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: #technology #grief

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I stand in line at Geek Squad. Again.

The staff has grown accustomed to me over the past year, after my old workhorse of a Toshiba laptop died. Bo and I had just gotten a new desktop to replace the dead one; the budget for yet another technology expense was not there. But Bo couldn’t deny the need for a laptop–if I couldn’t, I couldn’t keep my job.

So when the staff, already astonished my Toshiba lived eight years, pointed to a Lenovo on sale for under 200 bucks, I bolted for a box and checked out. It’s not like I needed anything more than bare bones.

Silly me that “bare bones” meant a computer screen that turns off when I have more than four tabs open online. “Bare bones” meant a power cord port that breaks after six months. “Bare bones” meant a memory card that’s soldered onto the hard drive, so I couldn’t get a bigger memory card. “Bare bones” meant a memory that’s so shitty it couldn’t even function with Microsoft Office downloaded because Office is too big and I couldn’t delete the Office programs like OneNote or Access because Office is a UNIT. You want a taste of Word? Then you swallow Office whole and like it, bitches!

Barely a year owning the laptop–yes, just after the warranty expires–and I’m in line at Geek Squad because no power cord of any kind will work on the laptop now. It’s down to its last ten percent of battery. Windows 10 refuses to properly update due to lack of memory.

I put the Lenovo on the table. Again.

The Geek tries my cord. Goes into the back. Tries one of their cords. Then shrugs. “Yeah, you’re not gonna find anything. It’s a cheap computer. You need to spend at least five hundred to get a good one.”

End of service.

Fuuuuuck.

Just having the money to get the kids shoes is a problem. All three needed new sneakers this spring. That’s a hundred bucks right there.  The boys shredded half a dozen pairs of jeans this winter.

At least they’ll have cutoffs galore for summer.

I’m happy to wear stuff until the holes are so prominent I could be arrested for indecent exposure. I’ll eat what everyone else hates, what’s expired. Hell, I’m starting to give plasma to help cover the grocery bills.

Where the hell’s five hundred bucks going to come from?

~*~

If your only knowledge of pastors comes from the televised evangelists, you might assume pastors are quite the affluent folk.

If you know what a rural church is like, you know how that’s utter bullshit.

Every dollar counted at home. We lived on the hand-me-downs of relatives, on rummage sales, on gifts from farmers. Christmas meant presents from the elderly of our church, rarely from our parents.

So the useful going unused always stings me. All the more for my mother, as much of my father’s things still stand, sit, lay about. His books on doctrine. His comics. His carefully gathered Dr. Who canonized novels. His thousands of recorded sermons, bible studies, coloring pages for Sunday School. All just…sitting.

But today we’re not looking at those things. Today Mom’s pointing to a little Lego display Dad had in his study of Lex Luther in his robot fighting Superman and Wonder Woman. “Think Blondie would like this for her birthday?” she asks.

“Of course!” I say, happy every time Mom’s able to let something go without tears. I glance at Dad’s crown, wishing I could ask for it, but I know Mom still uses it with her own students.

I spot something else.

Dad’s computer backpack.

“I thought Pierce took Dad’s laptop.” Dad had bought a Sony Vaio the year before he died. Spent at least a thousand on a top model, knowing he’d need it for producing services for local broadcasts, bible study presentations, liturgy projections, the lot. Thankfully the church covered a chunk of the cost. That’s probably what kept Mom from going crazy about the price tag.

“He did. He tried to use it, but, you know. It’s hard for him.” Mom sighs and moves a few preschool assessments across the desk. Dad’s old desk.

Yeah, it’s hard.

But sometimes we don’t get to leave something untouched just because it’s hard.

“Are you using it?”

~*~

The first thing I do is change the picture: Dad and Mom outside their mission church in the Dakotas. That much I must do, because seeing him laughing there and knowing my kids have forgotten what his laugh sounds like turns the skin beneath my eyes hot.

Much of the software’s out of date, but Office still works, everything still works. The battery’s not much, but an hour of work time in the car is better than nothing.

I scroll through the files.

There’s so many.

Pictures. God, the pictures.

 

 

 

Pictures of my childhood, of his. I’m seeing more relations here on a dead man’s computer than I have since his funeral.

Hymns he wrote. Sermons. Notes for come-and-gone weddings and funerals.

A newsletter he was working on for Mom’s preschool to be handed out the month he died.

So many writings, begun.

Unfinished.

~*~

“Dad’s computer working okay for you?”

“Great. It’s really helped a lot.” I don’t tell Mom about the scraps of Dad I found in the backpack: post-it notes about contacting Grandma’s doctor. An old bulletin with bio stats and hospital info, all in Dad’s thin, clipped scrawl. I doubt Mom ever looked inside his backpack. I wonder if Pierce even made it so far as to open the laptop itself, with Dad’s highlighters and notes still jumbled up in the power cord.

“Good. It just seemed so wasteful, sitting here.”

I don’t tell Mom I still feel like I’m borrowing this technology with the intent to return it to Dad, say thanks. Share the struggles I’ve had with parenting, faith, maybe even writing.

But Dad’s heart broke a few months shy of his 60th birthday. Despite repair after repair to his throat, his stomach, his legs, one bad break rendered the whole lifeless.

End of service.

~*~

“Ooo, Mommy, you got a new computer!” Blondie peers over from her sketch of the Nautilus. After reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Bo, she’s fascinated with technology altered by fiction–especially if it involves a church organ. “What’s the sticker for?”

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I’ve put such a sticker on every laptop I own, A) because I love the coffee, and B) because it separates this one thing from all the other stuff in the house. I’m the only coffee drinker. Bo hates laptop-sized keyboards. Blondie wants a mouse when she plays computer games. Don’t ask what the boys do with a working piece of anything.

Now Dad’s good and faithful servant holds chunks of my own fiction, analyses, and interviews. It keeps me connected to my students. Right now it’s letting me type this post while “attending” a meeting about cornerstone projects in liberal arts education while also pulling Bash off of Biff in a fight over worms and dump trucks.

My words may not be poetic hymns or thoughtful sermons, but they are filled with study, feeling, and imagination. And now they share a space, however small, with the words of my father.

I think Dad would like that.

#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.

34043886Light 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.

 

#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!

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#writerproblems: The War Against #Writer Butt

“Who wants to dance with Mommy?”20180214_155933Sigh.

Finding time to move is a right bugger these days. When one’s jobs of editing your novel and teaching both require hours upon hours before a computer, physical activity doesn’t get to be a priority. Sure, there’s the movement of motherhood: chores, keeping kids from wrestling each other off of the bunk beds, etc. But these aren’t steady, challenging movements one’s body needs to lose the writer’s butt that’s been developing since the holidays.

For the record, I do know something of how diets work. I gained almost 100 pounds during Blondie’s pregnancy, lost a small chunk, but then gained that chunk back during the boys’ pregnancy. The latter pregnancy threw my entire diet off-balance, as so many foods made me sick. When we finally evicted Biff and Bash (aka, induced birth), I reveled in dairy and all the other foods that would never stay down long with boys in utero.

But when the boys started toddling off in different directions, I realized: I have to be able to keep up with them. I have to be able to run, to move. I can’t be wheezing on stairs with them.

So I joined Weight Watchers, and lost 85 pounds over the course of a year.

YAY!

But then, I just stopped keeping tally of what I ate. And for the life of me I can’t seem to jump back into that groove. I’ve tried other methods like the FitBit to tally calories, but I kept forgetting to type it in with Biff shaking the yogurt off his hand and sending it all over the Legos on the floor, or with Bash hugging his bunny Hoppy and smearing Nutella all over its body. There’s always something that needs attention.

And, to be selflishly honest, I stare at screens enough as it is. I don’t want yet another reason to stare at a screen and type.

But I know I need to do something. My workload ain’t goin’ anywhere. My kids’ craziness ain’t goin’ anywhere. Wisconsin winter ain’t goin’ anywhere for at least…three to six months. (Hey, we’ve had blizzards in May. I assume NOTHING about Wisconsin weather.)

At first I thought I could take a cue from Blondie’s teacher. With three grades in her classroom, she knows it’s important to give little kids physical breaks from those desks. So, she has these five-minute “brain breaks” scattered throughout the school day: She puts on kid-friendly dance videos and lets the kids go nuts next to their desks until the dance is done. Cool idea, right? Especially in winter, when Wisconsin can have cold snaps resulting in frostbite with just a few minutes’ exposure, or a big melt turning the entire landscape into a muddy, cold mess.

 

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Monday…

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…and Thursday.

I know my sons behave better when they can burn energy. Let’em dance!

Well, you saw the result of that experiment.

So, I let them run their races around the house. Me? I find whatever spare reason I have to move: taking things one at a time down the basement. I pace while I read, or take editing notes. I fidget while I teach. Just. Keep. Moving. Lord knows that once all three kids are in school 8am-3pm, I can carve out a wee window for exercise. Until then, I’ve got to accept the little steps as I can take them.

This starts with diet.

In the quest to find out what foods I can scarf without guilt, I came across Sugar Busters, a breakdown of how much sugar we take in through processed foods and poor food choices. Cut out the processed foods, focus on the fiber-rich produce and protein. Whole grains. Easy peasy!

Only I live in a house where pop tarts, muffins, mac’n’cheese, peanut butter and jelly open-faced sandwiches sliced down the middle with crusts painstakingly removed–(erm, that last one’s Biff)–none of this really caters to the “quinoa berry mash in a slow cooker” kind of cooking.

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“Let’s eat Cars for lunch, Mommy!”

And before you ask, Bo’s soured to the whole “diet” thing. He did Atkins for a year before we met, and now clings to the carbs in his life with a death-grip.

So.

Whatever I do, I do for me.

I did find another diet book in the library: Digest DietLose weight by eating certain foods in just 21 days. Oooo, sounds easy! The first five days consist of nothing but shakes and soup. After that, a slow introduction of meat and veg with just a touch of carb. Lose anywhere from 10-20lbs in this time. Brilliant!

I made Bo find flaxseed meal and the other ingredients for the shakes. This, I could do: after all, I can drink a shake and write at the same time. I can sip a shake while handling laundry or whatever else. This diet fits with myyyy lifestyle, Naive Me thinks.

Here are some more thoughts from Naive Me from the past week:

Day 1: Woohoo, I got my shakes in! What soup do we have? (gasp) Ella’s Deli is closing?! But Blondie and I love it there! We all gotta go one last time so I can say goodbye…and have their chocolate cake, one last time…

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Blondie and her awesome braces

Day 2: Okay, back on track…aw man, this meat’s gonna go bad if we don’t make something with it. Should probably taste it to make sure…with those leftover noodles, and that scrap of cream cheese…don’t forget the veggies, at least….

Day 3: Who dares order pizza when Mommy’s got to have soup?! I demand a slice in sacrifice!

Day 4: BACK ON TRACK. Soup for breakfast this time, we’ll just switch things up, with a shake for dinner. And apple crisp.

Day 5: You think you’re so funny, Biff, wheeling those precious chocolate chip cookies around the table like they’re race cars. Well it ain’t funny! Taunting Mommy is a Thumbs Down Thing!

Yeah, I don’t think this writer’s butt is going to get smaller any time soon.

Oh, I’m not giving up. But I’ve got to be okay with my body as is until time opens for me to change it.

As Hawkeye would write to his father on M.A.S.H.:

“The war goes on.”

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#writerproblems: Taking a Break

Four weeks.

Four weeks of rewrites and hours locked away in the basement to the screams of “I want my MUMMY!” Four weeks of barely saying more to the kids than, “Good morning,” “Eat,” “Get dressed we’re late,” “Stop sitting on each other,” and “Goodnight, I love you.”

Three weeks of that had the additional fun of writing to eighty new students, grading their work, and answering those who don’t get why they can’t just write about how obesity is bad and wonder why I don’t hand out my phone number so they can call when they need me.

Damn, I cried. Hard. And often.

I wasn’t being a mom. A wife. I was just glued to the stupid screen to grade yet another round of papers, tackling another dozen pages of rewrites and DAMMIT, I lost three days’ worth of work, and–

Bo played with the kids. He kept them upstairs with books, video games, food–anything he could. He sat with me as I cried, and reminded me, time and again:

“Focus on what you’ve achieved, not on the hell right now.”

To which I often spat something back like, “And how’s that going to give me time to respond to two dozen students and edit thirty pages?”

Because that’s the killer, isn’t it? Time. We writers are desperate for it. It’s lousy timing when the fun writing hour we save for ourselves gets nixed for an obligation. But when writing is one such obligation, suddenly we realize just how little daylight we have for family, work, and writing.

~*~

When the term started, my mother offered to watch the kids for a day so Bo and I could get out.

Bo offered to go off on his own. “You should use that time to work.”

My immediate thought: Yes, I should. Several hours of peace. No “Where’s Mom?” No forced interaction with my family…that just want a little time with me. Any time. 

Bo looked so tired. He fell asleep in the chair next to me yesterday, exhausted from his new double-shift life of ten hours at the postal service every day and Prime Caregiver every evening and weekend.

I set my screen aside. “Yeah, I should. But I need some time with you, too.”

~*~

Since neither of us were keen on the current films, we decided to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum–this time, for art we kinda actually knew.

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I partially kid. A traveling exhibit of early Modern works was in town. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, I’m afraid, so I can’t show you how unique the exhibit was. Much of the work consisted of early sketches and practice drawings; for instance, one Toulouse Lautrec sketch of a horse was bordered by various drawings of hooves, just hooves, because he was trying to capture them just so.

Seems a familiar practice between writer and artist, that constant running of the pen to find the perfect strength in chosen lines.

The other big theme in those sketches? Women coming out of the bath. Not bathing, but coming out and drying themselves. Always drying the legs, too. Well, I suppose armpits aren’t exactly a sexy location to sketch.

Anyway.

When I was a kid, the museum building consisted of a 50s rectangle made of gravel that is actually a War Memorial (I still can’t tell how), but since 2001 we’ve had the very fancy-pants edition of the Quadracci Pavilion. The outside is built in the shape of a bird, complete with wings that open and close.

The inside of the Pavilion is pretty swanky, too.

 

 

The art contained within is something of a quirky hodge podge. And I say this as a Philistine who never took a lick of art history in school, so feel free to turn up your noses at my ignorance on the subject. All I know is that if your chosen first impression on visitors is a giant trowel in dirt, “classics” are not going to come to one’s mind.

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Take this creature, for instance.

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Yes, that is a machine projecting a man’s face onto a balloon. He says things like, “Life is but a tunnel of darkness. Are we truly alive, or are we toys?” And yes, it’s all with a drowsy monotone.

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Is this normal, to have captions of guesswork?

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This Garden of Eden painting creeps me out. An attendant noticed me with my camera and mentioned that the dog had originally been covered by a bush, but in restoration they discovered him there in the corner. Just look at that thing. No one else is looking out at the viewer. Why that dog? And those eyes follow you everywhere in the room.

Creepy demon dog.

And some pieces…look, I don’t get super-modern stuff. I just don’t. When an empty acrylic case can be put on display as art, and labeled as such and donated as such, and things like big pieces of blue plastic are leaned against the wall and declared art, I just…

I like words.

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Not that all pieces are like this, to be clear. There’s this beautiful creation by artist Dave Chihuly in the Quad Pavilion:

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Some other pieces that are just plain neat, such as the powder-wig boys up for some badminton. (Yes, the maintenance fellow is a sculpture. He’s been around for decades.)

 

 

In our sojourning through the exhibits we came across a suitcase.

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I got super excited. I was determined to take a picture to show you all the inside: a pond swimming with life. A statue of a father’s feet can be seen, with part of a baby’s body, its toes just above the water.

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But try as I might, I could not get a good position. Bo reluctantly offered to hold information card about the sculpture. Here’s a little more information about the piece.

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Anyway.

I hulked over, on my knees, on my toes, shoving my camera in. Bo gave up on me and looked at another piece in the room.20180113_131621

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

Outside of my head, I slid backwards and whirled around the corner, poking at my phone under the guise of sending a text. A security guard walked briskly by as I approached Bo with my phone and said, “Did you see this? This is very interesting.”

Inside my head: “OH SHIT! They’re gonna fine me and ban me from art! Run for the post-moderns, RUN! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

Bo, of course, found this to be hiLARiuos. “You know, I can’t take you anywhere. You bonk your head into display glass at the public museum. You walked into a glass wall when we came here last year. Now you’ve got The Man after you.” He proceeds to then make “BEEP” sounds any time I try to take a picture.

A little later we came upon a strange room of pottery without captions. There’s a little model room display behind some glass.

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Hmmm.

Next to this little room is a bellrope marked “Pull.”

Hmmm.

“Don’t you touch that,” Bo said.

“But it says, ‘Pull.'”

“BEEP!”

“Shut up.”

“Well I don’t know you, Miss Whoever You Are.”

I pulled it.

(I know, I’m as bad as Alice in Alice in Wonderland.)

 

 

A recording started: a wee ghost stepped into the miniature room and described the pottery collection around us. It was neatly filmed: she pull pottery out of the trunk nearby, sat in the little chair, laid things on the table. Here’s a little more information about the room, as I’m clearly not doing it justice.

“See? I was supposed to pull that cord,” I declared triumphantly to Bo.

And proceeded to walk into the glass door of an uber-bright Spanish exhibit of “playful art.”

Bo laughed. And despite the annoyed security guards, I laughed, too. Because it’s moments like these make breaks from writing so very necessary.

We can’t create life in stories if we don’t live a little. And sometimes that living does seem little–I’m not trying to rescue refugees from Mexico. I’m just going to the art museum with my husband.

But it’s in these everyday moments that we remember what it’s like to be around other people, listen to other people, roll our eyes at other people, skee-daddle from other people. It’s in such moments that we remember what it means to hold another’s hand, share a smile, tell a joke that sets the other groaning. And through these everyday moments we find new imagination to channel into our worlds.

So don’t forget to take a break, writers. That giant green ceramic chicken ain’t gonna rock itself.

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A Little #Memoir #Music for a #Writer’s #Christmas

Christmas divides Bo and me in a few quirky ways. He’s all about the magic of Santa Claus, Spritz cookies in a rainbow of colors and sprinkles and chips made with his mother’s cookie press, Frank Sinatra crooning as he crumbles ginger snaps over a ham, bordered by mountains of peeled potatoes and veg and butter as he cooks the blazin’ jingle bells out of our kitchen.

For me, it’s all about the music, and that music has always started with a blast of Mannheim Steamroller at sunrise the day after Thanksgiving.

Amidst the groans and pillows thrown at the door to shut it, I could never stop smiling, because that music announced the Christmas decorations had been pulled down from the attic. It also warned us to keep out of the living room, for it was now littered with strings of lights Dad was determined to save, and branches for our ancient fake tree we so often managed to fill with action figures and plush animals before Dad gave up on those blasted replacement bulbs and got new sets.

Mom always helped with the ornaments as a precious vinyl played: Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. One song in particular could make her laugh no matter what had happened that day, and drew out the silly side we so rarely saw during a stressful school year. She even pulled this song out while my kids helped her decorate this year, and the four of them giggled and danced enough to shake the snowmen watching from her hutch.

For me, music ripples through memory and carries back the echoes of laughter past.

The insanity of Advent and Christmas preparations tossed baking aside as an impossibility. Did my brothers and I miss out? Oh heavens, no. What better gift for a pastor’s family than a plate of cookies/gingerbread house/cookie bars/brownies/anything sugary? Our screen porch would quickly fill with gifted treats from our congregations. We could have made whole meals off of cookies until Lent. 

For me, stepping onto the cold wood into a sugary kingdom of plastic wrap and frosting always carried a hope for a glimpse of snow. See, snow’s not a common visitor in Wisconsin during December. Lord knows why: we get it at Halloween, often at Thanksgiving, sometimes as late as Easter, but in my three and a half decades on this planet I can only remember a handful of white Christmases. So when snow falls, thickly and heavily, it is a true Christmas miracle.

Christmas Eve Night has always carried the most magic.

For me, we had no Santa–not because my parents were against Santa, but because it just wasn’t practical in our house: we always opened our gifts Christmas Eve night after all the services were over. When I was small, though, and living in a small hunter’s town in the North Woods, we’d visit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to tell him what we wanted for Christmas.

No, I’m not making that up. No, I don’t know why renting a Santa suit and setting up a neat little booth was more difficult than constructing a giant puppet theater/stable with a great black sheet behind this giant, car-hood sized head of Rudolph with a red nose the size of a fist and a mouth that barely moved. (I sifted through all the photos in my house for an image, but alas.) I can’t remember much of those visits, but to this day my mother gives us a little something from Rudolph.

The magic of Christmas Eve night has always come with music.

After a day in itchy stockings and awkward dresses, sitting in church pews chanting “In those days Ceasar Augustus issued a decree,” running laps around the classroom while teachers stuffed us with Kool-Aid, cheese, and Hershey kisses only to go back into the church for another round of “that a census should be taken of the enTIRE ROMAN world,” fighting off the other kids for your coat and those aren’t my mittens Mommy someone’s got my right boot…after getting a ride home with Grandma and Grandpa and stepping into the house because Mom and Dad have one more candlelight service at church:

The door opens to the Christmas tree, glowing with thousands of lights. The whole house smells of chili and spiced apples from the kitchen, simmering all afternoon. The Advent wreath candles glow upon the table laden with Great-Grandma’s china and crystal.

And music: Dad always has music, often choirs, singing softly all day long.

To enter twinkling lights, savory scents, and sweet harmonies brought Christmas’ magic to life in me and around me. Add Grandma’s laughter, Grandpa’s turns on the piano, the long-awaited sound of the garage that meant Mom and Dad are home and at last, long last, it’s time for presents and sweets late into the night…

Music always flows around us, but its power heightens with Christmas. May the sounds of the season enchant your Christmas, wherever you may be.

 

 

 

 

#Inspiration for #Writers Awaits in the #Autumn Sky.

Last year I lamented the fog that ruined my photos of Wisconsin’s autumn. When Bo and I connived–I mean, asked ever so nicely–for his relations to watch the kids for a day, Bo mentioned Holy Hill. “Weather’s supposed to be nice, and no youth festivals.” He eyed my camera.

Woohoo! I didn’t need those pictures of the kids on vacation anyway.

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Because I had already taken several pictures of the basilica itself, I planned to save memory space for the woods surrounding it. All was gold, rich, blinding. Despite the hundreds hiking and picnicking upon the slopes, a peaceful silence remained in the air, so much so that one could listen to the leaves rattle in the breeze and dance as they fell upon the Passion Walk.

Such a set-apart place. One wouldn’t think three minutes in the car would lead to a busy highway, to golf courses and suburbs. When we build our fictional worlds, we so often must condense a universe, grind out the spaces so that things build up up up upon each other so that there’s no chance for an absence of action, let alone finding Holy Water on tap for easy access.

 

 

Passion Walk finished, we wandered past the lower chapel, read upon the history of the shrine, and—The Scenic Tower is open!

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Bo waves at me to join the line. “I had my fill of that twenty years ago.”

I don’t blame him for bowing out. The tower stairs are ridiculously narrow; well, it’s not like they were built with tourists in mind, let alone so many. But the world reaches up and touches at every window. I can’t click fast enough to just, absorb. Breathe. Smile with the sun.

I don’t go up the last stair; tempting as it was, the congestion of people was driving even me into a claustrophobic fit. The plus side of going solo is that you feel no need to move as a group up and down stairs barely a foot wide.

But when I wasn’t thinking of the elderly man on the verge of losing his dentures onto the basilica roof, or the huddle of nuns (congregation of nuns? choir of nuns? pew of nuns?) with fanny packs determined to get group pictures on every landing, I was thinking about the land. The sky. How a world, even this small little bit of world, can seem so very vast with the right point of view.

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Writers don’t need to create entire worlds for a story. We need only a place cradled by the horizon. Look down: there, among the trees and fields, the towns and roads, are countless hiding places where possibilities giggle and whisper in wait. Let’s count to ten.

Ready or not, here we come.

 

 

Hard #Blessings

 

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Not my family. Too expressive, don’tcha know.

Summer sweat is always sweetest for the mosquitos on a Wisconsin farm. They grow fat on the lot of us, sitting in the tents my mother’s cousins constructed for the 80th H- Family Reunion. Gone are the days of riverboat races, volleyball tournaments, grill talk, and smoke-rimmed cackles. Many of the original siblings–11 in all–have become one with the Rock River farmland they so dearly loved. Yet still the cousins come together this one weekend in the year, dozens upon dozens of them, to meander through the past and catch up on the new generations. In the pauses between socializing, families tend to regroup: restock their coolers, check on their casseroles for the dinner, mind the children dumping bubble solution everywhere, nap under the maple trees, and so on. During one such pause I sit next to Mom and her boyfriend, sharing cookies and lemonade with Blondie, listening to the drawls and old laughter, when my elder brother Pierce speaks:

“Did you know Grant hasn’t made up his mind about The Call to Milwaukee yet?”

I flick an ant off Blondie’s cup and purse my lips. I do not want to be the first to answer.

Thankfully, Mom complies. “I know, I talked to him last night.” She reaches for James’ hand. Some walks into the past require a strong hand to hold. “Figuring out where God wants you to go. And it’s not just you, it’s your whole family, even though The Call is for you. It’s…it’s hard.” Blondie leans in on the pause to make a silly face at her grandma–she can sense Grammy’s sad voice from across the picnic table. “Every time your dad took a Call, I thought, ‘Okay, where does Bea fit this time?’ Like I was boxed up with the rest of his books. Unpacked at his church office.” White Christmas lights in the shape of an “80th” flicker behind her. “It’s hard,” she says again.

I kiss Blondie’s head, and wonder how she’d have handled it: to find out she has to leave her home, school, and friends because a church Called Daddy to be their pastor and Daddy said yes, so it’s time to box everything up again, won’t a new school be exciting again. To do that all, just, again.

It’s hard.

~*~

When Grant was old enough to say he wanted to be a pastor, and not be answered with a “That’s so cute!” from old ladies, Dad reminded him, and all of us: “Your family has to be a part of it. You can’t just make these decisions on your own. Any time your mother stayed quiet and insisted I had to decide, and I decided to accept, she’d be so angry she wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. One time it lasted a whole year.”

Pierce had little to say on the matter, being undecided about college and life yet again. My own direction in English, writing, and teaching outside the ministry had been grudgingly accepted by this point. Grant was still in high school. He still had a choice.

Are you sure you want to get into all this? I’d say in those rare moments the two of us were alone. Always working. Practically no time off. Almost always broke. Never really sure where you’ll be in five years. And what if you have kids and stuff? You know how damn hard it is. You, of all people, know how they’re almost never home, and even when they are home, they’re working on shit.

Grant’s face was often quiet in these times: his forehead smooth, mouth a line, brown eyes not quite in focus on the present. Facial hair struggled to frame his baby face, but to no avail.

I know. But it’s important, too. I want to help people. And there’s a lot of people who need help.

I did my damndest not to call him crazy.

~*~

Today, a few days before Thanksgiving, I write without fear of mosquitos. I write without my father, who’s last Call came from God Himself three years ago. I write without my kid brother, a pastor himself with a wife, kids, and a mission in Arizona. The possibility of seeing him more than once in summer is always impossible. Too much to do with outreach in the town, and don’t forget the special services, the bible studies, and now his firstborn’s in school, just so much to do…

Some blessings sure as Hell don’t feel like blessings. Pierce and Mom were both deeply disappointed Grant didn’t take The Call to join a team of pastors in a mega church here in Wisconsin. No more running everything solo. No more 80+ hour weeks. Surrounded by family and friends. Perfect, right?

Yet Grant said no.

Because some blessings are meant to be hard. Yeah, Grant’s on his own in a mission, but the church has blossomed under him and his family. Yeah, we moved around a lot, but every time, we connected with at least a few others who were feeling just as cut off, just as unsure of things. Such friendships would never have been made if not for these Calls to pack up, move forward. Yeah, I endured years of abuse. Yeah, I struggled for years with postpartum depression. But I’m still here. I now know what disguises monsters wear among us. I now know what it means to fight oneself, and win.

These blessings are the forge of the soul. They are what burn us, bend us, beat us down again, and again, and again, until that moment we think that surely we are too brittle, we shall break, we cannot take anymore–it is then we realize:

We are unbreakable.

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Lessons Learned from John Kaag: Re-Route, Re-Root.

Salvation can’t be accomplished in isolation.
-John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story

Words have a tendency to change meaning from profession to profession. In the world of  university adjuncts, for example, you may hear the words “professional development.”

We adjuncts hear “time suck.”

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

Yay.

51Ek3onp4tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Such was the situation to bring John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story into my hands. I had to fill at least an hour of professional development somehow, and I was sick of “how to keep students focused/use stand-up comedy in seminar for engagement” kinds of webinars. A different department was holding a monthly book club, with Kaag’s latest being May’s choice.

I had “studied” philosophy in college, and by “studied” I mean I audited the 400-level course without any previous credits in philosophy courses. Yeah, not my brightest move. But it promised deep discussions with at least two really cute guys and the teacher was one of those rare men who by all appearances balanced philosophy and faith with ease. I was intrigued then. Don’t remember a lick of it now. But Kaag’s title brought that old intrigue back. Why not? I liked stretching my lit boundaries, and it would earn me a PD hour in the process. I contacted the PhD in charge: I’m in.

~*~

At one point, philosophers like Pierce could determine the very language we use. They had the power to define reality. (25)

“So yeah, I guess it was pretty good, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the narrator.”

“It was informative, but I just couldn’t root for the guy, you know? I mean, he left his wife. Why should I cheer for that?”

The Google Hangout felt way too much like grad school for comfort. It was the dust bunny-addled classroom all over again with cracked plastic chairs and classmates declaring a book unworthy of them solely because they didn’t like the main character.

I was stymied, and conflicted. These people, especially the Dr. So-and-So in charge, should be better at this sort of discussion. Why such shallow comments? Why wasn’t anyone looking past this need to “cheer” a hero and not see the journey Kaag risked showing us? Because I understood this kind of journey. Any one buckled under by depression would.

“Yeah, I mean, talk about a first-world, white-privilege problem.”

~*~

May was not a good month in my house. Family crashed upon us in waves for not one, not two, but three parties for Blondie’s birthday. The church threw some extra duties my way because apparently no one thinks anything has to be done until mere hours before a major retirement dinner. Friends got married upstate, which meant more family gatherings to butter up the baby-sitting and to travel and to get back and to grade final projects and to START a new term and and and AND.

And, it was not a good month. When you’re an introvert, and would love nothing better than a few uninterrupted hours to read and write, this social storm nearly drowned me. Many nights ended in tears. My children noticed: on the “My Mommy” cards Biff and Bash made with their teachers, it was revealed that this is what Bash remembers more than anything:

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How did I respond? With sobs on the front porch. Fuck the neighbors, let them watch, it’s not like they have yet another conference about their sons kicking and fighting the teacher again, Mrs. S forgot this at church can you get it again, Jean we need to talk about the party food again, I need to clean the house again I need I need I need

I. Needed. Out.

So did Kaag. He does indeed leave his first wife, and he does indeed write about his alcoholism. Yet while my colleagues saw these as reasons to put the narrator down, I couldn’t help but think of my own postpartum depression, how my own marriage struggled with the arrival of children. Here I’d managed to write about my sexual abuse, but I couldn’t fathom writing about the purgatory my marriage wandered in for years.

Maybe another well-meaning American philosopher would find the library, but not the books. Maybe, on the drive back to my unhappy marriage, I’d get in the fatal crash I often imagined. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. (38)

I thought nothing of salvation and immortality at Durgin-Park, opting instead to drink myself senseless. At the end of the night I stumbled home and tried to convince my wife I wasn’t drunk. I was looking for help in all the usual places, all the wrong places. (14)

I couldn’t do alcohol, not after losing one uncle and nearly one sister-in-law to it. Motherhood: some days, it just fucking strangles the soul.

When that kind of feeling wraps round the heart, I knew I had to get out. If I didn’t, all the poison inside would dig itself in and suck my love dry. I lived through that once. Not going back there.

I envied Kaag his ability to simply uproot and begin again. What started as a small conference away from Harvard diverted to an exploration of self and of William Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher who gathered thousands of books and letters that together charted the roots and growth of American philosophy. In Hocking’s library, surrounded by old lives and skittering rodents, Kaag felt something new:

Alone in an empty library, in a deserted wood, in a nearly forgotten field of American philosophy, I felt momentarily at home. (32)

I’m betting that, for the first time a long time, he could breathe.

I’m familiar with such a moment.

~*~

But eventually I came across, quite by accident, what I desperately needed to find. (31)

Another fun piece to May was the road work that cut off my town from the town where Blondie’s school is located. Thank God for Google Maps–a new road to the north, and a cut through hilly farmland. On the way out of town I passed this sign: Charles Langer Family Park.

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A park? Where? Farmland as far as the eye could see. For the kids, invisible = nonexistent, so we continued in our new ruts.

Then one day–in May, for like I said, all things happened in May–Blondie had to attend yet another birthday party, but this one was rather short. It wasn’t worth going home just to rile the boys up with “WHERE’S MOMMY GOING!?” when it was time to retrieve the girl. I could drop Blondie off and–gasp, read! But where to read? The library was packed with their book sale (not worth it). The riverside park was packed with geese, who don’t much care for human beings.

And then I remembered. And knew.

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I watched the tractors work before driving on.

Where would this road take me? Considering the proximity of Madison, a small part of me hoped that I, too, would discover a forgotten library, or at least some literary treasure of equal awesomeness.

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I parked. The place looked popular, but…no playground? At least the nature trail looked promising. Once again, I’m out before spring’s taken full effect. Oh, Wisconsin, you are so temperamental. Yet you cannot dim the sun’s magic cast upon the water and the leaves, nor can you silence distant birds, calling together. Perhaps that’s why these rocks were set up as an auditorium: for nature talks.

Ting!

I think nothing of the goofy metallic noises and watch the river.

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I walked on.

The point, if one could call it that, was to experience the sublime in the mundane. And this experience, so common yet so rare, had intrinsic value, the sort of value that made a life worth living. (70)

Ting!

What the–

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DISC GOLF?!

You mean to tell me that my town, unable to support a grocery store or a pub or any normal amenity, can maintain a large, gorgeous disc golf course?

I couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I pissed off one couple, who seemed to be doing this as a date (she sure looked thrilled) and a group of hipsters from Lord-Knows-What-Suburb.

I kept walking, and laughing, probably looking a little crazy, surely feeling a little crazy, but the more I walked along old tree roots, the less I felt like drowning. I was on dry land after all, with life still moving forward if I didn’t clean that day, if the retirement table wasn’t ornate enough, if the cake wasn’t to my in-laws’ preference. The kids would fight, but they’d hug, too. They’d wrap their little arms round me so tight, so strong, and hug until I laughed myself out of breath.

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And it occurred to me: I was breathing.

Ting. 

For all the love and wonder we hold for words, there is a time when words are the last thing we need. Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves up and away to a place so utterly outside of our normal, we can’t not take it in.

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Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
-J. Kaag