Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

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When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

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Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

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When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

In the hours before my in-laws arrived for Blondie’s Christmas service, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is  talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

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The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

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How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

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#Lessons Learned from #CharlieBrown: #Dream Big, #Writers!

mv5bnte5nzmxnzkwnl5bml5banbnxkftztgwotq0nzk5nze-_v1_When one walks under the weight of depression, life itself aches. Despite therapy and the writing regimen both creative and confessional, I have felt little hope for the future. My school has me on reserve to teach not just 40, but potentially 80 students. Bo’s schedule has gone haywire, and we find ourselves in survival mode. I can’t get ten minutes’ peace on the computer when the boys were awake. The church wants me to do A, B, and C in a month–wait, actually 7 days. That’s fine, right?

All this over the past few months, plus taking notes on The Tellinga memoir about recovering from sexual abuse by @ZoeZolbrod, as I prepare to face The Monster of my own childhood.

A rather not-fun time here.

Music, thankfully, alters my insides for the better.

Desperate for a change from Veggie Tales sing-a-longs, I got a copy of The Peanuts Movie soundtrack. My folks both enjoyed Peanuts comics, toys, and cartoons, and that joy passed down to me and my kids. When word came of a new film, I remained skeptical.

Now? My whole family loves it, and I strongly recommend you watch it with or without little ones. Oh, the kids love it when Snoopy the World War I flying ace saves his beloved Fifi, and Bo enjoys all the tightly executed homages to the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas, but I see something else: I see the journey of a writer.

No, not Snoopy (though he’s quite the author with his typewriter!). Charlie Brown.

He’s the odd one out, the one never really understood by others. He keeps trying to succeed with his passions such as kite-flying, but just. Can’t. Do it. The same old obstacles, like the kite-eating tree, snatch his hope away. He’s scoffed and ridiculed by his peers. When a new kid–the little red-haired girl, no less!–moves onto his street, he is awestruck. All he wants is a chance to show her the real him, the Charlie Brown no one else sees.

“Charlie Brown is not a quitter.” -Charlie Brown

How many of us have felt misunderstood, simply labeled and discarded as hopeless cases? How many of us come down with “a serious case of inadequacy,” as Charlie Brown puts it?

He tries different things to impress her: he prepares a magic act, only to give up his chance so he can help his sister Sally instead. He learns to dance for the winter dance competition, only to slip and set off the sprinkler system. He spends the weekend reading War and Peace and writing a book report for their team grade only to watch his paper get shredded by a toy.

Time, and time, and time again he gives his all and gets nothing in return. Even the star he wishes on falls from the sky. All he can count on is his dog, who remains loyal and loving no matter the disaster. (Dyane, I can’t help but think of you and Lucy!)

When I hear Christophe Beck‘s piano melody for Charlie Brown’s moments of defeat, I’m on the verge of tears, especially here, during his school assembly.

And yet, despite all the hopelessness, Charlie Brown dreams on. He sees the success of another kid’s kite-flying attempt, and hopes for his own. Don’t we have those moments as writers, too?

Then, out of beyond-nowhere, the little red-haired girl wants to be his summer penpal. His. Charlie Brown’s. All he’s been through, all he was ready to give up on, and…and he didn’t even DO anything this time! Why, why now? She tells him: she had watched him and all he went through over the year, and felt him a friend worth knowing.

How many of us have reached out with words, and wanted nothing more than to feel a reader’s hand find ours?

Perhaps you’ve been feeling nothing more than the football pulled out from under you. That the world has deemed you a failure because:

“You’re Charlie Brown, that’s why!” -Lucy Van Pelt

Well, guess what? Charlie Brown may be gullible enough to still run for Lucy’s football, but he’s also a thoughtful, kind, and giving person who never gives up, no matter how many kites he loses. He dreams of a chance to meet someone who can see him for all he is and could be, not just his failures and shortcomings.

Dream big, fellow writers. Charlie Brown is worth knowing. So are you.

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Writer’s Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

51tandu2qrl-_sy355_Do you imagine in words?

I do sometimes. It’s a strange switch from seeing a story: I don’t smell, feel, or hear. My eyes see nothing but words an inch from my face, and even they have a fuzz to them, so it takes a few tries to decipher. The more I read, the more my senses follow, and life within me finds a focus.

Music helps me see more than the story. Music helps me see the language of me.

I knew how to read notes before words, having started piano at the age of 4. My father loved to write hymns, and my mother often directed choirs. We kids learned numerous church-friendly instruments, and sang in the choirs. (Bo likes to think my father secretly aspired for us to become a Christian version of the Partridge Family. Thank God THAT didn’t happen.) Even after Dad died, my mother and elder brother continued to give to the church with music, while my kid brother went on to become a pastor himself.

Music and stories always propelled me forward. One word follows another; one note comes after another. They emote. Inspire. Begin. End. Define, yet live on without limit.

Which, at last, brings me to that which I wanted to share with you.

Whenever I’ve written about parenting, depression, or abuse, I pull up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Some of the tracks are more narrative than others; these I ignore. But a few have such a…it’s a tense hope. Like Mychael Danna’s Capote, the score is dominated by strings and piano. Capote, however, has more menacing undertones to it than Assassination–a result of the bass and fewer harmonies, I think. I also feel more of a time-stop with Capote, especially during the solo piano I love so much. Assassination‘s “Song for Bob” has a very slow build while strings are added, and added. A sense of resolve comes through when the violin joins at the 1:30 mark, and even though the rhythm of the harmonies repeats, the build goes on. When the piano joins, the strings seem…not forced, but their harmonies alter, and for some moments the viola provides what feels like the final monologue in a Shakespearean tragedy. The return of the original rhythm and harmonies is different, yet the same.

How like us, we who undergo the shift within to reclaim our total selves.

 

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A Potluck of Kith

slideshow101933_2My father loved his Divine Calling, so much so that you could tell it took an effort for him to wrap up a sermon. Bo and I would play The Amen Game whenever we attended my father’s church: we’d listen for his dramatic pauses and tally how many times Dad could have declared “Amen” and therefore endeth the sermon. I believe Bo has the record–10 spots during one Lenten service.

Dad knew himself longwinded, and while most churchgoers didn’t mind (outside of football season, anyway), my grandfather, who was mostly deaf and therefore clueless about the concept of whispering, would always say in the greeting line after service, “TOO LONG, DAVID!” To which my father would always say, “Thanks, Dad,” smile and blink, and then roll his eyes as we hugged hello.

But to even get to THAT point, we’d have to survive the after-church announcements. They were like a second sermon sometimes, because of course, Dad just had to make a joke about so-and-so’s cookie bars at the potluck in the church basement, how well the playground fund is doing, reminders about the food drive for the community pantry, and so on. Everyone’s got their coats on, parents are anxious because the snack stores are depleted and the toddlers are restless. Even I’m raising my eyebrows at Dad with a clear look of “GET ON WITH IT, DAD!”

So I’m hoping today’s post feels more like the potluck of goodies awaiting us in the church basement rather than that endless list of announcements.

First, the bounty of crockpots (you may know them as slow cookers) filled with various baked beans, pasta and meat concoctions, and the one weird one with only vegetables that have gone an icky brown color for cooking too long.

I’ll skip that one, just for you.

Three writers have bestowed upon me some marvelous honors: Mike Steeden, A.J. Cosmo, and S.J. Higbee. Cosmo is a children’s writer and illustrator who invited me to write a couple guest posts on children’s literature; I’ll be sure to post an announcement when they’re up for viewing. He’s currently sharing a selection from my Lessons Learned collection–I do hope you’ll check it out!

Mike Steeden enjoyed my e-book Lessons Learned so much that he wants to write a review. I never thought I could market this book—I just enjoy giving it to others! So to know someone dug it so much they want to write about it was quite a tear-inducing moment. I’ll post his review soon.

Lastly,  S.J. Higbee is a sci-fi/fantasy author that has nominated me for the…

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Thank you, S.J.!

Of course, accepting such an honor requires answers to certain questions.

No hamsters bent on world conquest are involved this time, so I SHOULD be safe. (furtive glance in Shey’s direction)

  1. If you could meet any author, from any time (past and present), who would that be and what would be your most pressing question?

Oh, heavens, Diana Wynne Jones, of course! I’ve written a few past posts about my childhood, as well as hers in my Lessons Learned collection. I would want nothing more than to sit with her by a fire, pet her dog, and just talk about the past’s impact upon the present. Sadly, she died only a few years ago, but she didn’t completely abandon us: Neil Gaiman was one of her dearest friends, and her sister Ursula Jones grew up to be an actress as well as writer in her own right. While I know their work is all very nice, all I’d want to talk about is Diana.

  1. Who is your absolute favourite character, ever? I know you’re probably groaning and rolling your eyes but there must be one character that springs to mind immediately – probably followed by a host of others – but, I want that first knee jerk reaction please and why!

Gah, but I’m TORN! Okay, knee-jerk: Hercule Poirot. Sherlock Holmes was my gateway character into mystery, but reading his stories still makes me sad, for to read them brings my father back into the room as a ghost. Hercule Poirot was my own discovery; I do not associate him with any loss or grief. His mysteries are always a pleasure to read, one where the brain works, but not too hard—rather like a nice walk around the neighborhood and peeking into windows just in case one catches something out of the ordinary, like MURDER.

  1. What is your favourite series out of all the books you’ve read? The series you would recommend without hesitation.

Definitely Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. Or her Howl trilogy.

*%&$#@ Choosing is hard!

Okay, um, I’ll go with the Howl trilogy then, because the last Chrestomanci book IS, to me, not up to Jones’ usual platinum standard. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air, and The House of Many Ways, the characters are all full of flaws and quirks, and the stories aren’t just about Howl—the main characters change from book to book, so the story always feels fresh inside that universe. Just trust me on this.

  1. What’s your preferred reading format, book or e-reader?

I teach online, so I stare at the screen enough as it is. Paper book, please.

(That, and I LOVE the smell of books. Why isn’t that a cologne?)

  1. Who is your favourite animal character, and why? This can be a mythical creature like a dragon, or real, like Elsa in Born Free.

Oh, gosh, it’s been a while…and just because I’ve hardly made up my mind for the other questions, I’ll say I’m torn between Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Mrs. Brisby in The Rats of NIMH. I’d mention Ralph from The Mouse and the Motorcycle, too…did I not read of other animals when I was a kid? Huh. Odd.

ANYway, I always admired Reepicheep’s fearlessness, and Mrs. Brisby, a widow, goes through terror after terror to protect her children. Personally, I find her to be one of the most amazing mothers in literature.

  1. What is your most anticipated book for the remainder of 2016?

New or old? Here, I’ll just cover all the bases:

Future: Michael Dellert intends to publish the fourth book in his Matter of Manred series, The Wedding of Eithne, by the end of the year. Since I’ve already devoured the first three books like a plate of chocolate peanut butter bars, I’m highly anticipating the next serving.

Present: Waiting for my copy of Zoe Zolbrod’s The Telling, which came out this year. Since it’s the memoir of Zolbrod coming to terms with her own history of sexual abuse and its impact on her life, I know it’ll be a heart-gutting read. Still. It’s something I need to face and overcome in myself, so to see how another writes through it may help.

Past: For all my talk about Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, I realized I never finished that epic fantasy series, so I’m going to snatch those up toot suite.

  1. Imagine someone has given you a magical Audible account and you can order up your favourite narrator to read aloud the book you’ve always wanted to hear. Who would be narrating the book and what would it be?

Well if this was a truly magical account, I would request Alan Rickman reading anything. Seriously, anything. His voice was delicious. I suppose I could request something prolific, like Alan Rickman reading King Lear, I suppose.

But I suppose I should pick someone alive. Then I’d want to get a hold of Stephen Fry narrating Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, I know that product exists, but the magic involved HERE would be that I’d have time to listen.

So now here’s the mish-mash of cold salads and vegetable platters and the one fruit bowl with an odd-colored syrup….wonder if that’s from the same family. Lift up the bowl and look for the name in masking tape stuck on the bottom. It might be on the spoon, too. We Mid-westerners are a territorial sort when it comes to potluck gear.

At long, long last, I’m going to start up another Lessons Learned! I spent a good long while on Jones, and Eco…um…maybe I’ll get back to him sometime, but I officially exhausted The Name of the Rose…and exhausted myself of Eco in the process.

Why genre writing isn’t used more to teach elements of story is beyond me. In graduate school, genre writing was seen as the choice of imbeciles, those too dumb to write REAL literature. If you were going to write, it had to be about struggle, or death and struggle, or loss and struggle, or sexual deficiency and struggle, etc struggle etc. Make sure the ending’s sad.

GAG. That was a warm mayonnaise pasta salad with wilted broccoli if I ever smelled one.

So that’s another reason why I tend to study genre lit than “literary fiction.” Yes, of COURSE there’s plenty of good ones out there, but genre gets such a bad wrap in the writer’s learning environment.

Take Agatha Christie, for example. If you know a school that actually uses her as an example of GOOD writing, please tell me, because I’ve yet to hear of one. I have no intention of spending the same time on her as I did on Jones, but I am looking forward to studying some important story elements through two or three of her novels and some short fiction. No, not Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None. Other ones.

Oh, look! The table overloaded with brownies, cookie bars, fruit breads, and cakes with frosting slipping down the sides! At least half of any congregation brings desserts, you know. And an obnoxious number of those people put nuts in their desserts. Philistines.

As many of you have said to me with greatest care and friendship, I should be taking time to write stories. But with kids and teaching and LIFE and writing here, I never thought I could take that encouragement very deeply. Sure, I’ll write fiction…in a few years…

But then Michael Dellert prodded me to take a character on his Tribe of Droma facebook page, a sort of role-playing realm based on his Matter of Manred series. I’d have to give her things to do, challenges to face.

I’d have to give her a story.

A what? I…I don’t do stories. I’ve read stories, and I’ve been writing about reading, but writing, myself? What? I haven’t done that decently in…shit, at least a year.

But then I thought of Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, and a story started to form in my head. This could be a coming of age story, a girl who wants to be treated as a grown up but must grow up first. A girl who’s got to battle one of the most dangerous enemy’s a human being can face:

Pride.

But the more I thought, the more I got wishy-washy about it. I never did this role-playing thing before, I won’t have a clue and it’ll show like the maraschino cherries on Grandma’s Green Torte. I can’t write in another person’s universe. I don’t have time to do the character justice.

Michael listened nicely, then not-so-nicely, and then finally told me to shut the f**k up and stop psyching myself out. Stop strangling the unborn story and DO IT.

So, I’ve started doing it. Not writing scenes yet, mind. Just freewrites based on prompts he sends me out of his #13WeekNovel. The way I figure it, if I keep myself on a timeline, I shouldn’t end up with another six-year-old WIP. You can even see some of my freewrites on facebook, if you’d like. Once I start writing scenes, I’d like to share them here, which is…well, utterly terrifying. I’ve never opened my fiction in public, not since grad school. And these’ll be extremely rough drafts, to boot. But I have wanted to try a Middle Grade story for a while now, one I know I could share with my children in a few years. The Middler’s Pride shall be exactly that.

To do this, though, something has to be cut in return. So I foresee my typical blog fare getting mixed up, or taking brief hiatuses, depending on where I’m at with this fictional work.

~*~

Some people can balance three plates’ worth of goodies from the potluck in one go, but I’m just not that kind of person. I’ve got to move by the tables as slowly as possible to figure out what I have to take (Mrs. Hildegard has no family to cook for so any compliment on her beans makes her day, ew what is that SHIT oh yes Miss Tigglesworth I’d love some pasta salad, oh ICK who put carrots in the jellow AGAIN?) and what I want to take (brownies brownies brownies GOOD GOD WHO PUT NUTS IN THESE).

Here, let’s take a spot over there, where the folding chairs aren’t too bent, the ceiling tiles not broken. It doesn’t echo so badly over here.

When I look around, I see such a wealth I could have never imagined. No, not money. These tables are as old as my dad, the plumbing moreso. This building is being held together by scraps at liquidation stores, duct tape, and prayer. No, this basement is filled with a wealth of talent. You all have so many gifts: the gift of language. Imagination. Kindness.

Thank you for sharing your wealth here, with me, and with the fellow writers here. When I see writers come together like this, I feel nothing but bright promise for what’s to come.

But don’t touch the coffee—church coffee’s always gross.

Amen.