A #summer of #writing and #parenthood: #Celebrate #nature and #imagination with a little #summertime #adventure in your own #backyard

Welcome to July, friends around the world, and Happy 4th to my fellow Americans!

Yowza, July already! June whipped by thanks to summer school for the kiddos. Biff and Bash have been doing a class to help them get ready for 1st grade, which means time with the three R’s and some extra socialization. It also means me going through all their kindergarten work to pack up the most memorable bits, including their writing. After going through their pieces, I couldn’t help but ask Biff and Bash about their favorite work.

For a girl reticent about meeting new people and trying new things, it was a bit of a challenge getting Blondie to participate in summer school. With the bribe of a computer gaming class, I was able to sign her up for photography and geocaching. Lo and behold, she’s found those courses way cooler than playing ol’ computer games!

(This isn’t the only chat I’ve had with Blondie lately! Moss Whelan interviewed us both for his Story in Mind podcast. Check out our awesomeness!)

For some, summertime means going on adventures in far off places. But my experience with Blondie in the Horicon Marsh was a beautiful reminder that one doesn’t have to travel far to escape to other worlds.

From accentnatural.com

So often we think we have to travel miles and miles to escape the humdrum.

from cityofwaupun.org

We presume the truly fantastic is beyond the horizon, just out of reach.

From horiconchamber.com

But if we take a moment to step outside, we might just discover adventure awaits us in the here and now, be it in the nearby marshlands…

From horiconmarshcalls.com

…or with the imaginations frolicking in our own backyard.

What are your imaginations up to this summer? Any recommendations of fun daytime-adventures with kids? Let’s chat!

Looking for some summer adventures? There’s free fiction to explore on my site as well as a fantasy novel on Amazon that’s free via Kindle Unlimited. Many thanks to Ronel Janse van Vuuren for her recent review!

Did you miss my monthly newsletter? Catch the July edition here, and subscribe here so you don’t miss another update.

Stay tuned… I’ve got some terrific interviews lined up this summer, starting next week!

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

Even the smallest #mom wields the powerful #magic of #love. #celebrating #motherhood #writing #kidlit #writinglife

“Why isn’t Huck Finn’s dad nice to him?” Blondie asks from  behind her beloved stuffed dog Sledgehammer.

Bo closed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and stared at the cover a good long moment before answering. “Some parents are not that nice, kiddo,” he says, and goes on to talk a bit about alcohol addiction.

I came in after her prayers as I always do to give her a hug and kiss goodnight. “I hope Huck gets away soon,” she says.

“He can’t have any adventures if he doesn’t.”

Blondie nods, then brightens. “I can’t wait until my birthday party!”

So it goes when talking to an almost-nine-year-old: from horrifying parents to birthday celebrations in the blink of a beautiful eye.

It struck me, then, how few stories I read during my own childhood that contained positive parent figures. There’s no parents in the Chronicles of Narnia that I recall. Ramona Quimby had a mom, I think…but she wasn’t a major character, or at the very least, memorable. Fairy tale parents are usually evil or inconsequential. Babysitter Club books are usually about girls solving their own problems without parental help (why else would a babysitter be around?). I don’t recall Nancy Drew having extensive scenes with her folks. Few of the detective novels I read had much of anything to do with family, come to think, unless you count Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. But that’s a brother, not a parent, and he only shows up twice.

Huh. No wonder Blondie’s reaction to Huck Finn sticks with me still: I didn’t have that kind of exposure to the Nasty Parent at her age. Even the evil stepmom of Cinderella doesn’t go on drunk binges and whip Cinderella with a belt. Huck Finn’s dad is nasty. Scary-nasty. The sort of nasty that’s talked about on the news or in a television series, not a kid’s book.

Now why am I going off like this? Because here in the U.S. Mother’s Day approaches, and I want to celebrate the positive parent characters in children’s literature. Seriously, they exist! Like…um…oh! Ray Bradbury created a loving relationship between father and son in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Even Diana Wynne Jones, who had a miserable relationship with her own parents, could still create some flawed yet very loving parents in books like Archer’s Goon and The Ogre Downstairs.

Today, I’d like to look at one of the strongest moms in fantasy fiction, a widow with four young children, one of whom’s gravely ill.

I am, of course, talking about Mrs. Frisby.

Or Brisby, if you knew her by the Don Bluth film like I did.

For some reason the film adaptation of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH named her Brisby. I’d like to think it’s because Hermione Baddeley, who voiced Auntie Shrew, really rattles your teeth whenever she shrilly hollers Mrs. Brisby’s name.

With all due respect to Robert C. O’Brien, the book moves with a much…quieter, calmer pace, I’ll say, than the Bluth film.

And, well, let’s face it: O’Brien doesn’t have any electro-magic wielded by rats voiced by the majestic Sir Derek Jacobi, let alone a soundtrack composed by the ever-wonderful James Horner.

Bluth’s version of Mrs. Brisby is a widow just like the Mrs. Frisby of the book, and both versions do have four children and one suffering from pneumonia. But unlike Mrs. Frisby of the book, Mrs. Brisby is constantly facing certain death in order to protect her kids. From standing in the bones of other mice to speak with the Great Owl…

…to running under the farmer wife’s feet in order to sedate Dragon, the barn cat that KILLED HER HUSBAND, Mrs. Brisby puts her life on the line time and again for her family. I can still remember the terror racing through my little-kid heart when the giant rat guard tries to electrocute Mrs. Brisby at the gate into the rose bush…

…or when the Brisby home begins sinking in the mud and all the kids inside are gasping for air.

(Oh yes, Bluth’s films are both awesome and TERRIFYING. Just ask MG author Celine Kiernan—she worked for him!)

But because I felt the terror then, and saw this little mommy mouse defy her fears to run into a moving tractor to disable it while the ceiling started to cave in around her sick son, because I felt the panic in her pulling rope after rope around her sinking house to keep her children from drowning—because I felt all the fear Mrs. Brisby experienced, the courage she also displayed resonated with me very, very deeply; it resonates with me still, thirty years later. In a story of mice and electro-magic rats, I saw motherhood in its purest form:

Love, fearless and boundless, strong and eternal.

May our own hands brave the fire to protect those who matter most.

What positive parent characters appear in your favorite stories? Please share so I can give Blondie something to look forward to…

I’ll be the first to admit the moms of my own fiction are, shall we say, some nasty pieces of work. Scope out my novel and free short stories on this site to find out more.

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

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 27

BEFORE THE KEYNOTE

I’m running around the house doing anything but prepare: laundry, readying kids for school, dishes–

Bo: “Know what you need?”

A sedative. A one-way ticket to Oslo. A chorus of Muppets performing a musical review of Animal Crackers.

“No. You need to go downstairs, breathe in those cinnamon pinecones on your desk, and pull out my copy of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul.”

But I can’t listen to it. It’s not Hot Clarified Butter Soul. Get it? Eeeeh? Get it? Whole30 humor!

Oh I’m going to fail on so many levels…

AFTER KEYNOTE

The opening slide of my keynote presentation! With, um, cover-ups. 🙂

Well…I spoke like a juiced driver on the Daytona track, but I didn’t flub my points or the snippets I read from Stolen and “The Stray.” Thank the Lord I could use my old–slogan?–“Writer of Fantasy and Adventure in Her Own Backyard” to be the theme of my talk. I delved into Wisconsin’s landscape and how it inspired my fiction from little on, and that any writer can create worlds unique to their stories with a little help from the everyday environment around them.

Building the extraordinary out of the ordinary, as it were.

Afterwards, I had many colleagues tell me they felt really excited to explore the favorite places from their own childhoods as I had with mine, and to take a crack at some fantasy fiction of their own.

Gotta admit: I felt proud of that. Relieved, but proud. x

Now I just need to read my nonfiction piece about Blondie without flubbing. Here we go!

AFTER NONFICTION READING

I cried.

No joke.

This moment with Blondie still pulls all those emotions of motherhood to the fore: guilt for writing instead of playing with her, pain for making her feel like work mattered more. Determination to make right, only to have my plans be too “scary” for her. Dammit, I’m going to cry again!

But the one good thing about tears while reading: it gets the listeners all teared up too. So never mind my editing snafus in the piece–I got the whole room cryin’.

Gotta admit, I’m proud of that. Of Blondie, of this day, of all of it, now. For once, I’m going to allow myself to be proud of myself.

Now I just need to survive that interview with the faculty panel tomorrow…

Oh! Before I forget: tomorrow is the LAST day my novel’s on sale for 99 cents. If you know anyone who loves fantasy, be sure to drop this title their way before March runs my sale out of town!

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

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 15

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

Yowza, I nearly forgot to write today! It’s been a mess of school work and Blondie. For the first time in ages, the majority of my students actually give a cheese wedge about their work. For a teacher, this is both awesome and awful all at once.

Awesome: Yay, look at all this in-depth idea-sharing and topic-exploring!

LEARNING!

Awful: I gotta grade ALL this? Dammit.

So you know how on the 8th I wrote about the boys getting into a fight and pulling me away from Blondie’s parent visitation day? I made up for the time lost with Blondie by taking her to the local humane society this afternoon. We learned about being volunteers, and…yup, I signed up to volunteer with her.

I gripe so much here about stealing time from my kids, about trying to make time for them. It hit me watching her with the cats that I need to make time for her. If I don’t make it a thing, then months are going to pass before we have moments like this again.

Dammit, I will NOT let that happen. Come summer, we’re going to the humane society 1-2 times a week, and we’re going to work together to help these animals and clean up the place. She’s going to learn that caring for animals is more than playing with them, and I’m going to learn that my jobs do not have to dominate my life.

LEARNING!

We also learned some hopeful news about the boys from their school’s social worker. Turns out the fight they got into last week could have been prevented: last-minute scrambling for a substitute resulted in all sixty kindergarteners sharing a classroom at one point, where both Biff and Bash usually use the same seat, just one different days. Well both went to “his seat” and no teacher thought beforehand to get a second seat. Fists ensued.

The social worker apologized about that, and also informed me that after talking with some other peers in behavioral studies, she thinks Biff and Bash have what’s known as sensory integration disorder. Basically, it means that new stimuli in their regular environment or a new environment with lots of stimuli can basically overload them and they cannot process it decently. They don’t know how to function, sooooo they get out of control, or they break down, etc. It would take an official diagnosis to find out, but if this is the case, a diagnosis would help the boys get some extra help at school and protections from teachers eager to write up the “naughty” kids and send them home.

For the first time in years, it sounds like we might actually have an answer to what the heck is going on with these guys.

LEARNING!

Okay, back to grading for me. Thank you all for your continued support through this month of blogging, teaching, writing, mothering…and now the kids get to eat cheesy pizza and I can’t touch the crusts and I hate all food and why, WHYYYYYYYYYY?!?!?!

Ahem.

See you tomorrow!

Oh, and check out my fiction if you’re bored. It’s around. The novel’s just 99p, the story on my site’s free, and the short stories are still free on Amazon and other platforms. It’s all good. 🙂

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

PS: I made it to the second round of interviews! I’m guessing the panel doesn’t know I used a Charlie Horse puppet to teach college students about research questions and thesis statements…

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 8

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

My apologies in advance.

This one’s short. Curt, really.

Today was supposed to be a lovely day for Blondie.20190208_114112

 

Parent Visitation Day. For the first time ever, I could attend the whole day and watch her awesome smartness in action. She kicked butt on her spelling test. She went crazy during a math game (seriously, everyone went NUTS over these weird cards), and brainstormed up some amazing ideas for her gray wolf habitat display for the Science Fair. We were just getting ready for lunch when–you guessed it–the phone rang.

Biff and Bash’s principal.

They needed to be sent home for fighting. Fists to the face and everything.

I did my damndest to hide my tears when I told Blondie. Her reaction: not all that surprised.

For once, for FUCKING once, can’t Blondie matter more than the boys’ behavior?

But Bo works in another chunk of the state. have to get them.

Bash’s black eye is…well it’s hopefully something to give him pause.

Biff says Bash started it by budging in line. When I asked why Biff didn’t just tell the teacher, he shrugged. Would he have punched out another kid for such an offense, or because it was Bash, then it was all-out war?

The school’s scheduled an evaluation for a behaviorist.

God, I need a drink.

Oh wait. I can’t.

No booze during Whole30.

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I know you’re a good guy, Biff. You and your brother both are. Please, PLEASE, you have to show you are a good guy to others. You cannot lash out so violently over so little. Please, dear ones, please.

(sigh)

Okay. I can’t be dour forever. There has to be a change sometime.

And a few hours with Blondie is better than none at all.

A YA book blogger also reviewed Fallen Princeborn: Stolen and loved it.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

Bunnerbooky’s review made me smile like a hug from Blondie. You can check her out here.

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 5

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

How the heck am I supposed to cheat with the good creamer when Bo’s home from work?

It’s taken a lot of stealthy sneakery, let me tell you. I put him on tooth-brushing detail before the school bus came. I’ve waited until he’s checking something on Facebook. I’ve listened for him to shut the bathroom door.

Aha! Creamer! It’s mine, I tell you, MIIIIINE!

Ahem.

And then he had to go into the kitchen to make his lunch. Can’t he cook somewhere else? Use the grill, most of the snow’s melted by now.

Dammit, now I gotta use the cashew milk.

BLECH YUCK BLECHITY BLECH

Ahem.

So why is Bo off of work? Biff and Bash have a concert this afternoon during their school day. It’s themed “All Things February,” only without anything Valentiney for some reason. Who wants to sing about Valentine’s Day when you’ve got American presidents, groundhogs, weather, and nonsense words like “skinnamarink”?

Buuuut it’s a bunch of kingergarteners, so therefore it will be cute. So long as they’re not singing about poop or farts, I’m fine.

What, don’t your kindergarteners sing about poop and farts? Don’t your third graders? Mine do!

No, I’m not subjecting you to that nonsense. If you want a taste of their humor, go check out the best-selling Middle Grade comic series Dog-Man.

515fAmmGpEL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_In the meantime, I’m trying to broaden the kids’ horizons with a little poetry. I found a gorgeous picture book edition of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes. Every line receives a painting rich and passionate, so you move slow through the poem, savoring every line.

Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets. Reading him is always a journey of multiple senses, twisting and turning down the white-space of the page, feeling both the cut of the language and the long echo of the visual.

Just listen to this.

My favorite lines:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.
...
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

“When dawns were young”…what a magical phrase, infinite and divine.

Not that my kids would listen.

“Look, Mommy, I made Bumbleebee fart on Starscream!”

Sigh.

Give’em time, Jean. They’re kindergarteners. You’ll get them there in time.

Go read Langston Hughes this month. Read him out loud, too, so others can be touched by his language.

Buy my book, too, or you can read my FREE fiction here or herebut only after you read some Langston Hughes.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 4

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

More mist today. A spring-like humidity clings to winter coats: still too much snow to be outside without them, yet the freak warmth makes one feel like it’s April, not February. That’s Wisconsin for you.

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Bash, Hoppy, and I on a happier day.

If only the mist didn’t seem to fit so perfectly with Bash’s constant talk of death.

“Noooo, I have to wear my mittens so I don’t get frostbite and die!”

“Can choking make me die?”

“Mom, how does Jesus get me after I die?”

Where this fixation came from, I don’t know. I’m surely responsible, at least in part, what with my Stop wrestling on the stairs before  you kill each other! kinds of threats. Bo’s not helping, either.

“Mommy and Daddy are on a diet so that our coffins don’t break pallbearers’ backs.”

Y-yeah, that’s a great thing to tell the kids.

Yet I can’t bring myself to be angry, or even annoyed. See, not only did my father die suddenly in February–Bo’s, did, too, just three years before Dad.

“Mom, your mom is Grandma. Grandma is still alive, but your dad’s dead. How did he die?” Bash asks while playing with Transformers, like this is a normal question during a normal day, like this is a thing to ask right before “What’s for lunch? Do we have string cheese?”

His heart stopped working,” I say quietly.

“And then he went to heaven?”

“Yup.”

“Where is heaven?”

“On top of the universe.”

“Ooooh,” Bash whines, and finds my lap without looking up from Optimus Prime mid-transformation. “That’s far away from you.”

I wrap my arms tight around my baby Bash, no longer so little,, but always my youngest, my snuggler, my storyteller. “Not that far, Bash. Never that far.”

~*~*~*~

Snuggle with your loved ones today. Give’em a kiss, show them what they mean to you.

Of course, I’m going to plug my novel here, too. but seriously, share your heart today. Life is too short not to fill it with love and hope.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Writing #ParentProblems: O Holey Night

“Mo-om, these pants have a hole in them.”

“Mom, can I throw this sock away? It’s got a hole.”

“Not THAT hat, Mom, there’s a hole!”

Since the start of school Biff and Bash have put holes in three hats, five pairs of pants, two pairs of snow pants, six socks, and one snow boot. Hell, Biff still  has a hole in his smile.

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It’s only taken, oh, EIGHT MONTHS for just one front tooth to show up.

The holes in the new Star Wars hat were particularly impressive. “What was he doing, growing horns?” said Bo when I showed him. Biff can only shrug as he kneels with his cars, the knees of these jeans already threadbare.

Unlike my grandmother, I am no seamstress. Better to find a pair of jeans at the thrift store for a couple of dollars than to poke my fingertips with a needle for hours. Unfortunately, this propels the vicious cycle of worn jeans wearing out faster with boys who love to crawl, kneel, wrestle, and so on. All I can do is keep the few pairs of still-kneed jeans safe for school while the torn pairs are worn on weekends. Surely God doesn’t mind seeing bare grubby knees in church now and again.

Curious: as a child, I never wore anything torn. Oh, we had hand-me-downs galore, but everything was always kept stitched and tidy. Perhaps it was a point of parenting pride for my mother, that even on so little, her children would always be presentable.

And to a point I have to agree: I can’t bring myself to take the kids on errands in their PJs. I’ll use my own spit to wipe a child’s face if I don’t see a bathroom anywhere. It’s a point of parenting pride that my kids are dressed and (mostly) clean.

But holes in knees, in sleeves? Pish. That’s what duct tape is for. The kids’ll outgrow those clothes soon enough.

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It’s the holes in character I will not abide. Not as a writer, not as a mother.

What do I mean by holes in character? Lack of empathy. Kindness. Imagination. Ever since my boys were toddlers I’ve had to pull them apart, bear cubs down to the clawing hands and vicious growls. I’ve feared one, even both, could grow up to be a bully feared by other children. Ever since my daughter discovered technology I’ve feared that she’ll let the virtual world dance its pretty colors to bewitch her, each new button click a chip at her creativity until it is utterly broken and buried beneath the hulking troll of apathy. I’ve seen these holes in other children. They belittle, dismiss, hurt. And the earlier these holes appear, the bigger they’re going to get unless they’re patched.

Mothers are often seen patching holes, but what of our own holes? Ever since the summer of stitches my confidence in safety has been torn wide open. I’m quick to see the worst-case scenario in everything. You say “trip to the park,” I say “Falling off the monkey bars.” You say “swimming pool,” I say “drowning.” You say “getting groceries,” I say “running into an old lady while fighting with the grocery cart and knocking over a display of glass olive oil bottles.” (And I can say that because this nearly happened. I managed to stop the cart after only one bottle fell and not all several dozen.) Point is, I’ve a hard time patching up my fears. Damn hard, after seeing the blood pour from holes in my sons’ skin.

But the holes in Bash’s eyebrow, on Biff’s forehead–they healed. These little bear cubs may fight now and again, but they help each other, too. When Bash was too tired to keep trick or treating, Biff asked for candy to give his brother. When Biff was sick, Bash gave him extra blankets and comfie animals to hug.

And Blondie? Oh, Blondie. Sure, she enjoys her game time, but even she grows tired of the screen. She can build up and take down Lego concoctions for hours. She’ll make up conversations between characters in her favorite comics, and later draw her own.

More than anything else, each child is filled with unbridled joy over sharing love. Blondie’s excitement to use her own money to buy presents for her brothers. Bash’s happiness to snuggle with me next to the Christmas tree through the dawn. Biff’s glee to stand with me in the church choir and sing the Hallelujah Chorus, his voice loud and proud, so excited he cheered for us all at song’s end. “That was amazing! Fist Bump! High Five!”

So their snowpants are patched with duct tape. So we go back to the thrift store for more pairs of worn jeans. We’re all of us frayed somewhere, but that does not stop us from living. That is the mark of strong character: for all the scuffs and tears upon us, those tears do not destroy what’s in us. My children remind me of that every day as they run, knees popping in and out of decimated denim, lost in yet another story of their creation. Holes are nothing to the binding threads of love and imagination.

As 2018 draws to a close, I want to give a special thanks to all who have supported me on my journeys as a writer and mother. Your support here gives me the gumption to keep my chin up no matter what shit life threw at me. You are all blessings in  my life I shall never take for granted. 

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Yup, these are mine. Couldn’t be prouder. 🙂

Now, let’s see what 2019 shall bring us, eh? Perhaps another novel or two? Perhaps some tales of adventure from my children real and fictional? Perhaps some naked mannequins glued to wings and hanging from the ceiling above a giant carousel while the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse gather dust by the dead orchestra? 

Sure, let’s do aaaaaaaaall of that. 🙂

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

What’s the dearest gift a #writing #Parent can give a #Daughter? Time.

Blondie zips her Mega Man sweatshirt and pulls its puffy hood up over her long, tangled hair. It’s a Friday night. Daddy’s home. Biff and Bash are racing each other to see who’s going to need stitches first. I ain’t stickin’ around for that.

I’m going to take my daughter out for her birthday.

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What else does a writer give her daughter for her birthday? Her own creative writing handbook, of course!

When writing grew in its priority, it swelled most in my daughter’s space. I’d make her go play on her own when the boys napped, always busy with “school stuff.” She’d even “teach” on a toy computer next to me, just to be close.

I see her now, on the verge of 8, and pray I haven’t set the “Cats in the Cradle” prophecy in motion:

As a parent working from home, it’s already a challenge finding those hours when I can teach kid-free, let alone grade papers and handle student questions. Plus, there’s that awful tradition of the American Summer Vacation. What kind of society demands parents handle their own kids all day for three months in a row? Outrageous!

Blondie’s equally annoyed. “I wish school was all year,” she says in the car, half-reading, half-looking out the window. “I never get to see anyone in summer.”

I wince at this truth. Planning play-dates with kids across three different towns sucks. Other parents put their kids in half a dozen leagues and classes every summer. We can’t  afford a birthday party for Blondie, let alone soccer club. “At least you can attend summer school in the morning like your brothers this year, and make some new friends.” I silently thank God yet again that the school administration allowed Blondie to sign up for their free summer program even though she’s enrolled elsewhere for the regular school year. With all these kids on our street, she’s bound to connect with somebody, and then all the cross-county play-dating could stop. What a time-saver!

Blondie winces at this truth. “I guess.”

Wisconsin doesn’t feel like stepping out tonight. Thick grey clouds block any sign of sunlight. The rain is cold, but not hard enough to clean my windshield of some presents dropped by the robins. “You’ll have lots of time to work on your stories this summer, too. And your inventions.” Every story Blondie has written over her 2nd grade year is now piled on my desk. I want to keep them somewhere special. I want to show her in ten years’ time how she loved writing about puppies and dragons going on adventures despite family funerals involving cancer. I want to show her how smart she was with punctuation and grammar at such a young age, how her voice was already taking shape, even then.

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For now, I get a shrug. “Can you tell me where we’re going now?”

“Nope.” When I told Blondie we couldn’t afford a party…when those big blue-grey eyes looked down, and her big-girl nod of, That’s okay, Mom, like all the other That’s okay’s when I needed to teach, to write…for once, I just wanted to say:

No, that’s not okay, Kiddo. You and I are gonna have some fun together. No boys, no work. We’re gonna go to a party place with lots of music and lights, and a giant disco ball just like you wanted. We’ll have pizza and roller skate and fall on our butts and laugh. For one night, I want you to be the center of my world.

I wanted to tell her all these things, but Bo and I decided it would be better as a surprise. The girl never expects me to be the one to take her anywhere. I’m hoarding my time like coins in an R2-D2 piggy bank: ten minutes reading here, half an hour editing there. A free hour is like finding a soggy ten on the sidewalk. Two hours? A twenty wedged in a park bench.

But when I got that big-girl nod, I locked myself in my bedroom and pulled the R2-D2 piggy bank out of the closet. The minutes jingled like so many pennies scrimped and pinched from across the years. My daughter’s years.

That’s okay, Mom.

I bring the hammer down.

~*~

“We’re here!” I turn off the engine. Skate World flashes on and off in bright yellow. Clusters of families and teens already line up to enter. “This is gonna be so much fun!” I unbuckle my belt and turn around, ready to take her hand and step out and under disco lights.

Her belt is not unbuckled.

Blondie’s eyes dart between the sign and people, never me. “Oh.” Pause. “I didn’t know we were coming here.”

“Surprise!” The bubbles grow in my voice to counter the confusion rooting within. “I know you had so much fun here last year with your friends, I thought this year we could come together, just you and me. No brothers or anything.” I grin.

She does not. “Oh.” Pause. “Are you skating, too?”

“Of course! I’m gonna fall on my butt a lot, but it’ll be fun!” My voice keeps sliding down exclamation marks. I don’t know how many more are left before the bottom.

“But,” Blondie fidgets with her belt—not the buckle, “that’s just a friend place.”

“I see other kids going in with their moms and dads. We can too!”

“But.” This “but” shakes in the air, left out in the cold, rainy space, “but someone bad might be in there.”

I have no exclamation points to counter this. “Someone bad? Kiddo, what are you talking about? It’s just all kids skating and falling on their butts, just like us.”

“But, but, but—”

“But WHAT?” I snap.

Now, she looks at me. Her tears sparkle beneath the Skate World light. “What if someone laughs at me?” Her mouth trembles, and she sobs with such a fear that I am dumbstruck. “Please don’t be mad!”

She must see my face and I can’t lie: part of me is.

I smashed that bank. I brought all those coins and ripped bills of time to exchange for some memories, dammit. I didn’t give up an entire evening of work time to drive through four towns to pull into a parking lot only to have a sobbing child refuse to leave the car over made-up situations about a place she’s only visited once before in her life.

I. I. I.

I take one last look at the flashing lights and laughing kids. Start the engine. Turn around.

“That’s okay, Blondie.”

~*~

Mullen’s is an ice cream parlor on the edge of Watertown’s main drag. I went here with my grandparents after walking the river’s boardwalk to feed ducks. My friends and I often walked here on weekends at the boarding school, eager to trade some cafeteria wages for fried cheese curds and a sundae.

Tonight, it’s just Blondie and me.

Blondie pokes a pink finger through a hole in the brick wall. “Woooow, this place is oooold.” I glare right back at the old biddy with her tidy glass of ice water tisking Blondie’s impertinence and let the waitress show us all the available flavors. Blondie picks two scoops of vanilla with lots of sprinkles, and leads me to the red vinyl seat by the window so she can watch the cars rush by in the rain.

I tell her stories of running through the downpours back to school to make curfew, of the loud screen door always slamming on my little fingers when my own grandmother would get me a treat after an eternal visit to the fabric store. Blondie listens, eats. Smiles.

No disco ball could possibly shine brighter.

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#writerproblems: Feed the #writing Flame

Let’s face it: some days, we’re burned out.

God knows I am.

From 4am until 10pm, life is a steady stream of to-dos: grade papers, get kids up, get daughter to school, work on author platform, stop Biff from shoving cars into the fridge, feed twins, get them to school, try to rewrite that &!#@ scene for the umpteenth time, get daughter from school and rush over to the sons’ school, drag Bash out of mud-slush sandpit, scramble a supper, dishes, laundry, bedtime stories, pay attention to spouse, answer student questions, crash.

Repeat.

How in Hades do we keep going? How, in all the needs of family and work, do we find a way to keep inner flame burning?

With a fresh box of matches.

Light the Dark is an amazing collection of essays gathered Joe Fassler, who’s interviewed dozens of writers for The Atlantic. Each essay shares “a moment of transformative reading,” as Fassler puts it–a line the writer read, and is inwardly changed. I was skeptical to read the book–I barely have time to read the novels I should be reviewing. How the heck can I read something for me? Ridiculous.

Buuut I figured I could give the first essay a go while the boys mucked about in the library. Aimee Bender’s “Light in the Dark” shared the physical and spiritual elation felt when memorizing Wallace Stevens’ poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” She had heard the poem at a funeral, and its first line–“We say God and the imagination are one”–stuck with her. And me.

There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost religious reverence.

Which is just how I feel about imagination. It is a sacred gift, one not to be denied or squandered. God has given me many hard blessings, but He also gave me something that I knew was special: imagination. Before I knew how to make letters, I knew how to create worlds of adventure, of stories fantastic. And when I learned to make words, I knew them to be powerful, worthy of respect, just like the Scripture I memorized from little on.

And then, too soon, I’m nearing Bender’s conclusion:

That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath the verbal, that mysterious emotional place…

Yes, I thought. Yes, that, just so. To know another writer struggles to find that place of power, of strength beneath the words…the writing life did not feel quite so charred.

I had to try another essay. Just one more, before the boys drove the librarian around the bend (again).

Sherman Alexie’s “Leaving the Reservation of the Mind” floored me. Floored. Me. He shares the context of his world:

There is always this implication that in order to be Indian you must be from the reservation. It’s not true and it’s a notion that limits us–it forces us to define our entire life experiences in terms of how they do or do not relate to the reservation.

I felt the whiplash of memory: the moment from my first year of graduate school when my parents criticized my writing for not putting faith in a good light. For not sounding “nice” enough about it. For having a harsh, raw tone about life in the ministry. How dare I.

For years, the guilt stuck with me. I wasn’t writing about what was appropriate, what fit. I come from a Christian family. I should be setting a good example in my church, teaching good Christian children how to write good, Christian things. Smile sweetly, bring the cookie bars for fellowship hour.  Be content.

No.

We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

I left the library with Light the Dark. I had to. Not just because the boys were shouting over checkers next to the old curmudgeon at the stamp table, but because I was reading words that burned me deeper than my imagination. This isn’t just about craft–this is about living. Literally, it’s the writing life: these authors are sharing the moments words branded themselves onto their internal skin, and shaped their futures.

And now here I was, blasting Tron for the boys and humming off-rhythm inside because for the first time in ages, I could feel a spark of hope, of need. A microcosmic brightness just between the gut and the lungs. Oh yes, it is cosmic, and it will come from me, from you, from all of us who live for words, burning sacred, to light the imaginations of  tomorrow, and every tomorrow thereafter.

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