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Archive for the ‘Secrets’ Category

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It’s summer.

My car, with which during the school year I drive the highway so often I could do it in my sleep, stays in the garage. I take long walks instead. Occasionally with my husband, less often with one of my children, even more rarely with the whole family.  We’re at the stage in life where there are games for the kids to play and friends to connect with and social media calling to them at all hours, it seems — a constant distraction. So my walks are mostly solitary. I wander the beach, watching enviously as young families build sand castles and catch minnows and play tag with the waves.

Sometimes it’s early and the parents are bleary-eyed, sipping their coffee. It feels like just last weekend that I was them, desperate for just a little more sleep, but loathe to say no to an early morning trip to the beach and donuts on the sand, when one of the hardest parts of parenting was getting them to hold still long enough to cover them with sunscreen.

I’ve taken to collecting sea glass. There’s a beach not far from us where it can be found almost by the handfuls. But I prefer a less-crowded spot a little further away, where the glass is harder to find. Some days I come home with nothing, some days with a scant two pieces. Yet somehow all the searching makes me treasure each piece more.

I keep the pieces in an old apothecary jar, spotted by my husband and one of the kids on an excursion this summer. It’s a thing of beauty, tall and curved and delicate, the glass so thin I hold my breath each time I lift it from the shelf to add another piece. It’s so large that at this rate it will take me years to fill it, and there’s comfort in that thought.

Unless, of course, it slips from my hands and shatters. A disaster I regularly imagine, each piece a wicked sharp-edged weapon beyond anyone’s skill to repair.

And yet.

This morning as I held a tiny piece of sea glass, I wondered what it once was. Bright blue, it might have come from a bottle, but it’s equally possible it was once someone’s heirloom. A beloved vase. A perfume bottle.  A frame, sun-glinted on a mother’s dresser.  The loss perhaps not heart-breaking, but mourned all the same.

And now that identical glass sits in my hand. Its sharp edges have been worn away, and time and the roughness of the waves have transformed it into something else. Something entirely different, yet still treasured.  Stripped to the very essence of what it once was and lovely all on its own.

I still hold my breath as I replace the jar upon the shelf. I still treasure it in its current form. But I’m coming to realize that sometimes, beauty can be found after the breakage too.

 

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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.

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self portrait

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Lately when riding, I am a hot mess. (That’s the technical term.  The actual term used by my instructor is unprintable here.) There are so many things going on — my seat isn’t balanced, my legs slide forward, my knees are jammed up against the knee roll, my reins get floppy — hence, the hot mess. (In fairness to my past riding self, it’s not all bad all the time — but compared to how I used to be, it certainly feels that way.)

This week, my instructor brought me back to basics.  She took a long whip, threaded it between my elbows and behind my back, and told me to keep it there while cantering.  Lean forward and hunch your shoulders toward your ears (my favorite riding position, apparently) and the whip pops out. Humiliation galore. (And an exciting ride if it happens to hit your horse on the way down.)

It’s an old trick, but it worked.  To keep the whip in place, I had to roll my shoulders down and lean back. Which centered my seat. Which fixed my leg. Which got my hands out of my lap and improved the way I held the reins.

One small change, and everything fell into place.

Writing is like that too.  Looking at an entire manuscript is overwhelming and can make you feel like a failure.  But if you pick just one thing to work on — your dialogue, for example, or the way you transition between scenes — one of two things will happen:

Either you’ll fix the main problem, and everything else will snap into place, or…

You’ll find out you have more work to do.  Which isn’t the end of the world, I promise.  It just means picking the next one thing. Fixing that. And moving on.

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(And if you’ve read this far, here’s a reward — one of my favorite riding videos is at the end of this page.)

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I spent 45 minutes in line today to get my turkey, and another few minutes at the garage getting air put in my tires, and I cannot tell you how grateful I was to be able to do both things. Sometimes in the rush of the holidays (shopping! baking! and my ‘favorite,’ cleaning!) it’s easy to lose track of just how fortunate I am. Fortunate to have the time and the money to be able to afford a turkey, fortunate to have a farm down the street that raises birds with care and humane practices, fortunate to have a car that’s safe and reliable to get there and back — the list goes on and on. I’m afraid, sometimes, that if I list all the good things in my life the wicked fairy from Sleeping Beauty will come to curse them, so I’ll whisper the rest of my blessings to myself.

I’m lucky too that both my children’s schools run food drives during the holidays, making it easy to help out others who might not be that fortunate this year.  Demand for assistance is up since a temporary boost in the nation’s food stamp program came to an end.  If you have a moment, try to catch this Diane Rehm show on hunger in America — it is worth listening to. (And if you can’t find it to hear, at least check out the comments listed below the description.) States from New Hampshire to Texas are seeing more hungry people, and oftentimes the biggest sufferers are the smallest — our children.

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, I wish you a bountiful holiday season.

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I have terrible muscle memory.  Ages ago, the first several times I tried aerobics, I always went left when everyone else went right. When I rode, my biggest fear was rarely the size of the jumps — it was doing them in the wrong order. (From personal experience, I can tell you there are few more humiliating experiences then being alone in the arena and having the buzzer sound with someone yelling “OFF COURSE!” Not that that ever happened to me.  Ahem.)

On the flip side, once I get that memory, I have it for years. (Seriously. Anyone want to see my step aerobics routine from the 1990s?) Writing is a bit like that, too.  If I can get my butt in the seat, if I can doodle around for a 45 minutes or so, the words start to come without my thinking about them. My fingers and my brain wake up and remember what to do so long as I stay out of their way.

These days, I’m trying to instill a different kind of muscle memory.  I sit by my children at night, taping together a Halloween costume, hearing them recite Spanish phrases, helping with new math. I do this not because I am so enamored of new math (which is different from the new math I had as a child, which must now be old math and is still ghastly) but because I’m hoping that I can instill in them, in their minds and their hearts and in their very muscles themselves, how much they are loved. I want them to remember without even thinking about it, to simply know it the way their lungs know how to breathe, so that when our relationship isn’t as simple, when the questions are so much harder than  How do you say cold in Spanish? and What is the lowest common denominator?, their bodies will remember what their brains may not.

Does muscle memory come easily to you? When is it useful?  And if you have time, check out this gorgeous video which includes footage of my riding crush David O’Connor almost going off-course at the Sydney Olympics.  (It happens around minute 13, but the whole video is worth a watch.)

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I’ve been cheating on you, my pretties.  Whilst you thought I was here, slogging away at the computer, I was actually there, eating scones with clotted cream, drinking pots of tea, and walking about the Irish countryside.

You know all that stuff about how poetic the Irish are?  It’s true.  One rainy day, I asked an old codger how long a particular hike was, and he turned to me and said “How long is a piece of string?”

(The answer, as I found out after walking for two hours, is damn long.)

I got to see my husband down a pint, show my daughter the Book of Kells, and watch my son charm the local populace in two languages. (If the Irish for hello didn’t work, there’s always his signature “Hellloooo, ladies!”)

I watched my parents and MIL experience Ireland for the first time.

And saw a white horse upon a green hill. (A gray and brown horse too.)

I did a little tiny bit of research for my next book.  I’d like to write it in this sweet cottage.

Tea, anyone?

Failing that, if I ever make the best seller’s list I’ll celebrate by staying at this country home, which I didn’t discover until my last day of the trip. Anyone care to join me?

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A writing board I am on is asking tough questions these days. Questions like ‘Why do you write?’ and ‘Will you stop writing if you don’t get published?’ (Usually the questions are more like ‘Does anybody want to meet for drinks on Friday?’ and ‘Who is hotter, James McAvoy or Daniel Craig?”) A few of the writers on the board have their work out on submission to agents and editors, so the questions have a renewed sense of urgency.

I write because I am an extremely internal person, and writing things down helps me to process them. It’s a way for me to work things out. I tend to have the self-awareness of a starfish, and oftentimes I don’t realize a problem is bothering me until it shows up on the page.  And then I’m all “Hey, I wrote about X today.  I wonder why that came up?” And my husband just shakes his head.

I write because I am a storyteller at heart, and I always have been. As a child, I told my sister sweeping sagas about a little girl who looked just like us but lived on the moon.  I tell those same stories to my children now. I kept journals for years, well before I’d earned a byline. And when I have been too busy or too tired to write or make up stories, I’ve retold classics like The Wizard of Oz, adding elaborate embellishments.

I would write and tell stories even if I was never published, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be.  But for me, writing a whole novel with the single goal of being published is off-putting.  It’s too big of a journey, with too large of a disappointment at the end if it doesn’t work out. I can only write the way I write, one page at a time, with the goal of a cohesive whole at the end.

Looking at publication directly is too blinding, like staring at the sun. I can only look at it with soft eyes, at the peripherals that surround it: Crafting a readable story with a viable plot and characters that hold my heart. If I do that, if my work is the best it can be, I’ve done everything I can do.  Anything else is beyond my control.

Why do you write?

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