Alone Again, Naturally


I did my annual hike and cry around the hill today.  My oldest started high school last week (HIGH SCHOOL) but I was prepared, I was ready.  I dropped her off at a friend’s house so they could carpool together, and I may have welled up a little as she walked away, but no real waterworks.  Besides, I had the boy for another week — summer lite.

But the boy went off today.  Bravely, considering he’s starting a new school without his close compadre of friends, the friends who have known him almost his entire life.  So we dropped the girl off, and then jaunted down the highway to his new school, and in the rush of finding where he should be and seeing people I hadn’t seen all summer, the moment where he actually left slipped away.  And I was fine.

Until I got in the car and nobody else was there.

There was nobody to argue about what radio station to listen to, to roll their eyes when I played our summer theme (the entire Hamilton album) again, to remind me to cue up the book on tape or pass the tissues or the hand sanitizer or the box of granola bars.  And for about 15 seconds, it was wonderful.

And then I cried.

Because I can see the end, clearly now.  We’re hurtling toward it like the drop-off of a roller coaster, we’re strapped in and prepped for go and there’s no turning back, no way to get off.  Any lessons they haven’t learned (put your clothes away, make your bed, hug your brother, hug your sister, be kind, be true to you, look for the helpers in times of crisis, in times of crisis be a helper, love learning for learning’s sake), any wisdom I still have to impart, needs to be communicated now.  Because tomorrow is coming up fast.  And because my time with them, which once stretched ahead like the ocean, has become fleeting.

Friends took their kids to college this weekend.  Some to colleges around the corner from them, some to colleges hours away.  All of them are great kids, and the parents all texted me the same thing, more or less:  “He/she is so happy. They’re ready for this.”

The parents were happy as well, but sad in a way that was deeper, that a hike around the lake on a rainy day couldn’t fix.  Because parenthood is the only job where, if you do it well, if you put your entire heart and soul into it, at the end the best result you can hope for is to be let go, to become obsolete.  To watch your kids smile hugely as they walk away from you, because they’re excited and able to take on what’s coming next.  I realized today that all these past Septembers have been practice for the upcoming big one, the ones my friends are already facing.  But I think my heart has known this for years.

Which is why I’ve cried.

Past Time

Here’s something you might not know about me:  There was a time when I could debate scripture with the best of them.  I went to Catholic school for eight years, back when there were actual nuns, tough old biddies who would cut you off at the knees as soon as look at you if you gave them one ounce of lip.  So it was religion class what seems now like every day, or at least every other day, alternated with science.  It was mass every First Friday, as well as every holy day, every Sunday, and any time the nuns felt it was in our best interest.   And even after I graduated, it was CCD for confirmation, mass on Sundays and holy days right through my first year of college.

So I get the whole prayer thing.  I prayed hard and often.  I prayed for my family, I prayed for the world, I prayed for whatever special petitions we had at church.  I prayed I would pass my math test, I prayed that special boy would notice me, I prayed I would learn how to diagram a darn sentence before I had to lose another week of recess, staying in under the eagle eye of Sister Mary Rose, working on compound predicates at the black board.

I’m sure the nuns prayed too, prayed long and hard after a particularly challenging day with us.  But here’s the thing — they didn’t just pray.  They put their backs into it, each and every one, molding and shaping and very occasionally whacking our souls into shape.  It must have been exhausting work, and I loved them for it.

But it was exhausting being molded, too.  I would have loved, before one of those recess sessions, to have gone up to Sister Mary Rose and said “I prayed I would learn how to diagram this sentence, Lord! So we’re good now, right?”  and then skipped outside to be with my friends. But I knew without even trying what would have happened.  She would have pulled me back by my ponytail, sat my bony butt in the chair, and made me do the work.  So I prayed to myself, and then stayed in for what seemed like a month until I finally got it right.

The nuns knew what we’ve forgotten:  We’re not just supposed to pray.  We’re supposed to get off our butts and do the work.  I’m heartsick at seeing ‘prayers’ posted on social media yet again in the wake of a mass shooting.   Prayers aren’t doing it, people.  We can pray all we want, but prayers won’t bring back the fifty people who died yesterday, won’t do them one bit of good.  Won’t help the 32 in Virginia, the 27 in Sandy Hook, the countless others who are shot every day.  Won’t help the ones who will be shot tomorrow, or the day after that.

What WILL change things is doing the work.  The work of electing candidates who believe in gun reform, who will stand up to powerful lobbyists and say no civilian needs a weapon that can slaughter 50 people in the space of a song.  Period.

Prayer can be good.  But not by itself.   It’s past time.  Let’s get to work.

How to Create Readers

Hi there!  I’m over at Writer Unboxed, talking about a topic that is very dear to my heart — how to create readers and read more yourself.  (Hint:  It has nothing to do with balancing books on your head.)  Please stop by and let me know what you think!



Tiptoeing In…

With a gratuitous Slobbering Beast shot (doesn’t he look embarrassed?) and a redirect to the Writer Unboxed site for my essay on how to find a great beta reader.  Please stop by if you get the chance!



Welcome to Boredom Palace

Yikes, it’s been a while. It’s July, and we’re looking at Christmas pictures here.  It’s the blog equivalent of having a guest sit down on the dirty laundry you’ve stuffed under the couch.  How did that happen?

I’ve been meaning to write this particular post for about six months, but life, writing, raising kids — the usual — got in the way.  And I might have been feeling a tiny bit of blog burnout, too.  But I’m back! (Although not on a regular schedule.  It is July, after all.  At least for a few more days.)

So, anyhow.  One of the things I try and do when I’m not writing is read.  And six months ago I read Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or Fat Envelopes, by Madeline Levine.  I have not been able to stop thinking about it.  If you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, or just someone who likes kids, I can’t recommend it enough.

Levine, a practicing psychologist, writes about the pressures we put on our teenagers to succeed and how harmful that can be, which shouldn’t be news to anyone.  But she also talks about the definition of success — the best grades, acceptance to the most elite colleges,  landing the most exclusive, highest-paying jobs — and how that may not be right for anyone.

The whole success conversation is such a complex, crazy one.  My children go to two different schools —  a charter in an inner city, and a private school — and the differences — not in teacher devotion or skill, but in parental expectations — is mind-blowing.  The reasons are complex and include financial situations and cultural expectations  — and are of course not true across the board — lots of parents at the charter school have very high expectations for their kids, and lots of parents at the private school are very good about letting their children find their own paths, but navigating between the two institutions sometimes leaves me with whiplash.  I’ve heard about complaints from parents that the elite high school their child was accepted to wasn’t good enough, and I’ve listened to a grade schooler say that she wanted to be a doctor, but her parents think the education would cost too much money, so she’ll be a nurse instead.

I am as guilty of riding the success train as anyone.  I have asked my children (one child in particular) why they have not done better on a test score.   I have suggested that a child may not have put their best work into a project.  I’ve been annoyed when a child has gotten a lower grade than I expected.

And yes, I get that kids need to learn to do their best work, to live up to their potential.  But does everything have to be the best, all the time?

Levine’s book has an exercise that helps you bore down to what your core values are as a parent — what do you want your child to walk away with when they are grown?  I almost never do these things, but the book was compelling.  So I came up with three qualities I want my children to have as adults, that I want them to start cultivating now.  I wrote them on a sticky note and put it on the front door, so they could read them every day before school.  I figure if on any single day they have two of them, it’s a step in the right direction.


And of course, they had a response.  (Well, one of them, anyhow.)  You’ll be happy to know I resisted the urge to correct the spelling or comment on the penmanship.  At least one of us is learning something.

Welcome to boredom palace!  Please use servant's entrance.

Welcome to boredom palace! Please use servant’s entrance.

PS.  If you’ve missed me, I’m also over at Writer Unboxed today.  Please stop by!

I love the holidays.  I love the tree, I love baking cookies and gingerbread with my kids, I love the presents, I love the peace, and I especially love the TWO WHOLE WEEKS off from school.  If we could only have snow and have it be 80 degrees at the same time, I’d be in heaven.

One thing I especially love, and have since my daughter was a baby, is making the holiday cards.  It’s one of my favorite activities, and since my oldest was little and I strapped her in angel wings, I’ve spent days each winter planning what I would do.  This sounds obnoxious, as if I’m striving to be Martha Stewart, but believe me when I say that despite my best efforts, the cards remain pretty simple and success is hit or miss.  But I finally realized this year why I love creating them so much.

Christmas cards are ALL character and NO plot.  (Ahem.  Does this sound like any author you may know?)  Each year is an opportunity to create a perfect little vignette, with no worries about rising action, microtension, or conclusions.  (Sorry, Donald Maass. I feel like I’m letting the team down.)

This year, however, my characters revolted.  After over a decade of taking direction, they’ve decided that next year, the Christmas card is theirs.  And while I’m sad I won’t be able to get to the rest of the fabulous ideas I’ve planned, I understand. (Plus, there’s always the chance they’ll forget and I’ll get to do it my way anyhow.)

So, to celebrate the end of a run, I thought I’d put together my thoughts on what makes a holiday card successful.  And if there’s some writing advice in there too, forgive me.  Just don’t listen to me on plot.

  • Pick a theme.  Even if you only use one photo, find a way to tie it to something larger.  I love using a line or two of a poem or holiday song in the greeting, and having the photo reflect what’s written. For example, in one of my earlier cards, I dressed my baby daughter in her pink tutu and snapped pictures while she twirled.  The line under the photo read “While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Just like in novels, a strong theme can carry you through.
  • Be unexpected.  One of my favorite cards from last year showed a family on the beach in bathing suits, enjoying the warm weather.  Their card read “Dreaming (NOT!) of a White Christmas.”  (And taking your reader somewhere unexpected keeps them turning pages, too.)
  • Keep it fun.  My son is notorious for looking like a Grinch in pictures.  In the past years, in desperate attempts to make it look as if we’re not torturing him, I’ve had him sit in an old-fashioned horse carriage, pull a sleigh as fast as he could on the beach, jump on a trampoline, and pelt his sister with snowballs. (Guess which activity got the biggest smile out of him?) Just like in writing — if it’s  not fun for you, it shows through to your reader.
  • Keep the photos as big as you can.  And my rule is that in general, people on my holiday list really only want to see my kids. I’d rather have one great photo of the two of them than five smaller ones of the family. And lastly…
  • Make friends with a great photographer!  I’ve always done the photos for our cards myself, but this year my friend Kevin Harkins of Harkins Photography offered to take them for me.  The results were fabulous, and such a memorable way to (possibly) end my favorite tradition. To see our card this year as well as some of the outtake photos, hop over to his blog. And tell me — do you love doing holiday cards too?  If so, tell me about your favorite in the comments!

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

To Thine Own Self Be True

I never used to have gray hair.  Or wrinkles.  Or a loud voice.  I do not blame these things on age.  I blame them on the little being who came to live with us almost 10 years ago.  The one who likes to jump off tall lifeguard stands (resulting in a knocked-out filling), run helter-skelter down the stairs (resulting in a scar on his chin) and bomb along on uneven pavement at 100 miles an hour.  (That’s the scar over his upper lip.  We like to pretend he plays hockey to explain it.)

You know, the little being with the Y chromosone.

We had a pretty quiet life, my daughter and I.  We read books, and took long walks, and painted and colored and managed to do all those things with a lovely stillness.  Sure, we got rowdy once in a while — who doesn’t — but we are both on the introverted side, so the rowdiness never lasted for too long before we’d settle down on the couch, cuddled under a blanket, to snuggle and look at our favorite stories.

And then — BAM — I had a boy.  And almost every day since he learned to talk, and then walk, life has been a big adventure.  He’s an extrovert, as wiggly as a puppy, and he loves to sing and whistle and in general just MAKE NOISE. Even when we are doing a quiet activity.  Which — surprise surprise — is actually no longer quiet.

He also likes to push the envelope. A lot. And he’s good at it.

There are days when I wake up and tell the universe I’ve grown quite enough spiritually, thank you. I don’t need any more parenting lessons.

And then I went to the Writer Unboxed Conference last week, which was chock-full of good writing advice by luminaries such as Brunonia Barry, Lisa Cron, Donald Maass, Ray Rhamey and Heather Webb. Meg Rosoff was there too, leading a class on voice, but all of her writing advice was lost on me after one of her comments.

She was talking about being true to yourself, even if that’s hard for other people to understand.  Meg is funny and brash and the kind of person you want to just sit and listen to — like very few people around. Then she said that her mother, who is in her 80s, still gets upset when Meg does something she doesn’t like.  She’ll say ‘You always have to do it your own way, don’t you?’

And Meg looked at the class and said “What other way should I do it?  I’m me. Of course I’ll do it my way.”

Those words hit me so hard I couldn’t think of anything else for the rest of the class. Because I’ve had that conversation with my exuberant boy more times than I care to admit.   But of course he’d do it his own way — what other way should he do it?  Mine?

Well yes, sometimes.  In matters of major safety. And public good manners.  But the rest of the time, why should I expect a nine-year-old boy to do something the way a (insert age here) adult should?

My kid is funny, and outgoing, and so energetic there are days I’d like a nap by 8 a.m. He’s the polar opposite of me in almost every way.  He has a huge heart, and a huge imagination, and every single day he stretches me as a person and as a parent.  Sometimes that stretching is painful. Sometimes, by not accepting my ‘no’ or ‘you can’t’ he makes me think about why I said no in the first place, what my answer is based on, and who it is benefiting. Sometimes he drives me to distraction and to a glass of wine.  But always, always, always, he drives me to be better — even if it’s because I wasn’t my best that day.

I want my kids to be individuals when they grow up.  I want them to think for themselves, to contribute to society, to be good parents and good citizens and just all around good people. I want them to figure out how to make the world better by seeing it in a way that no one else before them has — with their own eyes and their own hearts.  But to do that, they have to discover themselves, and discovery is an ongoing process — it doesn’t begin at age 21 when they move out of the house.

It begins now.  By doing things their own way. And sometimes as a parent, that means getting out of the way and letting them.

self portrait

self portrait