the valley. They can see him as he moves to another steed of the collection…and stabs it through the throat. One after another, until the remaining horses are dead.

Never. Ruin. A set.

Prydwen’s nature and motivations fascinate me. I’m determined to pull them out of hiding, but his inner self is like Gollum, a silent master of caves, impossible to find on purpose. Djawadi’s score tripped me into the right tunnel. Now we sit, he and I, with our riddles in the dark, watching the other, waiting for the words that betray a weakness. I will not let my villain beat me at this game.

Neither should yours.

 

 

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