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Pinch Me (Not Literally)

It works, you know. If you pinch yourself while you’re dreaming, you can’t feel it. I learned when I was young, during an awesome dream about David Cassidy. I pinched myself. I didn’t feel anything. In my dream, I realized David Cassidy was a dream. Dream ruined.

David Cassidy, Partridge Family, Heart throbs

I had another dream, but this one was for my life. I wanted to make books. And I’d chased that dream with high hopes and lots of enthusiasm. The book had been written. Literary agents researched, stalked, and researched some more. Queries sent. Waiting endured.

Just before Christmas 2014, Steven Chudney, an agent on my short list, sent an email offering to represent me.  It was, literally, a dream come true. I was afraid to pinch myself, but I did jump up and down with such exuberance, my kids thought I’d fallen down the stairs.

After accepting his offer, I waited for the dreamer’s pinch to wake me up: he’d changed his mind, he’d sent the email to the wrong person, or any of the million reasons I’d created in my mind.

It never came.

cheek_pinch

Steven had some perceptive advice on a few additional scenes the story needed. I worked on them and the copy edits he sent. I learned from these edits, among other things, that tee shirt and t-shirt are incorrect. It’s always T-shirt, people. I also realized how many times I use the word T-shirt.

I got the edits to him just after Christmas. He liked them and told me this baby was almost ready to go. Our book baby. Ours because we’d formed a partnership. It felt so good not to be in this alone anymore.

But first we needed to come up with a name. He thought A Voice Among the Thorns wasn’t teen friendly. Titles are not my forte, as you can see by some of my post titles, and I was on-board with changing it. We threw some ideas at each other and agreed on Ask Me to Wait. Steven’s idea. I loved it.

He began submitting it to editors and told me it would be two weeks to two months before we heard anything. That’s when it struck me that “ask me to wait” is a very utilitarian phrase—book title and writer mantra rolled into one.

Now I wait. They say it builds character.

paper-books-bookbinding

4 Comments

Clara Cracks Some Nuts

Today I took my youngest daughter to see the Nutcracker Ballet for her first time. She was focused on the dancing, but I was focused on Clara. Clara is relegated to her little throne in The Land of Sweets for most of the second act, with nothing to do but watch the ballet and listen to the music.  She may smile graciously and applaud delicately like a princess, but you know her mind is buzzing around like a bee in a flower garden.

Nutcracker ballet, Clara

“They’ll never believe this at school.”

When the Nutcracker Princes crowns her, Clara smiles serenely, but she’s thinking, “They’ll never believe this at school.” Later as she reaches to adjust the glittering crown, she mutters, “This crown is killing me. But I’ll bet it looks awesome.”

As the Nutcracker Prince dances for Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara watches with wide eyes. “Forget Team Jacob or Team Edward. I’m on Team Nutcracker Prince now.” Then she remembers her horrid little brother and a smirk plays across her face (it’s quickly masked by a gracious smile), “I think I’ll have Nutcracker Prince dance on Fritz’s face when we get back.”

Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet

“Forget Team Edward!”

Clara watches the Sugar Plum Fairy with annoyance— “That Sugar Plum Fairy is such a show off. But her tutu is to die for.”— before her attention is captured by the Arabian dancers (actually, just the male dancer). “Who is that? Hmmm, I think I want to meet him.”

Arabian Dance Nutcracker Ballet

“Who’s that?”

She eagerly awaits the end of the performance, until she realizes the Nutcracker is dancing the Pas de Deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clara’s smile wavers. “Why is he dancing with her? He never looked at me that way. Hey, where’s his head?”

Sugar Plum Fairy Nutcracker Prince Pas de Deux

“Hey, where’s his head?”

Clara is filled with bitter fury. “It’s not fair. I loved him when he was an ugly little nutcracker.”
As the ballet draws to an end Clara smiles and waves, graciously accepting the Nutcracker Prince’s hand and the bows and curtsies of the dancers. But you know when the curtain closes there will be hell to pay.

The curtain draws to a close, but the show isn’t over for the Nutcracker.

Originally posted 12/11

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The One Less Traveled

rose black background

I know a man. He would say he’s ordinary, but I know he’s extraordinary. He took the road less traveled, and for me, it has made all the difference.  From him, I’ve learned the truth about love and sacrifice and humility.

I thought I learned all about those things growing up. I’d learned about love from soap operas and reality tv. I’d offered sacrifices to my brothers– “You drank out of my can of Pepsi? Well, I don’t want it anymore. Just keep it.” I’d experienced humility in gymnastics class when I took an unanticipated dive off the balance beam while uttering a few choice profanities. When I got married and had children and I learned more about love, but I still didn’t understand it.

Then I met a man. He has a friendly smile and a self-deprecating wit that can convulse a crowd with laughter while pointing out with laser-like precision, the folly and humanity of each of us, himself included. But he never leaves it there; he teaches us how to overcome those things if we desire. He treats every person with respect, no matter how stupid I think their question or remark is. He controls his snarkiness with a skill I can only marvel at (not being able to control my own).

He always makes time for me and anyone else that needs him, or wants him, or dislikes him enough to want to tell it to his face. People come to him to be unburdened and he welcomes them day and night. (He meets less often with happy, contented people; they don’t need him.) At his feet, we dump our sorrow and grief and anger and confusion and addiction and ignorance and hatred. When I’m with him, I know I’m the center of his attention, no matter how full his inbox is or how deep the garbage around him.  And when I leave, my burden is always easier to bear.

He spends his days knee deep in the misery that pools around him. I glimpsed it once, before he knew I was there. He was slumped in his chair, his head in his hands, the burdens of other’s squarely on his shoulders. And when I sat across from him, I could see it in his eyes and feel it in the air. I knew he didn’t get enough sleep and went many times without a meal.

Many people love him, but aren’t interested in him or his life or what he goes through. And I wonder if he sometimes feels alone amidst the humanity pressing about him constantly. Sometimes, even though you know you’re not alone, loneliness wraps around you and through you like a shroud. And I know, although he hides it well, that he longs for a moment of solitude.

I witness others watching him the way I watched my brothers around my can of Pepsi, hoping to catch him stumbling or better yet, falling down. They’re so intent on him as he journeys down his narrow road, they fail to see how often they themselves trip over the debris littering their own wide road. He faces the animosity aimed at him from every direction with unflinching humility, but I wonder how it affects him when he tries to sleep at night.

I could not walk in his shoes; it’s hard enough walking in my own and they’re much smaller. But he treads with a joy and humor that belie the things he hears and witnesses day after day. I’ve heard people ask him if he regrets his life. A look  of sincere astonishment crosses his face. Then he breaks into a smile that I’d call radiant if it didn’t sound so cheesy, and he says simply, genuinely,  “No. I love being a priest.”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost two paths diverged

First posted in March 2012

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4 Comments

Thirty Second NaNo Break

NaNoWriMo Thirty Second Stretch

*WARNING:This stretch routine is not meant to take the place of a potty break.

1. Pectoral stretch and eye relaxation-Find a wall corner/doorway within view of computer screen. Keeping eyes focused on computer screen, stretch pecs as shown, switching arms after ten seconds.

pecs-stretching

2. Hamstring stretch and eye stretch-Move to the floorStretch as shown, switching legs after ten seconds. Stretch eyes by looking up at computer screen.

man-stretching

3. Imagination stretch and cardio-Run in place. Imagine you’re with Hugh Jackman and you look great in your bikini.

hugh-jackman-run-on-beach

4. Take a deep breath, exhale, and continue writing.

Another NaNoWriMo Thirty Second Break coming soon.

6 Comments

Hey, Boo.

I was excited. My two youngest children were skeptical. With great fanfare, I had presented each of them with their own copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. I informed them that it was one of the best books ever written and they would love it. And to sweeten their dispositions, I promised a movie party after we’d finished the novel. The movie was as good as the book. Oh, and we’d buy lots of junk food to eat while we watched it.

Truman Capote took this photo of Harper Lee.

Truman Capote took this photo of Harper Lee.

I’d read it with their older siblings, now it was their turn. Even though they were older (twelve and fourteen), we read aloud together. That first day, we got our books and sprawled in the family room. Before diving in, we read some information about the time period the story was set in and what things were like when Harper Lee actually wrote it. We read about the trial that inspired her. Their eyes glazed over and after the history lesson, they escaped without ever opening their books.

I wasn’t worried. I knew they’d love it. How could they not?

Dill, Scout, Jem, To Kill a Mockingbird

 

The next day, I read the first chapter aloud then we discussed it. Once again they disappeared as soon as we’d finished. A tremor of apprehension went through me. Maybe they wouldn’t like it. But by the time we got to the fourth chapter, my daughter was asking if we could read “just one more chapter.” “Yes,” I’d answer. “Tomorrow.”

We discussed every chapter, real discussions. Not tooth-pulling sessions of I don’t know. Of course, we laughed too (Pass the damn ham was one of our favorite lines.) Harper Lee has a way of preparing the reader, subtly and with ineffable grace and humor, for what lies ahead.  By the time we came to the end of the book, we were reading three or four chapters per day at my children’s insistence.

To Kill a Mockingbird

The day we finished the novel was bittersweet. My daughter cried out, “No, it can’t be over. I want to read more. Is there a sequel?” There is no higher praise for a book or an author. As for me, I was sad that my last journey with my children and To Kill A Mockingbird had come to end. But my son told me not to worry. “You can read it to our kids someday.” As much as I’d love that opportunity, I think my children should read it to their children. It’s a marvelous journey to make together and they may learn something new. I learned after reading it for the bizillionth time that the callousness that comes with maturity is a survival instinct. Most of us aren’t strong enough to survive life’s ugliness without it.

In the coming years, as they struggle to mature and  make sense of the chaos that is life will my children say, “To Kill a Mockingbird showed me that fear begets cowardice, hypocrisy and prejudice go hand-in-hand, and courage forges the metal of integrity”?  Of course not, but the tender, bright hope that the story ultimately reveals buried under the layers of callused adulthood will echo through their minds when they need something to hope in: Hey, Boo.

Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird

11 Comments

Not For the Faint of Heart

I loved a boy in high school. My family moved to a new town in the middle of my freshman year, and I saw him for the first time at the bus stop. I could see his house from my bedroom window. The worst night of my life was the night he took another girl to the homecoming. I cried as I listened to mournful love songs (they were “our” songs) and stared at his house for most of the night. When I finally did get to sleep, I woke often and thought of him with that girl. Then I’d get out of bed, look out my window at his house, and wonder if he was home yet.

I knew his phone number, address, license plate number (I still do) and his birthday (I’ve forgotten it). I knew he liked cross-country and track and math. He seemed quiet and a little shy, although I heard he could be arrogant. I think he had blue-green eyes. That’s all I knew about him.

I didn’t know what kind of music, books or movies he liked. I didn’t know what he was passionate about or what he could have cared less about. We only spoke a handful of times and I’m sure he didn’t know my name (if he did, he certainly didn’t know about the “e” at the end). He inhabited (or at least orbited) the center of my universe for my entire high school life, even though he graduated two years before I did. He broke my heart and the only thing he ever did to me was to not notice me.

I wonder about those days. In moments when time and maturity can put the past on ice,  I tell myself it was infatuation. But when I revisit it honestly, all of it, without the bandage of distance, I know it was much more than that shallow word infatuation. But I still don’t know if it can be called love.

 

First posted in 9/11

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Lung Leavin’ Day

 

cancer survivor, Heather Von St. James

Heather and Lily

There’s a lot more to this picture of Heather Von St. James and her daughter Lily than you see—battle scars, miracles, loss, courage, humor and triumph. Well, the courage and humor shows in their eyes.

Their journey began in 2005. Shortly after Heather and her husband Cameron welcomed Lily into the world, Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Doctors told the new mother that she had only fifteen months to live.

If you’ve never heard of mesothelioma, you’re not alone. Those most familiar with it are the ones diagnosed with it. Mesothelioma is a rare and deadly form of cancer that attacks the lining of the body cavity called the mesothelium. And the pretty, delicate gossamer in the photo below is the killer responsible for it.

Asbestos Fibers

Asbestos.

Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that lies dormant in the body for 20-50 years after exposure. Mesothelioma treatments are available, but for many people a cure is not possible. Yet nine years after her diagnosis, Heather is counted among the survivors. Her recovery from the disease is clinically unique because of her young age at the time of her diagnosis. Typically, patients are older and even with treatment, have a 6 to 9 month median survival rate. Fighting the battle wasn’t easy for Heather, Cameron and Lily. It was won with great sacrifice. Namely, one of Heather’s lungs.

Heather writes:

I was a candidate for a surgery called an extrapleural pneumonectomy. It’s a huge surgery that includes the removal of the affected lung, pleura (the lining around the lung where the cancer was), the left half of my diaphragm and the lining of my heart; both my diaphragm and heart lining were replaced with surgical gortex. My sixth rib was also removed so the surgeon would have better access to the chest cavity. This is no routine surgery, and it was made worse by the fact that I was a new mom. My baby would be turning six months old two days after my surgery.

Choosing to laugh instead of cry, Heather, Cameron and Heather’s sister knew that a sense of humor was crucial to alleviate fear and successfully defeat the cancer. When Heather learned her surgery was scheduled for Groundhog’s Day, she nicknamed her tumor Punxsutawney Phil. As the radical surgery approached, Heather and her family decided it would be a day to celebrate. After all, it was going to save her life. Hence, February 2nd was christened Lung Leavin’ Day (the day her lung left). The celebration has grown every year since 2005, and recently Heather, Cameron and Lily started using the occasion as a fundraiser for mesothelioma cancer.

Roses and fireworks

 

Today, September 26, is the official Mesothelioma Awareness Day. Join Heather Von St. James in her crusade against this deadly disease  by sharing information about it with others.

For more information:

Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Heather Von St. James Blog

Asbestos Facts and Statistics 

3 Comments

Show and Tell

Showing vs. Telling:
A writer’s guide

Anton Chekhov, Buzzfeed, writing tips

 

Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

2 Comments

Location, Locaction, Location

“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…” -Eudora Welty

My husband and I went to Connecticut a few years ago. One of my favorite TV shows at the time, The Gilmore Girls, was set in the small town of Stars Hollow. The highlight of my trip would be a pilgrimage to that town. It was, after all,  just as important a character as Rory or Lorelei, and most of the time I liked the town better than the Gilmores.

Stars Hollow, Connecticut, Gilmore Girls

 

It devastated me to learn that Stars Hollow didn’t exist, except on a Warner Brothers lot.

Setting can be a very powerful, integral part of any story. More than just a backdrop, the location can be a threatening antagonist or a stalwart friend. It can arouse feelings in us, love, terror, frustration.

Imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts:

Hogwarts, Harry Potter

DuMaurier’s Rebecca without Manderley:

Caroline, Fontaine, Manderley

Or Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See without Saint-Malo:

All the Light We Cannot See, Saint-Malo, Anthony Doerr

 

I wanted  A Voice Among the Thorns to be set in a small Michigan town. I googled towns in southeastern Michigan, looking for the place that would be a fuzzy blanket for some of the characters, a stifling little pond for others and an escape from reality for another. As soon as I saw Rudds Mill, I knew I’d found my town. The fact that it disappeared long ago didn’t bother me. I’d create the town—geographical fiction, if you like. And the first place I imagined? Candy’s Coffee Shop, of course.

A voice among the thorns,

The site of Rudds Mill.

8 Comments

Black and White

dead rose

I was born in a hospital in Detroit and I’ve lived in its suburbs for most of my life. Although I love it here, there’s a dark thread running through the fabric of the area. Some call it racism. That’s not what I call it. Don’t get me wrong, racism exists. It’s rampant and it’s ugly. But there’s something else going on disguised as racism. And it’s distracting us from the real problem.

I was assaulted when I was in high school. I was lucky enough to get away before I was badly hurt. The neighbor I went to school with wasn’t so lucky. Driving home from work one evening, he was attacked in his car while stopped at a traffic light. I don’t remember how long he was hospitalized.

My best friend had her car window smashed out with a crowbar. That’s how they unlocked the doors. After a brutal sexual assault, they used the crowbar on her head. I went to the hospital soon after it happened. I remember her clothes and hair were covered with blood and shattered glass.

I vaguely remember other tragedies, but not enough to go into detail. A classmate’s older brother shot at a gas station. A friend mugged and beaten walking home from work.

More recently a good friend of my daughter’s was attacked. Her jaw was wired shut and her eye socket crushed. Healing and rehabilitation took months and many surgeries. Will the psychological wounds ever heal?

Detroit

Detroit

Earlier this year a clerk was shot in a local gas station in broad daylight. When two young boys went in to buy some pop, they discovered the body. My son and daughter happened to be driving by that gas station just as the police arrived.

Now let’s talk about another resident of the Detroit suburbs, Steven Utash, whom I’ve never met and many have never heard of.  Utash, a 54 year-old-man weighing 155 pounds, accidentally hit a ten year-old boy with his truck. He got out of the truck to check on the boy, who was not seriously injured. Utash, on the other hand, was attacked by a mob of thirteen to twenty men. He was so severely injured that doctors put him in a medically induced coma for TEN days. The few men caught taking part in the bloody rampage will spend less time in jail than Utash will spend recuperating.

Now we’ll have a quiz of sorts. What color did you imagine the people you were reading about? Be honest with yourself. Nobody else will know your answer. Have you heard of Steven Utash? Michael Brown? Should the color of any single person mentioned above have any bearing on anything?

Here are the stats: With the exception of Michael Brown and the Middle Eastern gas station attendant, all of the victims were white. The guy who assaulted me was white. The rest of the attackers were black. This is not meant to imply all violence is done by one race of people, or that I condone violence against certain races. This is simply my experience.

We can allow ourselves to ask these questions: Where is the outrage for these innocent victims? What if the skin color had been reversed? What if Steven Utash was black and his assailants white? Or Michael Brown white and the police officer black?

But that’s focusing on the wrong issue.

The problem here isn’t black or white. It’s violence. It’s crime and punishment.

lady-liberty-scales-of-justice-h-1000

 

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