Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

Featured

Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner King of the WindSome titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAnd then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

graveyard-scan1

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think monster and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a man. Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You had time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

a6859b891dfcb6a9469607491390c010

But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has been missing dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is internal. By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.

graveyard2_540_custom-2d036eb1811d091e2f9af94953da0b562bc4528e-s300-c85

 

 

Advertisements

When Fiction Lives Down the Street

Featured

My town…

Hang on.

I can’t really call it that yet.

The thing about being a preacher’s kid is that we often moved where Dad felt God needed him most. This meant my family never really planted roots in any one town for very long. The concept of a “hometown” is still a bit lost on me, but I think Bo and I have found a place where our kids can grow, safe and happy.

There’s just one major street through our town, a farmer’s highway that connects several farming communities like ours to the capital.  We’re a very rare Wisconsin town: for having over 3,000 people, we can’t seem to keep our two bars open. Disgraceful!

Now, I called you here to this bland, wet street for a reason.

20170403_090354

Take a look at that big building with the peeling white paint.

20170403_090430

No name but “Mercantile.”

20170403_090614

We moved to this town two weeks before the boys were born (lesson learned: NEVER move while pregnant with twins), and in all that time I’ve never seen this store keep actual hours. It’ll go months without opening, and then suddenly early one Saturday morning its door will be open with stuff on the stairs. Weeks closed up. Monday night: open. Days closed up. Wednesday midday open, but Wednesday afternoon, closed. No pattern, no time. It’s gotten to the point where Bo and I will text each other every time it’s open, which of course only happens when we’re on the way to or from something with kids in tow.

One time I came home after grocery shopping with the kids to give Bo an hour’s quiet. “It’s open!” I say first thing. There’s no question what “It” is. “If you wanna go, I’ll stay with these guys.”

“No way,” he says while marking yet another historical inaccuracy in his umpteenth book about the Three Stooges. “I’m not losing my soul to Max Von Sydow. You go in.”

Max Von Sydow?”

“The movie Needful ThingsRemember?”

“Ooooh.” We’d watched the film based on the Stephen King book some time ago. The story was meh, but Von Sydow was wicked fun as LeLand Gaunt, demonic proprietor of a store selling only one’s most desperate desires. Somehow this conversation led to a wager about Stephen King books and films: We’d both read a King book with a film version and compare stories. I chose Needful Things while Bo chose The Shining (which I’d read and will NEVER read again.)

The films won, but that’s not the point here. As I read Needful Things, I started getting the heebie jeebies anytime I drove past the “Mercantile” of our town. Fiction’s supposed to be set in an Elsewhere, a source of escape. It’s not supposed to creep into my reality and stake a claim. Is it?

The display window of Needful Things had been cleansed of soap, and a dozen or so items had been set out there–clocks, a silver setting, a painting, a lovely triptch just waiting for someone to fill it with well-loved photographs. (43)

Suddenly Hugh looked like a tired little boy up long past his bedtime, a little boy who has just seen what he wants for Christmas–what he must have for Christmas, because all at once nothing else on God’s green earth would do. (77)

Here [Keeton’s] thoughts ceased. He was standing in front of the new store, Needful Things, and what he saw in the window drove everything else slap out of his mind for a moment or two. (212)

20170403_09062720170403_090643

There was a lot more merchandise in Needful Things on Friday; that was the important thing.

There was a music box, old and ornately carve–Mr. Gaunt said he was sure it played something unusual when it was opened, but he couldn’t remember just what…Mr. Gaunt did a fine business that day. Most of the items he sold were nice but in no way unique. He did, however, make a number of “special” deals, and all of these sales took place during those lulls when there was only a single customer in the store. (166-7)

Were we to enter that store, what would be waiting for Bo? For me? I remember posing that question to Bo once, and receiving a shrug in return. I think I know why, though. Despite Bo’s Amazon wish list being 14 pages long (at least shopping for him’s pretty easy) (and for the record, mine’s TWO pages, so, yeah), we’re both rather clear about what we miss most of all: our folks. That seems to be protagonist Alan’s immunity to Gaunt: still in mourning after the loss of his wife and son, Alan has no desire for any thing.

Alan stood looking into the display window for a long time. He found himself wondering what, exactly, all the shouting was about…Rosalie had made Needful Things sound like northern New England’s answer to Tiffany’s, but the china in the window…was rummage-sale quality at best…He cupped his hands to the glass in order to see beyond the display, but there was nothing to look at–the lights were off and the place was deserted. (223)

Still, I don’t think I’ll be taking any chances with my soul for a box of Diana Wynne Jones’ old story notes any time soon.

As if having such a store like “Mercantile” wasn’t eerie enough, we have our own carnival stationed year round. During the summer, it’s a nice place to take the kids for the afternoon. The rides are mostly geared for their size, being a collection of old drive-in theater cast-offs.

Once summer’s done, though, the place is stripped down to bones for winter. The pavement grips its quiet abandon. An old home with older memories, and neighbored by, of all dramatic places, a cemetery.

20170403_092723

20170430_190934

A carnival should be all growls, roars like timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage.

But this was like old movies, the silent theater haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouths opening to let moonlight smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks. (51-2)

20170403_093137_HDR20170403_09291020170403_092929

20170430_190952

20170403_092941

How does this NOT make one think of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes? I knew the movie as a child, and read the book in college. The book wins for better imagery, character, plot, and everything else in spades (though Jonathan Pryce was brilliant for Mr. Dark, and as I listen now to the score by James Horner, I will concede that Disney managed to get a couple things right).

In-season, though, it’s easy to forget these things. Even in the book, Will and Jim see an ordinary carnival come daylight:

And the deeper they went, the more obvious it became they would find no night men cat-treading balloon shadow while strange tents plumed like thunder clouds. Instead, close up, the carnival was mildewed rope, moth-eaten canvas, rain-worn, sun-bleached tinsel. The side show paintings, hung, like sad albatrosses on their poles, flapped and let fall flakes of ancient paint, shivering and at the same time revealing the unwondrous wonders of a thin man, fat man, needle-head, tattooed man, hula dancer… The train? Pulled off on a spur in the warming grass… (61)

20150830_140649_HDR

They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth. (72)

But with the coming of the cold months, I wonder if this place truly sleeps. I wonder if there is a night, when this small town turns off the porch lights, when the autumn fire pits burn the last bad beer on the embers, when the moon’s face hides because it knows what’s coming, when the stars aren’t quite aligned for rightness…I wonder.

With a pop, a bang, a jangle of reins, a lift and downfall, a rise and descent of brass, the carousel moved….It was running backward.

The small calliope inside the carousel machinery rattle-snapped its nervous-stallion shivering drums, clashed its harvest-moon cymbals, toothed its castanets, and throatily choked and sobbed its reeds, whistles, and baroque flutes. The music, Will thought, it’s backwards, too!…Then the calliope gave a particularly violent cry of foul murder which made dogs howl in far countries…(77)

I wonder.

 

Presumptions

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

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

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

Your boys can’t be THAT bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But today doesn’t need to be like that.

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

 

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

We order our ice cream inside and wander about.

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

20160803_152940.jpg

Hats in Passing

2010

I stand over your bassinet as Bo packs up our things. In a few minutes we’ll step out of the hospital, and you’ll see the sky and feel spring air for the first time. Everything is a first when you’re only two days old.

Wisconsin springs are absurdly unpredictable. This May day is calm, a little breezy.

A breeze? She’ll get pneumonia! We must cover all appendages. What do you mean, we don’t have a winter coat?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Bo hands me socks and a beanie hat, and holds up the blankets. Ah, yes, we’ll layer her with blankets like fat on a polar bear. She. Will. Survive.

I slide your feet into socks so small. The hat would barely cover my closed fist, yet there: it fits you.

There you lie, half-asleep. My little girl. My perfect blessing.

000_0026

2011

Hats bear magical properties. For example, they prevent illness. If a child has no hat for one outing, she is doomed to weeks of snot-addled breathing and green streaks on her face, hands, clothing, etc. And then pneumonia.

In aspiring to fulfill her role as grandmother, your grandmother knitted you a sweater and matching hat. She began the project when you were the size of a papaya inside me, and we did not yet know what little bits you bore. Your grandmother, like all practical Midwesterners, was determined you would get plenty of use out of it.

Barely a curl on your head, barely walking. Shy with people, yet fascinated with the world’s beauty: you study flowers, dirt, and fabric art with the same intensity. So long as you have your trusty snack cup filled with cheerios, you are always up for a new adventure.

104_0344

2012

Hats supply ample opportunities for giggles.

You have begun to voice your taste in what you wear and what you want to do. You always wear this hat for indoor activities–reading, ponies, matching pictures. You discover words mean something: they announce what you want, what you see. What scares you, what delights you.

104_0593

2013

Hats confuse grown-ups.

When given the choice between the frilly sunhats of bows and ladybugs, and a baseball hat with a M.A.S.H.-era helicopter, you pick the baseball hat. No doubts. “It’s a helicopter!” you squeal. Your grandmother asks a few more times about the sunhats. Nothing but head shakes, that hat gripped in your tiny hands like it’s the last ticket out of Vietnam (or Korea, really, what with the timeframe for M.A.S.H.,  but anyway).

You wear this hat EVERYwhere we go, be it to dino-digs at the zoo, the bird-laden soccer field by the park, the beach. It hides your curls and confuses passers-by: “That’s a sweet little guy you got there.”

“Girl.”

They squint at the Pinkie Pie shirt, laugh a little, and move on.

Yup. My little tomboy. No poofy skirts or hair-styling dolls for this one. She’s all about gears and bones and colorful hyper-active ponies.

She’s perfect.

106_1691

2014

Hats add that perfect touch.

Autumn in Wisconsin can be just as temperamental as spring. After weeks of days warm enough for swimming, the season takes a nose dive into frost and sleet. Just in time for Halloween, of course. (Why someone hasn’t designed costumes to go over winter coats is beyond me.)

You and I meet in the war-room–aka, your bedroom–to discuss the situation.

“What would you like to be for Halloween, kiddo?”

“A fairy princess!”

I bite my tongue for a second. This detour from gears to fairies has been…tolerable, but the princess stuff…all frailty and “woe is me” and waiting to be saved rather than gettin’ your greasy wrench and building something awesome. “Well, it’s going to be really cold for trick or treat. Your wings won’t fit under your coat.”

You ponder this. “But I can wear”–you hold up a fleece sweatshirt–“under my dress.”

“What about the crown? People won’t see it under your tinkerbell hat.”

“I’ll wear THIS one!” and you hold up a pink and silver oddity. The poms hanging down under the crown look like puffy, glittery braids. You go on like this, covering yourself in fleece, and then I manage to slide the thin, shiny tutu down and over it all.

You stand there, wand in one hand and bucket in the other, beaming in triumph.

And I laugh, happy to be defeated.

Lottie Halloween 2014

2015

Hats can be absurd, especially when they’re not hats.

(I’m honestly not sure what’s on her head. A sack for building blocks, I think.)

0216141849a

2016

Hats age us…a little.

I walk into Blondie’s classroom for the come-if-you-feel-like-showing-interest-in-your-child conference. Her teacher, a fine example of stalwart farmstock, smiles and hands me Blondie’s report card which, considering this is kindergarten, is surprisingly complex.  I decide to study all the S’s, N’s, and I’s later. “How is she doing with the other kids?” As one with a friendless childhood, this question often preys upon my mind.

Her teacher’s eyes light up, and she pulls back with a gasp. “Oh. My. Gosh. We had our read aloud time, and Blondie just, she just blew them all away. I was ready to help her with Olivia Goes to Venice, but she knew all the words. The second-graders she reads with all come to me, saying ‘She’s amazing!’ She reads like a second-grader. Better.” She recommends some chapter books to me, eager to see how you handle the challenge.

I’m wowified. I knew you could read well, but you do it so rarely within earshot. More often than not you’re studying pictures of bizarre fish/bugs/lizards, or outerspace, or dinosaurs. You’re fascinated with creation and all its workings, visible and invisible.

I wait outside for you to finish up your day. Too warm for a winter coat, but there’s a breeze, so, hat. You walk down those steps with your hands on your backpack straps. The Spider-Man beanie has tamed those whispy fly-about curls into a lackadaisical mess. Sweatshirt and backpack, you’re a college student in miniature.

Oh…

Not yet. Don’t you grow up on me too fast, Blondie.

You manage to get into the car despite my shower of kisses and tickles and praises. I blast The Who, because church-school parents can be a bunch of curmudgeons. (I should know, being one and all.)

“Mo-om. Not so loud.”

“Why not? We’re awesome!”

You laugh. “No we’re not.”

Hmmph. “Well, I’M awesome.”

More laughter. “Only a little bit.”

“Hey!” But I laugh, too. My kid’s a reader. A brilliant reader. A genius who will discover new species of fish-eating insects and live on the moon and invent the REAL hover-board.

Your noggin’s a perfect miracle, just like the rest of you.

So, get that hat on before you catch pneumonia!

20160322_152037

 

 

 

 

To Create in Bedlam

It is 5:30am. I may have thirty minutes, I may have an hour. Whatever I’ve got, it’s quiet.

To immerse oneself into a story world takes concentration and peace of mind. I get this from music, which is why I write of it so often. Unfortunately, I am not allowed the aforementioned tools much throughout the day. Why? Hellspawn!

Well, children, to be more accurate.

20160424_123624-1024x576.jpg

Many writing books and author biographies I’ve come across don’t mention these glorious people doing much until their kids were in school. As I have three children ages 5, 2, and 2, I can see why they waited that long. Four years may not sound like much, but that’s an eternity to a kid.

Some of us grown-ups can’t afford to wait that long, either.

It’s not that we have agents and publishers banging down our doors. It’s the monsters that are crawling up our insides, up from the gut, along the spine, and scraping, scratching the fibers of love in our minds until only self-hate and despair are left.

Postpartum does not simply stop when babies become toddlers.

I have written about this before (See “The Machete and the Cradle”). If I go for a few days without writing (like last week), I can feel It pull me downward. I hear only my children’s screams, not laughter. I see only failure, not work in progress. I feel only worthless, not worth my family’s love.

That’s when Bo forces me to sit down. “Go write. NOW.

Some of us need to create. Be it writing, art, music, model trains, whatever—we need a say somewhere, cuz it ain’t in our houses. Children dictate what stores we can visit without incident, what food we buy, when we can be out of the house (God help the parent who interrupts the nap schedule), etc.

To create is to finally be in control.

~*~

It is 8:22am.

Blondie enjoyed her first year of pre-school so much I thought it a shame she’d spend all summer at home. Shuffle that kid off to summer school, and I’m down to two little ones in the morning. How to distract toddler boys? Two words: Thomas. Television.

Never, EVER be ashamed of using your TV to give yourself a kiddo break.

Granted, I can’t expect them to leave me alone. If Biff calls out a name to me I must repeat it immediately or he will start screaming. Once Bash knows the laptop is on the table he will decide all the trains must bash into it, onto it, and so on. Now is not the time for creation.

Now is the time to review and plan.

When your children are conscious and mischievous, you can’t afford to tune them out with headphones. I prefer this time to plot out where to take things next. I may also work on maps, character garb—anything that does not involve a complete shift out of Mommy-mindset and into my characters.

Aaaand Bash has arrived with his trains.

Just because one has small children doesn’t mean one has to put the creative life completely on hold. Some can be content with just a few sentences’ work here and there, since that does add up. But when you’re impatient and determined, you’ve got to MAKE the time.

But how to do this when funds are limited?

My sister-in-law once asked me if I was going to use daycare to have time for myself. Um, Wisconsin is one of the most expensive states with childcare. How could I possibly justify paying someone to watch children outside the home when I’m still in it? Even capable baby-sitters are by no means cheap.

So how?

Bo knows I still fight postpartum, and is not afraid to take the kids after a long day of work so I can have an hour of uninterrupted writing. Every month he takes the kids so I can go off by myself and have an entire day to write, recharge. He will find books I need for research to save me time.

He never reads my stuff, though.

Lesson learned: relish the support your partner can give you, but don’t ask too much of him/her. Bo is not a fiction reader, let alone fantasy. I tried to get his input on a synopsis once; after three paragraphs he looked up and shrugged. “I am sooo not the audience for whatever it is you’re saying.”

Find the friends who are capable of decent feedback, and ask them to enforce deadlines.

If one’s emailed me her thoughts, I won’t open the email until this time in the day. Revision requires careful planning to ensure consistency, and planning is what this hour is all about. By allowing myself to think through the coming events in my story in the morning, I am ready to write in the afternoon.

~*~

It is 1:00pm. Naptime for the twins. The most bittersweet part of the day.

Blondie: And here’s the Hall of Justice, and Superman with Green Arrow. Who’s this?

Me: Not now, kiddo, I’m working.

Blondie: Can you play James? He’s my favorite engine because he’s red. Can you play James in the Hall of Justice?

Me: Not now, kiddo, I really need to work.

Blondie: That’s the button with Aquaman’s pool, and there’s—

Me: KID-DO. I reeeeeeeally need to work. I’ll try to play later, okay?

Blondie: When you’re done working you’ll play?

Me: Yes. Just, please, let me put on my music and work.

Sometimes I remember to play, sometimes not. Sometimes I can silence the guilt. Usually not.

~*~

It is 8:30pm. I have about an hour before complete mental shutdown.

Unless a major deadline or inspiration looms overhead, I do nothing with my own story. After hours of reading truck books, walking through letter words, scraping pasta off the table, roaring like dragons, and so on, the last thing I want to do is deep-think.

Time to explore.

Bo sits contentedly next to me unwinding his own way with a Dirty Harry flick or some such thing. I wander through blogs and Twitter to see what epiphanies other writers have uncovered, or reviews on books I may want to read. I was never much for platform-building before. I still don’t think of it that way.

Writers need readers. I want to be read, so I shall read in return.

I may review the events of the day, especially if there’s a bruise on my face from Biff’s latest tantrum. I nearly cry when I talk about refusing Blondie. Bo never chastises. “We’ll make it up to her,” he says. “You can’t not write, so don’t beat yourself up over it.”

Which is, after all this, my point.

You can’t not write, so don’t force yourself to stop. Bury your passion alive, and it will decay before its time. Monsters are born this way, and they feed upon bitterness and resentment. Let yourself create, and your worlds both real and imagined will thrive.