#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 20

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

Even though this day’s not even half over, I just had to write now because I ticked a victory against anxiety this morning!

Hmm. Maybe I should call this the “Climbing Anxiety.”

Anyway.

We woke up to another messy snow, but thankfully Dane County’s trying to keep all the kids in school. Whew! This winter’s already given us twice as much snow as the 2017-2018 winter season, so it’s nice to know that the schools aren’t going to shut down just because yet another couple powdery inches have fallen. Bo left before dawn at 6am, and I worked on getting the kids up and ready for school.

6:30 news: There are reports of an accident near the intersection of the interstate and highway___

Me: OH MY GOD IT’S BO HE’S DEAD

Hang on, Jean.

He’s an extremely careful driver.

He just had the car in for a tune-up.

He’s been driving this route for years now. He knows how the truckers behave.

He’s driven through worse snow than this, too.

If you don’t hear from him in 2 hours, check his work.

For now, focus on the kids.

I simmered down. Got the kids ready. Kept drinking water and muttering to myself about what I wanted to accomplish today, what I should discuss with the teachers at the PT conferences tomorrow. Made sure the phone was nearby at all times, just in case.

I did NOT have a panic attack.

My chest hurt, yes, and I had to do lots of deep breathing, but I didn’t get dizzy or develop tunnel vision or have a racing heart.

Ten minutes to eight: Bo’s at work, safe and sound. Roads were fine for most of the way.

I said a prayer of thanks and saw the boys off to school. I got ready to text him a quick grocery list, especially keen for him to find a tea I saw recommended for handling anxiety. But then I saw a winter weather advisory on my phone: freezing rain was coming through the county today starting at midday and going on and off into the evening.

Bo would be driving in that.

He shouldn’t be stopping at a store, Jean.

But every time I drive in snow–

Shut that noise. You CAN get there and back before the freezing rain comes.

You’ve driven in way worse crap and lived to tell the tale.

You have to face this, Jean.

It’s now or never.

(Sorry, that BOW BOW noise did actually enter my head at the moment. Better than “Final Countdown,” I suppose.)

I get in the car. There’s coffee, water, bad radio, old Christian rock I discovered in a binder from…college?…smelly lip balm.

Okay.

I go it slow and steady towards the interstate. Few cars both going around me, because the hilly country roads are just too damn risky for fast passes. Whatever accident had occurred had already been cleared. I get onto the interstate without sliding.

And fifteen miles later, I’m off the interstate into the hipster town with the hoidy toidy grocery store.

I made it!

It took smearing balm all over the skin under my nose, lots of talking at the radio, and interrogating myself if I actually stole that music from the Christian book store where I worked twenty years ago or legitimately bought it, but I got there.

The hoidy toidy grocery didn’t have the tea I was hoping for, but they did have another from the article that was strongly recommended. I grabbed it, another container of @#^!&$$ almond milk, and some grapes to reward myself for making it this far. I graciously accepted compliments from the cashiers for my Harry Potter hat, and returned to the car.

Time to do it all again.

Me: I got this far. I can do it again.

Damn right you can. You’re halfway there!

(Okay, I openly admit this song only came to me while writing right now and it was too perfect not to use. Who knew Bon Jovi would provide the soundtrack of my day?)

Not  one dizzy spell the whole drive home. The worst spell was actually just the last miles to town, where a semi decided to tail my ass on a road covered with windblown snow. But rather than freak out, my old-school driver-self took over, and I just kept it slow and avoided braking unless absolutely necessary.

And lo and behold, I’m home.

Driving’s always going to be a potential trigger for an attack. I accept that. But this morning I proved to myself that I CAN drive despite the weather and despite the fear.

That’s a win if I ever knew one.

FLAT FINDERS REALTY

Oh! Before I forget: for those of you who’ve read my novel, I’ve been asked to read an excerpt during my keynote. Any recommendations of a bit–ideally without too many cuss words?

And if you haven’t read my novel yet, you can snatch it up for 99 pennies. Or, you can just check out my free fiction here or here. It’s all good, I think. 🙂

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

Write on, read on, and share 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

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 3

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

Today’s been a day of mist, slush, and boiled eggs. While I trudge through term-opening hello’s and how-do’s with students, Bo cleans the kitchen and boils 3 dozen eggs for he and I to nosh on during the work week.

“Think popcorn is okay?” he asks. “There’s got to be something snackish that’s safe.

“Dunno,” I say while trying the cashew milk in my coffee.

Bo watches me sip. And grimace. “Well?”

I smack my lips. “Well, it’s, um, it’s there.”

“Yeah, that was how I felt about the coconut milk in my tea last night.”

Behind him is the door of the fridge. Behind the door of the fridge is my creamer. My GOOD creamer. “You’re gonna finish that cashew stuff off, aren’t you?”

Bo’s not making eye contact. “Yeees.”

“Good,” I say in a snit and snoot on out of there. Our grocery bill exploded for this diet. Meat’s pricey enough, but six bucks for a small jar of mayo? Robbery, I tell you!

And because Bo’s hardcore into this diet, he bought two jars. Multiple salad dressings. Multiple nut milks. We have to keep checking what’s “Whole30 compliant,” and of course none of these things are easily found, let alone cheap.

Here’s the site we’ve been using, in case you’re interested: https://www.oliveyouwhole.com/category/whole30/

When I look our fridge, my stomach churns. Is our tax return just going to end up funding this diet?

It’s a nauseating thought.

But I want Bo to want to be healthy, and for the first time in years, he does. He can’t just eat meals of pasta and bread anymore. I can’t be stuffing my face with chocolate chips anymore. Our kids deserve better role models of moderation and health. If they can face their fears atop the highest sledding hill by their grandma’s house, zipping down that slope no matter how nasty the previous wipe out, then dammit, we can survive a month without peanut butter and milk.

Oh! Speaking of which, we survived that mountain yesterday!

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Clockwise: Biff and I sailing down, Blondie just before her hat flies off, Bash and I wipe out, Bash narrowly missing another saucer kid 

You should have seen the broken sleds littering its bottom, like ships crushed by the rocks along a perilous New England shore. Ye gods, I thought I was going to pass out. But all three of the Bs trekked up the slope–surely the length of home plate to the outfield if not further–and just FLEW. Toppled a lot, too. One girl did careen into Biff early on, and Bash got a nasty face wash when we wiped out together, but nothing bad happened. No bloodshed. No screaming for the ER. Just mad giggles of delight.

So even though I couldn’t touch my mother’s pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, it was, in the end, a good Saturday.

A perk to this day? Seeing that my Tales of the River Vine bumped back into the top four slots of free YA Monster Fiction again. WOOHOO!

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To all who grabbed a copy, thank you! To those who haven’t, grab one now! They’re free, after all, so even the most meager of budgets can afford a quick read into a dark fantasy. 🙂 I’ve another short story free on my site for newsletter subscribers, too–click here for more info. 

And if you dig those short stories, you can check out my novel for just a buck!

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 1

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

It’s probably a good thing the weather let up enough that kids could return to school on this, my first day on Whole30. Now that sugar’s off-limits, I’m constantly reminded how much sugar there is in the house: the creamer in the fridge. The pop-tart crumbs everywhere. The cocoa mix. The peanut butter.

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm peanut butter….

I was ready to help myself after making the kids their school lunches, but I couldn’t touch it. Not a spoonful. Not a nibble. Not a bit.

You can imagine the crabby demeanor that came over me then.

BUT.

I am doing this for Bo. For my littls Bs. For me.

It’s just 30 days.

I can do this!

And so far on this Day 1, I am doing this. I’ve kept myself to veg and meat for my meals. I’ve had black coffee or water. I’m going to try cooking some Whole 30 dishes this weekend, so if one of them turns out, I’ll let you know. For now I’m going to keep it simple for Bo’s sake with meat’n’potato type stuff. That’s usually a bit kinder on the wallet, too. Did you know clarified butter costs 10 bucks??? Nooooo thank you, I’m going to make my own.

Which, if my venture into canning is any indication, should prove to be, um, interesting.

In the meantime, the first of my free monthly fiction installments is here! If you head on over to Free Exclusive Fiction from the Wilds (you should see a link in that menu bar thingey towards the top of the page) you’ll see a link for a short story I wrote. No, it’s not related to River Vine; it was inspired by an artist’s photo a long time ago. The story hit me so hard I had to get it down…and then it sat. And sat. And sat. Unread, unloved.

This is the perfect opportunity for me to share it with you! I do hope you’ll share your thoughts on it with me. I’m tempted to explore that universe some more, but only if there’s interest among you, awesome readers.

Don’t forget my novel’s on sale! Spread the word among your fantasy-lovin’ friends!

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!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#writers, when good #storytelling requires #fieldresearch, you better be prepared.

I’ve been putting it off for months. Last week’s interview with Laurel Wanrow, however, brought matters to a head.

It’ll take too much time. C’mon, is it reeeeeally necessary for the sake of the story? Just watch a video or something.

Jean, you’ve got no life experience for context. No member of your family ever did it. No mere video will give you the sensations and emotions, to build upon for the plot and character development.

So what?! I can still make up stuff.

Jean, you gotta do it.

No!

You gotta.

I don’t wanna!

Do you care about the story or not?!

…Yeah.

Then you go in there and face that source of embarrassment and anxiety.

NO NO NO NO NO NO!

If you truly care about your next Tales of the River Vine story, you must…

…have a go at canning.

My ineptitude in the kitchen is legendary. I’ve started no less than three fires in my oven. I’ve burned food to the bottom of pots so badly we had to throw the pots out. Even the most basic of cookbooks goes all twisty-turny in my brain so that I switch ingredients, switch steps around, mix up cooking times, etc.

But field research isn’t about doing what’s easy, or doing what we already know well. It’s time to step outside those comfort zones and experience something new, dammit!

Now granted, there’s only so much one can spend in the name of field research. It’s not like my family’s budget allowed for me to take a hot air balloon ride solely for “experience” to write “No More Pretty Rooms.” I simply drew on the experience of parasailing with an improperly buckled harness. Puh-lenty of excitement and terror in that memory from the teen years.

So to begin this adventure into canning, I get some books from the library with emphasis on making small batches with natural ingredients.

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(Yes, I was won over by Marisa McClellan’s inclusion of many pictures so I had a clue what the finished product should look like.)

I poured through the recipes with focus on canned fruit. Something with a realistic fruit for Wisconsin, and with minimal ingredients to befit an impoverished pantry in the wilderness. (That, and fewer ingredients means a smaller dent on the food budget.) Gimme something with five ingredients or less, you books!

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Aha!

Look at that: four ingredients. Peaches are…okay, they’re a bit of a stretch, but doable, as peaches supposedly came to the American colonies in the 1600s. Since Wisconsin became a state in the 1840s, it’s reasonable to expect peaches are in the state by the early 1900s, which is when “Preserved” takes place. The only other items I need are a lemon, some sugar, and bourbon.

Welp, the kids weren’t gonna touch the stuff anyway.

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That be a lot of peaches.

Okay. I gotta just hack them up to get the pits out, boil the jars, boil the fruit and then plunge them into ice, skin them, cook sugar water, pack peaches, pour some cooked sugar on them, add the bourbon, then cook the lot. Sounds straightforward enough.

So, first: a pot and a round cooling rack.

You know, the round cooling rack YOU DON’T HAVE.

NO! I WILL do this! I just need to utilize that beloved resource most assuredly available one hundred years ago: The Internet.

Aha! I can build one of my own with aluminum foil! That’s…not entirely appropriate, but at this point, I don’t care. I didn’t buy 6 pounds of peaches for nuthin’. I need the sensory experience of canning, not the…you know, technical whozamawtzits.

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With foil grid thingey in place, I can start boiling the jars. I’m only making four pints’ worth, so I can get these jars done in one go.

Eeeeexcept they don’t fit in our pot.

Well…whatever, I gotta slice the peaches up.

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“Eeeew, peach brains!” says Bash, all too eager to poke’em around. Blondie makes puking noises. “I’m never eating peaches again.” Biff just shoves a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth and continues reading his Calvin and Hobbes, devoid of interest.

“Scoot you, Mommy’s workin’.” I go over the book’s directions again to see what else I can do while the jars are heated. Hmm, I gotta simmer the lids, okay, and then cook sugar water into syrup, and boil the peaches for one minute at a time to be tossed into the ice-water for peeling.

Well I can’t wait to see you swing that, Jean, since you only have TWO WORKING BURNERS on that stove. 

Bo comes in from work to find the kids munching supper and me staring at the stove, utterly flummoxed. “Well?”

“This is going to be an epic failure,” I say, and lob another peanut butter sandwich over the kitchen counter to Biff. “We don’t have a stock pot or the right cooling rack. And we don’t have four burners.” I tip a tablespoon’s worth of  hot water from our electric kettle onto a small bowl with the lids.

“Waaaaaaaaaait, wait wait.” Bo puts his lunch cooler down and looks at the directions. “You did read this before you got started, right?”

“Yes!” I’m all indignant about it, but how well did I read it, really? I was so fixed on finding a recipe with minimal ingredients, let alone fixed on canning in general, that I didn’t once stop to study the logistics of it all. I just assumed one needed a pot, some, jars, and some fruit. Wasn’t that how it used to be?

If field research is to be helpful, we can’t treat it as some slipshod affair. One can’t try ice fishing without the right gear. One can’t learn to sew without certain materials. So one sure as hell ain’t gonna can fruit unless she’s got some basic tools like four working burners on a stove. Had I bothered studying the recipe’s logistics, I’d have seen the futility of this field research and saved myself a lot of time…not to mention six pounds of peaches.

“Honey. Schmoopie. Darling.” Bo takes me by the shoulders and kisses my forehead. “I love you. I love how smart and creative you are. You’re beautiful. You’re amazing. You’re not afraid to try new things outside your comfort zone. But with all that research and prep, you’ve been foiled by boiling water?” He turns off the burners, pulls down the Halloween Oreo cookies for the kids.

“No. I’ve been foiled by that flippity flappin’ stove.” I harrumph and try to peel the peach skins, despite the peaches not even being ripe enough for this exercise, or cooked long enough, or cooled long enough.

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Of course, it doesn’t work.

Hmm. Maybe I can utilize my frustration into the narrator. Maybe he doesn’t get the canning done the way he normally does because he’s being distracted by taunts over transformers and peach brains and grilled cheese and…maybe not that last part, but still, there’s an emotional bit of field research done here.

And a wise lesson learned, too:

GET A NEW STOVE.

No, no…well yes, there’s that.

Always have a chest freezer in case you end up with two baking trays filled with peaches that will hopefully keep for a winter’s worth of peach cobbler.

Yes, okay, I GET IT. My point, patient writers and readers both, is this: never let ambition lure you into the field before your creativity–and your common sense–are ready.

coverOctober is almost here! That means a new installment of my monthly newsletter will be hitting your inboxes on the 1st. I like giving kudos to kindred creative spirits in my newsletter, as well as sharing updates about my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus and other writing endeavors. If you haven’t subscribed yet you can do so here

 

 

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

 

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

 

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.

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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.