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Archive for the ‘Worry and Woe’ 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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Remorse.

Remorse.

A few days ago, a friend and I met up for a hike.  Just before the trail entrance, we heard a weird noise, like the commotion of a bunch of chickens.  We stopped, tried to locate the sound, couldn’t, and continued on.

The Slobbering Beast was with us, and it’s been a bit since he was on a trail.  He was excited, bounding in giddy circles. He was even more thrilled when two other dogs showed up.  Since I didn’t know them, I put him on leash and called for their owner.   No one appeared.  We waited awhile, the dogs wandered off, and The Beast, my friend, and myself  got back to hiking.  Since we were heading into an area where there’s a lot of wildlife, I kept him on the leash and we jaunted along quite successfully until almost the end.  When the two dogs appeared again.

Still ownerless, but with something white and fluffy between them.

Yep.  A (recently dead) chicken.

I don’t know if it was the excitement of seeing his potential pals, the smell of blood, the sight of something soft and fluffy, or a combination, but The Beast lost his mind.  He hurtled a small bush and dashed into the undergrowth. He scraped through plants that might have been poison ivy.  He bumped up against several small rocks.

And since I was still holding the leash, so did I.

By this time I was prone, surfing the ground on my shoulder.  My friend was yelling, The Beast was still gallumping happily away toward the dead chicken, the two other dogs were barking a bit, and a single thought went through my mind.  Let go, you fool.  Let go.

So I did.

It’s hard for me to let go — of work that’s not working, of friends who are no longer friends, of emotions that are not serving my best interests.  So every now and then, the universe likes to remind me in the most physical way possible to move on.  It happened with riding — letting go can sometimes mean the difference between a good, clean fall and a bad fall where you get tangled up with the horse and gear — and now, since I’m not currently riding, the universe has apparently tapped The Slobbering Beast as a stand in.

I can’t control the loose dogs or the dead chickens life may throw at me.  Some days, I can’t even control The Slobbering Beast.  But I can control my response, and hanging on to something that’s not working mostly only hurts me.

Sometimes, as the song that’s playing everywhere these days says, you have to let it go.

 

 

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I think, somewhere between when I opened my eyes in June and blinked in September, there was a thing called summer.  I have memories of warm beach days, dripping ice cream, hot buttery lobster rolls, the smell of suntan lotion and chlorine, but they happened so fast it’s as if I dreamed them.

On the last day of school, the top of my daughter’s head was just below eye level, my son somewhere way below.  Somehow, they both grew three inches in that blink of an eye, my daughter now juuust as tall as me.  Not taller.  I swear.

This is the first school day in eight years I haven’t cried. How could I?  Both my children went eagerly  striding into that morning, looking forward to friends they hadn’t seen all summer, to new teachers, to taking their place in the world. Which is as it should be.  There’s nary a trace of the babies they were — the pictures hanging on my walls of chubby-cheeked toddlers are so removed from the here and now it is as if they belonged to someone else. I catch glimpses of them once in a while, mostly when their older counterparts are sleeping.  They’re not gone for good, but they are vanishing fast.

A billion years ago when I started freelancing, I had one rule — the television stayed off and the computer stayed in the office. But then my babies were born, and time to write was so scarce that the laptop became a fixture on the kitchen table so I could squeeze in a line here and there, between feedings and games and cleanups.  Somehow it stayed, even when the children grew up and went off to school.

But this summer we had no internet access, so the laptops mostly stayed closed.  Less Facebook, less email, less checking of random websites.  I felt guilty not keeping up with writing groups and the blogs of my friends, but there was relief, too. And then in September, the internet and all its distractions returned.

I think it’s time to renew my old vow, and banish my laptop to the office during hours when I’m  not working.  The days are going too fast, and I want to have control over how I slow them down.  And it’s not just me who has been distracted — I see it happening now to my children, too, and I need to set a good example.  Plus, selfishly, I want as much time as I can squeeze out of them, want to glimpse those babies as often as I can, and I know the one place they’ll never be found is in the glow of a blue screen.

So my fall resolution, as it were, is to write with more intention and less distraction.  To create specific times to use technology and specific time to banish it.  To seize back the hours I’ve given to the internet and spend them as I choose, both mourning the past a little bit and looking forward to the future.

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What are your fall writing resolutions?

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So yesterday was a holiday here in the states. Which means my children had the day off. They are mostly very good at entertaining me — they build snowmen, they make up crazy dances, they try and explain their electronic games to me — the upshot of which is that I have a hard time doing any work in their presence. (I did hide in my study during the late-lamented football game on Sunday, because  I personally feel that if I am going to waste perfectly good brain cells there ought to be alcohol involved, and everyone else in my family HAD to watch it and it was too early for wine.)

And tomorrow they are saying may be a snow day, which at our house involves pajamas and popcorn and movies and reading and everything but WORK.  Because I only have my children and their childhood for a brief time and work is forever, ya know?  Except that I am only really working two days this week, because my daughter also has off FRIDAY.  Which means … I am screwed.

So, in lieu of a REAL blog post, I am leaving you a very pretty picture of what snow looks like near me. (Without the Slobbering Beast this time, because the day I took the picture he was curled up on his bed, completely over the white stuff. As am I, come to think of it.)  Enjoy, and if you want a longer blog post next time pray for school next week.

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My daughter is blessed to have people in her life who love her and enjoy sending her beautiful things to wear. We spent lots of the holiday at home on the couch, reading and watching movies. I mostly did that in jeans (sometimes pajamas) but my daughter often chose to wear her new clothes. She came down one morning in a gorgeous print dress someone had sent her, for a day that involved little more than eating, napping, and possibly eating again.  I was all set to send her upstairs to change when something made me bite my tongue.

Yes, it was a fancy dress. But shouldn’t all our days together rate as special occasions?

We did the math this weekend, my husband and I, over a bottle of wine. In a little more than five years, she’ll be winging her way toward the start of a new life. Five years worth of weekends, of vacations, of Friday family movie nights. Less if you factor in high school, when I’m told those family nights become scarce. Suddenly 52 multiplied by five doesn’t seem like much.

I want every day with my kids to be special, to have meaning and weight and be a joyous occasion.

In my china cabinet I have beautiful cups and saucers that belonged to my grandmother. They’re fragile, they have to be hand-washed, they always seem like a little too much work to bring out and use. So they sit there, except on special occasions. My children have few memories which include them, which is a shame, because my grandmother loved those cups. She would have loved seeing us use them.

I think my daughter has the right idea. Our ‘best’ — best selves, best lives, best hearts — ought to be on display every day.

(Confession:  I did ask her to change out of her white ‘fur’ vest when dipping chocolate, however. There are some limits.)

What do you save for best these days that you ought to be squandering?

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Hey there!

Do you read Writer Unboxed? No? You should. If only because I had a very depressing post planned for today, and then I remembered that nooooo, I couldn’t write that because I had a much more optimistic post about storytelling scheduled to be up on the Writer Unboxed web site.  See? WU already has made your day better. Go check it out! (And please feel free to leave me a comment.)

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Whenever we see babies, I always think (and sometimes say) how much I wish you and your brother were still that age. If I say it aloud, someone — usually a stranger — will tell me I don’t mean it, that (insert age here) is a lovely age, too.

Here’s a secret: I do mean it. I mean it with all my heart.

I’d take three again, the year you had such terrible tantrums I feared for your well-being, actually called the doctor to see what I should do. I’d take three-almost four again, when you started preschool and we began that long, slow separation process that still continues today.

Image Five, when you started kindergarten, and I watched you walk so bravely into a classroom filled with strangers, then went home and cried with your brother? Absolutely. The delicious chubbiness of nine months, when your elbows had elbows and your hair was something from a Shirley Temple movie goes without saying.

Even twelve. Someday, off in the very close future, you’ll be sixteen, and I’ll be longing for twelve — the year you are almost, but not quite, as tall as me, the year you’ve started a new school with new challenges and new friends and new opportunities, the year you’ve begun to look so much less like a child. Someday, I’ll see the year of twelve in a haze of golden light, because it will be a year that you were still mine.

You’re not, of course. You never have been. You have always been very much your own independent person. But it’s easier to pretend when you are little that I can hold you forever, keep you safe, keep you happy, keep your heart from being broken and your spirit intact.  I could still soothe your hurts with a hug or a kiss, distract you with a lollipop or toy. The hurts that are coming — and you will have some — won’t be banished so easily. The joys that are coming — and you will have those too — won’t be as easily shared. They will be your own, and you may tell me about them or you may not.

So I miss three. And eleven. And every single age you’ve been, even as each one takes you a step further down your own path. I’m glad I’ve been on this journey with you, glad to be your traveling companion, if only for a little while. No matter how far ahead you may wander, I’ll always be here cheering for you (quietly, so as not to embarrass you).

I may miss three, but I’m awfully proud of twelve.

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The news has been so bleak this year — tragedy after tragedy. It can make you wish for a redo, a chance to go back to December 31st and live it all again with the foresight and strength to make everything better. But that only works in fiction. In real life, the gray cloud of angst and disaster seeps into your clothes, clings to you like dust, stays with you through the day, changing your mood, coloring the expressions you use.

Combine that with a laundry list of trite yet necessary end-of-year chores, plus deadlines, and it has the makings of emotional disaster.

So for today, I’m controlling what I can, even if it’s not what I’d like to be able to fix. I’m changing a simple expression “I have to” to “I get to” and changing my mood as well. It’s a simple thing, but it reminds me of how much I have to be grateful for in this life. I get to make a deadline, and get paid for doing work I love. I get to pick my kids up from school — a school that’s intact, with teachers who care for them – and take them to after-school activities. I get to walk the Slobbering Beast, who reminds me every day to find the joy in my steps.

What do you get to do today?

Don't forget to smell them.

Don’t forget to smell them.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the choose your adventure books that were popular when I was young. Remember those? You’d read a few pages, and then make a choice — turn to page 21 to search for the treasure in the mountain, skip to page 35 to search by the sea. Your choices determined whether the characters succeeded or failed.

The kids are growing up, and we’re facing choices these days. So much seems to hang in the balance. If we choose the ‘right’ school, pick the ‘right’ sport, steer them toward the  ‘right’ peer group — will their story end the ‘right’ way, with a healthy and happy life? That’s the question that keeps me up at night.

The truth is, I never cared much for those adventure books. Being able to control the plot might have been exciting the first time, but the story never captured my imagination the way other books did. They were billed as stories to read again and again, but I only read them once and then gave them away. The books I turned to — The Hobbit, The Dark is Rising, The Chronicles of Narnia — might not have had huge plot points I could control, but each sentence was crafted with exquisite care. Strung together, page after page, they required patience from my 10-year-old self to decipher, but the whole added up to such a wonderful story I couldn’t help but read them again and again.

I tell myself it’s not the big plot points in my children’s lives that make them who they are. It’s not the choice of schools, of sports, of activities. It’s not who they hang out with (even though their friends are all lovely). It’s the smaller moments — the time we spend in the car together, the family movie nights, the trips to the beach. It’s reading on the couch together, the chore of feeding the Slobbering Beast, the times my husband and I choose to be their  parents instead of their friends, no matter how often I wish it could be the other way. It’s a million tiny moments, strung together with as much care as we can muster, done as often as we can. Those are the moments that make up their story. Those are the moments upon which their ending depends.

Tree Lined Rural Road

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On a good day, mornings at my house are controlled chaos. On a bad day, it’s just chaos. Like most parents, I’m fighting a losing battle against the clock — there’s breakfast to make, the dog to feed, backpacks to prepare, and one child who points out EVERY morning what a nicer place the world would be if I would just let him sleep, instead of resorting to stripping the covers off and dragging him feet first out of bed. And inevitably, the crazy hour before school starts ends the same way — me booming in a voice that cannot possibly belong to my 5’2 body: “GET. IN. THE. CAR. RIGHT. NOW!”

We’ve been doing this dance together for six years now — since the day my daughter started kindergarten. On good days, I can shake my head and laugh, point out the bluebird at the feeder or the bulbs popping up as I usher them to the car. On bad days, I’m backing out of the driveway and simultaneously delivering one of my dreaded lectures on Responsibility, Punctuality or my personal favorite How Will You Manage in College?

But somehow, every morning, we all wind up in the same place — in the car, listening to our latest book on tape, heading out to face the world together. Right now we’re a unit, my kids and me. We spend a lot of time in the car together, the three of us, and we’re tight, even if they laugh at my music choices and mock my dance moves. And the two of them are even tighter. I watch them sometimes, after I’ve dropped them off, and see how my daughter laughs when he takes off his hat if he thinks I’m out of sight, and how he looks up to her, face shining at making her smile, and sometimes it is hard to drive away.

Because it’s about to change. My oldest is graduating from her elementary school in just three short months, and no matter where she goes, it will never be the same. We’ll still be scrambling to get out the door, but it will be to different destinations: My daughter will be heading to junior high, and my son will be walking up that sidewalk alone, the way he will be for the rest of his academic career. Because of their age difference, it’s unlikely they’ll ever attend the same school at the same time again.

The path that started dividing them from me when they first went to school has branched once more, sending them in separate directions. I’m not sure they realize this yet, if they understand how few mornings we have left together. Next year there may be car pools or buses, a complicated calendar as we struggle to balance everyone’s schedule. My son may finally get to sleep in, my daughter may leave the house without me. But for these last few months, we have time, even if it’s passing too fast. Even if, when I’m yelling at them to get in the car, what I really mean is “Stay here, this size, just like this, forever.”

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For someone who hates being cold, I love winter hiking. There are no ticks or mosquitoes to contend with, no vicious horse flies, no gasping for air in the humid New England summer. Often, particularly if the weather is unpleasant, the Slobbering Beast and I can go for miles without seeing another human soul.

There’s a short hike I love to do in the winter.  In summer, the trail runs alongside a narrow, muddy stream.  Clouds of insects buzz about it, extracting bits of flesh in exchange for passage. In warm weather we go early and quick or we don’t go at all.

But in winter, the scene is completely different. There’s no rush, no hurry, so long as we’re out of the woods by dark. The downside, of course, is that this is New England, and the same weather that keeps the blood-sucking pests away has its own hazards. Ice and snow, sleet and cold, can make for treacherous footing. The most challenging section of the trail winds upward, through the pines and the birch, and runs along a small cliff. At the top, it weaves between two large boulders, skittering down among rocks and tree stumps until it meets level ground.

In summer, the path is a fun challenge, requiring just enough effort to make my heart race pleasantly. But in winter, the way is harder. What looks like secure ground is often no more than dried leaves covered with a dusting of snow.  Step too hard, put too much weight in the wrong spot, and you’ll find your feet flying out from underneath you. Going uphill, a fall may bruise your pride. Downhill, the stakes are a little higher.

There’s an alternative, of course. I could not hike at all, could traipse about my neighborhood, doing laps and logging miles. Or I could take a different path, a safer one, a path that has neither the highs nor the lows of this one. But the view from the top feeds my soul with joy, and the view from the bottom reminds me of my accomplishment, my tenacity and my strength. And so there is no other choice, not really, but to kick the toe of my 10-year-old hiking boots into the soft snow, scrape out a foothold, and hope that it holds.

For me, writing is like that these days. I’m not a ‘baby’ writer, not just starting out anymore. I know how high the hills are. My time might be better spent, more profitably spent, finding another type of writing. There are other calls on my time — family and friends, jobs and responsibilities, any one of which has more ‘real’ claim to how I spend my hours. There are book stores closing, publishers merging, a once staid landscape turning unstable. Step wrong, and who knows what will come plunging down next?

But just as nothing else gives me the same joy as tromping through the woods on a snowy afternoon, nothing else feeds my soul like writing. When it goes well, when the black lines on the page turn into words that turn into sentences that turn into a real, true story, there’s nothing else quite like it. And so, even though the path is no longer smooth, even though it’s turning cold, I’ll keep kicking into the snow for a toehold, no matter how small, I’ll keep climbing upwards, one step at a time.

it may not look like much, but in winter it's my own personal Cliff of Insanity.

it may not look like much, but in winter it’s my own personal Cliff of Insanity.

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The only one more joyful about winter hiking than me is the Slobbering Beast.

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Except two article deadlines and a sick child home with me. It’s amazing how quickly the whole idea of ‘balance’ can be thrown out of whack by a bad cough and small fever. I’m grateful it isn’t worse, and until I have the time to post something more profound, I wanted to show you this:

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It’s dirty and wrinkled because it has been hanging in the hallway of our preschool teacher’s art class for years, and it’s been splattered with paint and glitter and who knows what else. But it stays there because it is so profound.  On this day, no matter what else you have to do, make time to play. (And no, my sick child, Angry Birds does not count.)

 

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My favorite place...

My favorite place…

This is the view from the parking lot of my children’s preschool.  It’s a magical place, where every single teacher is amazing beyond words. I hike nearby, and sometimes I’ll stop in for a little-kid  fix. I love watching the three and four-year olds tippy-toe running, their hands outstretched, confident someone will be there to dust them off if they fall.

Both of my children went there, and since they are such completely different personalities I had two completely different experiences. My son, active guy that he is, spent most of his time outside kicking a ball, digging in the sandbox and racing about with his little buddies. My daughter is more reserved, and spent most of her first year observing, rather than joining in, the activities. Even the second year, she was tentative. If there was any conflict at all — if another child wanted her toy, for example, or her spot at the craft table — she’d often just relinquish the item and walk away rather than cause a fuss.

She was my first, so of course I fretted. I wondered how she’d be able to handle herself as she grew older, in settings that weren’t as nurturing as this one. I worried about how she felt. And the teachers, who taught me so much there, would gently remind me that every child is different, and that she needed to have the space to figure out some of these things on her own. When I think of my children, in my heart’s eye they are always back at that school, round-faced and sweet and innocent.

Last night, we went to fencing.  (Yes, I am still fencing. I do not appear to be getting any better at it, but at least I’m not getting any worse.) We’re taking class at a different location this year, with the same instructor, but the group of kids are all strangers to us. When we walked in last night, a handful of the younger boys were exuding that type of energy that automatically signals a tough class — bouncing around, knocking into each other, driving the instructor a bit crazy.

One of the boys was being particularly difficult, and when we fenced he kept making these giant swashbuckling gestures, flailing as if he wanted to remove my head and helmet both, whacking me wherever he could reach.  He was fencing ‘like a jerk’ as my instructor says.  It was not a fun match, and while I usually go easy on the littler kids, by the end I was perfectly happy to deploy my superior height (yes, he’s a young one) and cunning and beat the pants off of him.

My daughter was in line next, and as I passed her I whispered to watch out for him.  She nodded, a little too nonchalantly for my liking, then went off to fence him while I moved down the line to my next match. And of course I fretted, straining to see her out of the corner of my mask. She’d retreat from him, I just knew it. She’d let him push her around, let him score touch after touch because he’d back her into a corner and rather than fight such an aggressive personality, she’d just give up and walk away. He’d hit my side once, particularly hard, and I worried about her getting hurt.

When he lunged forward, she calmly stepped back, and used the force of his attack to impale him on her blade. She stabbed him in the heart. And then she did it again. When she finished with him, her next match was me, and she beat me fair and square for the first time — 5-4.  And when she won, she smiled.

My own heart might have been a little sore, watching her and remembering the preschooler she’d been, but I was very proud.

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So, today there was no school in our town, since several of the schools are polling locations. Normally, I am happy happy happy to have my children home, but today, I was looking at three deadlines that raised their hairy eyebrows and leered menacingly at me.  Not to mention that I am doing a pretend NaNo this month (more about Nano here) and the only thing that makes my pitiful word count goal more pitiful is not meeting it.

To distract myself from the work that would not be getting done, I packed up my two kids, borrowed two more, and headed to the Museum of Science, where we spent the next five hours playing with pirate stuff and being eaten by Woolly Mammoths. There are fabulous Woolly Mammoth eating pictures, which I cannot show you, because I have made a deal that I will only post child-approved pictures here, and those particular pictures were not approved. I do have this lovely picture of myself in a wind tunnel, looking rather bemused. (That’s because the two small boys were taking advantage of my momentary lapse to run helter skelter through the museum, and I was counting the seconds until the tube would pop open and I could reclaim them.)

Just wait until this thing opens…

It was a lovely, fun day, and it kept me distracted from both the deadlines and the election.  All I will say about that tonight is that the five of us did stop off to vote on the way to Boston. The kids were thoughtful, and asked good questions, and were interested  in how people in the same town, in the same neighborhood, can believe different things and vote for different people and still all wake up in the morning and still be neighbors and friends. It’s hard, but what amazes me even more is that somehow, every four years we manage.

See you in the morning, neighbor.

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Sandy

There’s a character in my new book.  She’s wild, impetuous, the kind of woman everyone takes notice of when she walks into a room, a woman who leaves a trail of heartbreak and destruction wherever she goes.  Her name? Sandy.

Yesterday, the real Sandy tried to sock my city in the eye.  She blew out the lights, ripped down some trees, and shut down the schools, but spared us the worst of her wrath. My kids will remember the day as one on which we played Monopoly, lit the beeswax candles we bought this summer, and wore pajamas all afternoon.  I know others weren’t so fortunate, and my thoughts are with them.  Take care, my friends. Wherever you are, I hope you are safe.

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Who Owns Author?

Last week, I wrote about the difference between the terms writer and author. This week I want to know, when do you get to call yourself an author?

I have friends who write for very well-known blogs, or have established blogs of their own, but haven’t written a complete manuscript and thus won’t use the word to describe themselves. Are they authors?

What if you’ve written a fabulous, world-inventing novel, poured your heart and soul into it, but haven’t sent it out for publication yet? Are you an author?

What if that same manuscript is with an agent — do you get to call yourself an author now?

How about self-publishing?  Was Amanda Hocking any less an author than JK Rowling when Hocking was self-publishing millions of ebooks?  Or is it Hocking’s deal with St. Martin that makes her a ‘real’  author?

Is it the act of creating that makes you an author? Is it the  number of people who read your books? Or is it the validation of having someone in the publishing industry say you are?

I’ll share my opinion in the comments.  What’s yours?

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When we moved to our current house, eight years ago, I bought a bag of 100 daffodil bulbs.  It seemed a ridiculous number, a luxurious indulgence, and as I planted the brown lumps I imagined a riot of yellow color, uncountable riches poking through the ground to announce Spring’s arrival.  It’s my favorite season, and in the time we’ve been here the daffodils have naturalized, spreading throughout the garden.  But it’s not the blanket of uninterrupted color I thought it would be.  The hundred bulbs that seemed to be so plentiful when I was digging them into the ground turned out to be not quite enough.

Last week I took the kids to the doctor’s office for a checkup.  I was leafing through a parenting magazine when this statistic caught my eye: There are approximately 940 Saturdays between when you bring your baby home from the hospital and when she heads off to college.  I’m no mathematician, but that number seems about right.

Almost 1,000 days.  It would have seemed a lifetime to me, all those years ago when I first became a parent. But now I’m over halfway there, and the days are slipping through my fingers.  The harder I try to hold on, to pack each moment with meaning, the faster they go. One thousand Mondays to kiss a sleep-scented, bed loving boy awake.  One thousand Sundays to curl up in the sun with my book-devouring daughter. One thousand weekends, while I blink and each crop of daffodils grows and fades, a reminder of how fleeting is Spring, the giddiest, most promising season of all.

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Back when I started writing Evenfall, I had very little time for writer’s block.  I had one, then two, small children, a barn full of horses to keep fed and cleaned, and a very busy freelance job. Writing fiction was a break, a moment stolen from other responsibilities. It was fun.

Today, the horses are gone, and the children are bigger and require less care than I like to admit.  I’ve made a conscious decision to cut back on freelancing, and while I’m still busy, I have two days a week where I block out time just for writing fiction.  And every now and then, guess what?  The words, they don’t come.  In the hopes you might find it helpful, I’m sharing what I do when that happens.

Don’t panic.  Okay, maybe I panic a little — this is me we’re talking about, after all.  But YOU shouldn’t panic.  Remind yourself that this has happened before, it will happen again, and it’s a natural part of the writing process.  Really.

Work on something else. Put your manuscript away for a bit.  Work on your query letter, your synopsis, even a blog post for the rest of the day.  Sometimes, just the act of writing can help jumpstart your process.

Zone out.  And I don’t mean on Facebook.  Do something intense that engages your brain and your body fully, so that you can’t think about anything else but what you are doing.  I’m not talking about a nice walk in the woods, either.  You need something that shakes your brain synapses loose.

My activity of choice used to be riding, because if you stop concentrating while on horseback you are liable to find yourself on your back looking up at the sky.  Since I’ve ended my equine addiction, fencing is a handy substitute — my son fights like a crab, scuttling back and then charging in for an attack, and he’s very excited that he has permission to get stabby with me, so my full concentration is required.  If you don’t have someone willing to stab you, try a Zumba class, yoga — anything physical that fully engages you. You don’t have to be good at it, you just have to get moving.  I don’t know why, but this type of activity usually works to get me typing again.

Take a break.  If a deadline isn’t breathing down your neck, put the project away.  Box it up, stick it under your bed, put it in your office and shut the door.  Let it hang out somewhere where it won’t make you crazy.  Give it two weeks.  You’ll come back with fresh eyes and it will be easier to see whatever problem your subconscious is wrestling with.

Set limits.  If nothing else has worked, try this — get a kitchen timer, or use the app on your phone, and set it for fifteen minutes.  Open your document, turn the timer on, and get to work.  When that timer goes off, get up and walk away, even if you are in the middle of a sentence.  You’re done — that’s all the time you have to write today. Do the same thing for the next three days.

By the end of those three days, I’m usually dying to get to work, and my block has vanished.  If you try it, let me know what you think.

What are your tips for getting past writer’s block?

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In third grade, I’d exhausted the books in ‘my’ section of the school library.  I’d plowed through all the Little House books, the Chronicles of Narnia, and their ilk.  I was bored and wanted something more.

When the reading van came to school (remember the reading van?) I was one of the first in line.  I bopped in, passed the third grade section, and started browsing in the back, where the older kids were.  One book caught my eye — “Light A Single Candle” by Beverly Butler.  I was intrigued and took it to the check out, only to be stymied by the Sister who was running the cash register. She ordered me to put it back.

When I told my mother that night, she promptly wrote a note requesting I be given free rein not only of the book van, but of the library as well.  I clutched that note like a magical talisman when I approached the check out the next day, same book in hand.

“Well,” said Sister A, scratching her head and looking at the back cover.  “I suppose there’s no sex in it, right?”

I wasn’t exactly sure what sex was, but I know it couldn’t be good. I vigorously shook my head, and the prize was mine.

I remember that moment so clearly, because it was such a pivotal point in my life. Light A Single Candle didn’t have the sex scenes Sister A was worried about, but it did have a lot of teenage angst and maybe a little kissing. It was my first foray into ‘adult reading’ and it opened a whole new world.  (The nuns — who were fabulous English teachers — eventually came round. By fifth grade I was loaning my copy of The Thornbirds to them.)

Of all the gifts my parents gave me, the encouragement to read and the freedom to read what I wanted are two of the greatest. Aside from one embarrassing incident when my mother called me out to show a friend what I was reading (unfortunately, I think I was eleven and it happened to be Forever by Judy Blume) she never questioned my judgement or took a book away from me.

And now, of course, history has repeated itself.  It started a few months ago when my daughter picked up a book from a bargain bin.  I recognized the author’s name, but hadn’t read any of her work, and the cover looked innocuous enough — slightly paranormal, in a pretty fairy type of way. She asked if she could get it, and I reminded her of our deal — I get to read anything she does first.

I kept meaning to read the book, but things kept coming up, and then it wasn’t where I’d put it. I dug it out from my daughter’s room, took it to mine, and read a chapter. The next day, it was gone.  I took it back, read another, and realized the story made me uncomfortable when I thought about my daughter reading it. I put it in the pile for donations.  The next day it disappeared, only to mysteriously crop up by the family room couch.

We went on like this for a few days — me subtly taking the book away, her just as subtly reclaiming it.  I hated to come right out and forbid it, but I wasn’t all that thrilled with her reading it, either.  And then she picked up another book of mine — an autobiography I’d gotten from the library — and asked if she could read that.  I said yes, relieved. An autobiography!  On an educational topic!  Score!

But looking over her shoulder that night, I saw a swear — the swear, actually — on the page.  I asked her if she thought the book was really appropriate for her after all, and she pointed out that she’s heard that same word at school, seen it scratched into bathroom stalls.

“Have you ever heard me say it?” she asked. And I had to admit, I hadn’t. So we struck a new deal, one that she likes much better and that gives my mother payback for the angst I must have caused her. Em can read what she wants.

I’m strict about what my kids watch for movies and TV.  To me, the violent visual images, the sitcoms with the rude preteens, are rigid, in the sense that there’s no involvement from the watcher’s end.  What you see is exactly what’s there.

But books are different. When you read, you bring yourself, your experiences, your curiosity about a subject, to the page. Or, as Madeleine L’Engle has been quoted as saying, readers must be creators.  “The author and the reader “know” each other; they meet on the bridge of words.”

I’ve certainly read books where passages have gone over my head, nuances have been missed, because I didn’t have the life experience to comprehend them. Reading The Sun Also Rises at fifteen is a much different experience than at twenty-five, than again at forty-three. But not understanding the nature of Jake’s injury as a teenager didn’t stop me from loving the story.

Over the years, books have brought me pleasure and knowledge. I brought to each story what I could understand and took from it what I could handle. My hope is that my daughter will do the same. For the both of us, it’s the start of a wild ride.

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Hey there.  I had such grand plans for this blog entry –brilliant posts about tea, or riding, or reading and riding and letting go.  But then I caught a cold, and the Slobbering Beast cut his foot (I don’t think he even noticed, but it looked as if Jason had visited our house) and I wound up taking a week off from running because every time I went outside I sounded like Typhoid Mary and I was worried the beast would be crippled for life.

And then I went yesterday, and it was hard.  In fact, since no one under 18 is reading this blog (also a post for another day) I can say that, without a doubt, it sucked.  It was still cold and I was slow and I couldn’t get out of my own way and when I was running up the very last hill, I seriously considered just stopping.  But then I remembered how, in my little group of friends who run, I am low person on the totem pole, clawing out my miles each week just to stay there.  And how the person who wasn’t even ON the totem pole just went out and ran a 5k, so my status is in jeopardy.  So I kept running, and while I wouldn’t say it ever actually got easier, I finished.

The thing is, I am at that point in my writing, too.  I just finished a good section of my story, and I have been polishing it and playing with it until I am reasonably pleased, and then I had to put that section away and start another chapter and it is hard.  (And yes, I realize everything is relative  and my worst hard writing day is so much better than the type of awful day many people have on a regular basis, but it was not good.)  I wrote 1200 words yesterday and wound up deleting 800 of them, and those last 400 are on probation too.

Eventually, I will find my way and my rhythm.  I’ll put up enough words that I can see the ones that belong, and someday I will be happy with this section too.  But not today.  Which is why instead of a scintillating blog post, I am offering you … pink socks.

Actually, they are red, because in the heart of New England that's how we roll.

Fans of Joshilyn Jackson will realize I am completely stealing this.  For everyone else, pink socks are the glorious and entertaining stories that never quite get told over at Faster Than Kadzu.  We may read about them, even glimpse them, but the pink socks never actually materialize. Instead, Joshilyn waves very shiny things in our general direction to distract us.

So, for starters, did you know Miz Jackson has a glorious new book out?  And she’s running a very fun virtual booksigning? (Although I would love to participate, I’m buying my copy this spring at this wonderful book store, which is now for sale.)

Also, Writer Unboxed is running a portion of its auction again.  If you are a writer, this is a great way to win some exposure and support one of the best writing communities on the web.

And speaking of community, Vaughn Roycroft, who is always the first to give a shout-out to other writers, has a spanking new website out that is totally worth a look. Go see it and tell him I said hi. : )

Finally, in the more good news category, author Sarah Pinneo, who runs the extremely helpful blog Blurb is a Verb, had her book Julia’s Child release this week.  I snatched it up immediately, and am having a blast reading it.  She has a wonderful voice and totally nails the Oh My God Are Those Organic Carrots Really $200 And Are They Worth It  vibe.  (And, little note here — one of her reading partners is the lovely Rosemary DiBatistta, who just signed her own THREE book contract.  Wowza!)

And finally for real, someone pointed out that I didn’t provide a link to my Pinterest boards, so I  put it in my sidebar.  I hope to see you there.  And next week, Pink Socks!

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Fierce

Fierce!

I used to be fierce.

Not as fierce as Linda Hamilton in T2, although I coveted her biceps.  Just fierce enough.

It took me a long time to get there, and didn’t really happen until I was in my twenties.  I’d been shy as a kid and a teen, but a combination of factors pushed me over the edge:

I landed an exciting job, with a boss who was tough and expected me to be too.  The first time I came back with a story that didn’t have the hard questions answered, he made it very clear that what I had wasn’t good enough.  If I wanted my story to run (and wanted to get paid) I need to call back my source.  And call again.  And again, until I got the answers I needed.  It was difficult and terrifying and somewhat exhilarating, and I had more than one person hang up on me.  I don’t think it ever got any easier, but it changed me in a good way.

I also fell in with fierce friends, women who thought nothing of hopping on the back of a thousand pound beast and sailing it over a four-foot fence, of galloping DOWN a hill with a broken arm, of marching into the boss’s office and demanding a promotion.  If you wanted to hang with them, you needed some backbone.  And while I can’t honestly say I cleared too many four-foot fences, I managed to hold my own.

And then I had kids.  With my first pregnancy,  not much changed.  I still made the tough calls, rode until I was about eight months pregnant, power-walked two miles a few days after the emergency c-section (Can I tell you what a bad idea that was?).  I took my baby on interviews, hired someone to watch her a few mornings a week so I could write, took care of the horses with her strapped to my back.

With the second child, I rode for about five months — much more cautiously.  I’d fallen in love with baby breath and fat baby knees by then, and since I couldn’t bring two kids on interviews, and hated to leave them, I found other writing jobs I could do around their schedules.  The horse died, and I didn’t get another.  I traded hanging out at the barn for hanging out at preschool. I stopped asking the tough questions.

The other day, I was at school for pickup and another mom and I were kvetching about the parents who always cut the pickup line.  “I’m waiting there patiently for my turn for like 15 minutes,” she said, “And then they just zoom in front.  It makes me so mad.”

I agreed, and we talked about how we’d like to say something.  How we’d like to honk the horn, even, but we won’t, because it wouldn’t set a good example.  It wouldn’t be polite. It would be too fierce.

It’s a dumb small thing, but it got me thinking.  Those friends of mine, the ones I made in my twenties and love dearly, are still fierce. They (mostly) have chosen not to have children, and are doing well in their careers. They are lovely women, all of them, but you cross them at your peril. You might cut them off in line once, and they’d let it go.  Twice, they’d say something.  The third time, you wouldn’t have to worry about driving, because you wouldn’t have any knees.

It’s not that my mom friends aren’t fierce in their own ways. They’re fabulous women and I’m lucky to have found them. Hurt their kids, and they’d kill you without thinking.  But on a day-to-day basis, they’re like me — busy making sure everyone is getting along, everyone is happy, everyone has friends.  Too busy being civilized to be ferocious.

Last year, I reconnected with my old boss.  He threw me a few softball assignments, and I loved it — a part of my brain that had been unused for too long kicked into gear.  But after those articles were completed, I decided to hold off on doing more for a while.  The deadlines were a big part of it , for sure, but there was something else, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  And then it came to me — I was getting a big old adrenaline rush from chasing down sources and asking a few tough questions.  I was feeling fierce, which isn’t always compatible with raising well-behaved children.

I’m speaking for myself only here — I’m sure there are plenty of moms who are still just as fierce as they ever were.  For some reason, the few I know have only one child, and manage to keep a balance between the challenging careers they have and the quality family time they need.  More than one child, and something seems to have to give.

It’s a luxury to have time to think about something like this, but it’s come up a lot recently in stuff I’ve been reading.  Justine Musk has done a few posts that made me think, like this one, and this one here.  And John Scalzi recently wrote about the different ways male and female bloggers are treated — in part because there is the perception that women are too gentle or nice or not fierce enough to fight back.

I’ve passed a few barns recently and thought hmm.  I could take a quick lesson, and nobody at home would be the wiser.  I’ve held off on getting back into riding for a bunch of reasons, (the money!  the time!) but one is that I’m not sure I want to watch my daughter take the chances I did, both stupid and smart.  I don’t want to put her at risk.  I want to keep her safe, and if I start riding again, she’ll want to too.

But what message does it send to always play it safe, to (almost) always be polite, to avoid asking the hard questions?   Is being fierce a good thing, or a bad?  Does it change as you get older?  What do you think?

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A Plan

So it appears that I need some structure.  Without the kids here, demanding to be fed on a regular basis, I’m just wandering around the house, getting distracted by dirty socks and trying to keep them out of Harley’s mouth.  Order is called for. My new schedule — just so you know — is to blog every Tuesday.  I can’t tell you how many times last week I sat down to write a post, clicked on some random link, and two hours later was all whoops!  Where’d the time go?  I have all kinds of plans to become the next Martha Stewart, or at least clean out the hall closet, but I’m not even going to get to my list of potentially procrastinating activities that keep me from writing my next novel UNLESS I step away from the internet periodically. (And how’s that for a run on sentence?)

So.  The plan.  Blog entry every Tuesday, unless something so exciting I can’t help sharing it occurs.  (My mom’s still e-mailing Oprah, so ya never know.)

In the meantime, if you’ve liked me on Facebook (and you have, haven’t you?  And made all your friends and relatives do the same?) you’ll have heard about the gaping loss several libraries are facing due to the recent flooding.  I can’t imagine not being able to take my kids to check out books — the library is the first place we visit in any new town, and we’ve met  life-long friends doing so.  If you’d like to help, author Kate Messner has pulled together the information on her web site.  My kids chose to donate toward a purchase of Where the Wild Things Are, which seems particularly fitting since my house is Wild Thing free most days lately.  Except for Harley.  And even he’s depressed.

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This is Harley.

Harley came to us when he was an adorable puppy and looked like this.

Now he looks like this.

Harley has many positive attributes.  He is firm in his belief that the only good squirrel is a dead squirrel.  He thinks teenagers should have 9 p.m. curfews, and if their parents insist on letting them out after that, he insists that they stay on the opposite side of the road from our house.  If they forget, he reminds them.  Loudly.

His best trait, however, is the fact that he loves kids.  Mostly mine, but if they aren’t available, he’s fine with whoever happens to leave theirs laying around.  He is never happier than when there’s a pack of children over and he’s in the middle, tongue out, running hard alongside them in a game of tag or ball.  The kids use him to find each other during hide and seek, and as a shield during water pistol wars.

He’s very agile and has managed to avoid more than one collision that made me cover my eyes by leaping to the side (and sometimes over) a small child who has forgotten the rule about not running around corners of the house.  I cringe, expecting to hear the ‘thunk’ of eighty pounds of muscle hitting forty pounds of boy flesh and instead I see Harley, valiantly twisting his body into an unnatural pose in mid-air.

I am a very protective dog owner, and still somehow Harley has been stepped on, ridden, painted with marker, dressed up and sat upon.  So long as he can be involved, he’s okay with it.

Harley’s main, overriding flaw, and one that he has had since we adopted him, is that he lacks … intestinal fortitude, shall we say.  Our previous dogs had cast iron stomachs, ate everything from horse poop to dead rodents and barely belched.  Harley’s stomach formerly belonged to a little old Victorian lady who only used it for weak tea and cucumber sandwiches on white bread.  She still got the vapors.

Every few months something inside him just … lets go.  To avoid offending delicate reader sensibilities, I’ll just say that Harley turns into the Blast-Ended Skrewt from Harry Potter.   It is not pleasant.  We’ve had him tested for parasites multiple times, changed foods, kept him under hawk-eye supervision to make sure he’s not eating contraband … nothing seems to help.

Our latest efforts involve putting him on a grain-free diet.  It’s too soon to tell if it will work, but I can say that a bag of this food — which has salmon and sweet potatoes and probably a maitre d’ in there somewhere– costs the equivalent of a nice … a very very nice … bottle of bubbly.  Not that I’m resentful, or anything.

However, I’ve decided that the Slobbering Beast needs to start earning his keep, not just eating it.  I thought about his many talents, and while I could rent him out for squirrel patrol (Hi Dad!) or possibly babysitting jobs (he’s very good at wearing small boys out) I was looking for something a little more … glamorous.  Something that befits a dog of his dignity, so to speak.

Then I read that the fabulous and kind-hearted Joshilyn Jackson was running a contest to promote the paperback release of her novel Backseat Saints.  I am a die-hard Joshilyn Jackson fan, and I loved that book.  It has a very nice dog in it, too,  one that is not a Blast-Ended Skrewt.  Harley and that dog could be friends, maybe, if Harley were fictional and smelled better.

So, I decided to try renting Harley out, like billboard space.  I’m doing a test case with Backseat Saints and  Jackson’s not-yet-released next book, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty.  On our daily three-mile jog we must pass at least … I dunno, fifty houses? Maybe more.  Plus cars and whatnot.  And that’s just here.  Sometimes we humiliate  the poor dog by taking him for walks in other places, too.

Oh humiliation, thy name is dog.

Harley says, Four Paws Up!

I think I have single-handedly solved the publishing world’s dilemma of how to reach readers, don’t you? J.K. Rowling, feel free to call me anytime. Me and the Skrewt are waiting.

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 Put a bunch of writers in a room and we all ask the same questions of each other:  How long did it take you to finish your novel?  What’s your writing schedule like?  How long did it take to find an agent?  How long before your book sold?  How long did you spend on revisions? For people who deal with words, we’re obsessed with time.

At Grub’s Muse and the Marketplace conference last week, everyone I met had different answers.  Some authors, like me,  revise heavily as they go.  Others bang out a first draft and then revise.  Some write every day.  Others sit down at the computer only once or twice a week, but mull sentences and paragraphs over in their heads for days before committing them to paper. Some writers have agents who are very hands-on, so that their books sail through the editorial process.  Others receive letters with pages and pages of suggestions after the book is sold.

I met with Meg Mitchell Moore (whose book The Arrivals comes out soon!) a few weeks before the conference, and we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of our writing and revising style.  Yet we agree on this — to be a good writer, you have to put in the time.  Whether that time is in the beginning of the process or the end is up to you.

If there’s one thing I learned this past weekend, it’s that there are no shortcuts, no hidden tricks for shaving hours off the writing journey. Hearing authors like Alice Hoffman and Ann Hood talk about how much they revise made that very clear.  To be a good writer means you are in it for the long haul.  Tick.  Tock.

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There’s no words, really, to cover what’s happened in Japan.  I could try — words like horrific, heart-rending, and tragic come to mind — but they’re just words, black dots on a computer screen, typed from the comfort of a warm, safe office.  I look at the pictures in the news and then at those words and they are too clean and sterile to even think about using.  I can’t imagine what’s like to see those scenes close up, or worse yet, to have been a child and lived them.

Over at Write Hope, a group of kidlit authors have banded together to try to change those words into something more promising.  They are running an auction with wonderful prizes — books, manuscript critiques, consults with agents — and all proceeds will be donated to Save the Children/Japan. I’m donating a Book Club in a Bag — up to 10 copies of Evenfall, cookies, a reusable cloth bag, and the chance to Skype with me. (If you are within an hour of where I live, I’ll come to your book club in person.) Items are up for only 72 hours, so keep checking back. (Edited: My donation is number eight today.)  Please help me spread the news — and help change those words into a more positive future for the tens of thousands of children who were affected.

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I’ve been struggling with what to say about the disasters that seem to be pressing in on every side these days.  Sitting in my quiet kitchen, a snoring dog at my feet, they seem very far away.  And then I pick up my children from school and my heart constricts at the pain another mother may be feeling right now on the other side of the world.

How do we  manage to go on with our lives when so many lives are changed forever?  How do we recognize another level of pain without becoming callous?  I don’t know.  But this post spoke to me .  I hope it does to you, too.

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I have books all over the house, with the possible exception of the guest bathroom.  Mostly, I try to keep the books I wouldn’t want my kids to read stacked next to my bed.  But sometimes I forget, and leave a book I’d prefer my daughter not to delve into out in the open, where it’s fair game.  I can always tell, though, when a book I’ve left somewhere has been moved — I’m freaky that way.  So when I got home from running some errands this weekend, and noticed my copy of Wake on the kitchen island  slightly askew, I knew immediately I hadn’t left it that way.  And I knew who had. And since she looked at me looking at the book and rolled her eyes, she knew I knew as well.

We had company all weekend, so I waited until this morning to ask what she thought of the book. Of course, she liked it. She’d only read a few pages before someone had walked in and she’d put the book down.  (Perhaps I should leave geometry textbooks out and pretend they’re off-limits, too.) She asked if she could read the whole thing, we discussed a bit about why I wasn’t comfortable with that, I asked if she had any questions, she said no, and we  agreed she could try it out next year, in fourth grade, and then she moved on to asking me about the book I’m reading now, a fabulous historical mystery/romance called The Second Duchess, which she’d also managed to skim. (Note to self: housecleaning is important for more than hygiene.)

I don’t think I’m kidding myself here. If she really wanted to read either of these books, I’m sure she’d figure out a way to make it happen.  At the moment, the exploits of a teen dream catcher and the doings of a Renaissance bride aren’t something she’s overly interested in, and while she’d be more than willing to delve into them if they were the only books around, she’s happily surrounded by stacks of her own reading material, so it’s not an issue.  Today.

But it did spark a couple of conversations.

Me:  “So, you noticed that the kids who were drinking were UNHAPPY, right? You got that?”

Her: Eye-roll.

Her: “So, why do authors make stuff up about real people?  They can do that? And what’s an arranged marriage?” Me:  “Yes.  It’s called historical fiction. And an arranged marriage is when your daddy and I pick out who you are going to marry.  When you are 35.”

All in all, I think it went well.

The Random Number Generator has spoken.

Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts last week.  Christine was the lucky winner — I’ll be sending you a signed copy of Wake in the mail.

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This post talks about censorship, sex and drugs.  You’ve been warned.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s appropriate for kids to read.  Partly, it’s because I have a book of my own out, and I’ve seen Evenfall listed as YA (Young Adult) in a couple of places.  Every time I see that, or read about a high school kid wanting to read it, my Catholic school-raised innards give a very uncomfortable twist inside and suggest I  reach through the computer, snatch the book out of their hands, and hand them a nice copy of Little House in the Big Woods or Voyage of the Dawn Treader instead.

Part of it is because my daughter, at nine, is reading at a high school level, and we’re having lots of conversations along the lines of “Just because you can read something, doesn’t mean you should, and that particularly applies to my book, thank you very much.”

And part of it is that I’ve become more conscious lately of the books I’ve read that are coming under fire from parents who would like them removed from schools and classrooms.

If you haven’t read it, Evenfall has a love scene.  It’s short, but it’s definitely steamy.  It’s that scene I’m thinking about when someone I know says “I read your book!” and smiles at me in the carpool line at school.  It’s that scene I’m thinking about when I read that someone in high school has added Evenfall to their ‘to read’ pile.  And it’s that scene I’m definitely thinking about whenever my daughter makes moves to read past the first chapter.

But.  But. But. But. Growing up, my parents were strict.  Stricter than most of the parents I knew (hi Mom!  Stop reading now!) in every way but one – they never told me what I could or couldn’t read.  In third grade, my mom wrote me the note that gained me access to the entire school library.  (When I picked a book and Sister A asked me if it had any sex in it, I didn’t know what the word meant but I was smart enough to say no.)  By fifth grade I was exchanging books like Evergreen with my favorite nun, and The Thorn Birds followed shortly thereafter. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been reading pretty much everything I can get my hands on. Books with drug scenes.  With sex scenes.  With magic and profanity and time travel and murder and baseball.

Yet here I am, all these years after I picked up those books, a writer and mother and mostly sane person.  I don’t do drugs.  I don’t sacrifice animals.  I don’t time travel and I sure as hell don’t play baseball. (I apparently do swear, though.)

One of my favorite writers, Barbara Kingsolver, has a scene in which one of her characters is a teacher who decides to hold an impromptu, unapproved sex education class after one of her best students shows up pregnant.  She rationalizes by saying something like this: “Just because you know how to use a fire extinguisher doesn’t mean you’re going to burn your house down.  But if your house is on fire, kiddos, it just may save your life.”

And that’s how I think about books.  Just because you read about drugs, or sex, or baseball, doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do those things.  But knowing those things are out there may help you make more informed decisions down the line. It might give you the vocabulary to hold a conversation with the adults in your life.  It might help you navigate the tricky waters of adolescence.  It might give you the life line you need to get through them.

A few months ago, my book club chose a book written by a young man about his experience as a drug addict. It’s graphic and although it in no way glamorizes drug use, it’s definitely realistic. When I went looking for it at my local library, I was a little shocked to find it in the YA section.  Would I want my daughter reading it as a third grader? No.  But for some kid in middle school with no trusted adult to talk to, it could be a life saver.  Just because a book isn’t right for my child doesn’t mean it’s not the absolutely critical book at that moment for someone else’s.

If you object to your kid reading about drugs, or sex, or baseball, that’s your right.  But insisting a book be removed or banned for everyone presumes to make that choice for MY child, and that’s stepping on MY rights as a parent.

Will I let my third grader read Evenfall?  Not on your life.  But will I let her read it as a sixth or seventh grader?  There’s a good chance I will, or that she’ll have found a way to read it no matter what I say.  (If  I’m lucky, it will spark a conversation about sometimes, when adults fall in love, they have sex.  If I’m unlucky, she’ll roll her eyes and refuse to talk to me for a few days for embarrassing her in front of her friends.)

So where do you stand on all of this?  I’m really interested to hear.  Comment before Monday and you’ll be entered to win Wake, a book that came under fire when a parent requested it be removed from school because she objected to the adult language and felt it promoted drug use and sexual misconduct. Her request was denied and for now, it remains on shelves.  (For the record: I’ve read it and in my opinion it does no such thing.)

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Halfway There

I’ve been working under deadlines, professionally speaking, since I was around 20.  (If you count deadlines I didn’t get paid for, like school newspapers and internships, you can bring the age down to about 12.)  My first editor scared the bejesus out of me at a young age, and made it clear that short of catastrophic, unexpected death, (which would happen to me anyways if I missed one of her deadlines) there was no excuse for turning a story in late.

Since those days, I’ve rarely missed a deadline or needed an extension. I mostly like laboring under deadline, too.  Sure, there’s the pressure to get it done, but there’s also comfort in having a finish line in sight, in knowing that, once I’ve passed off the job, I can breathe a sigh of relief because my work is completed. It’s someone else’s responsibility now.

This weekend, I took my daughter and six of her friends to the American Girl Doll store for her birthday party.  A mom with a big car agreed to drive so all the girls could go together on the trip, and we listened to them chattering in the back, and smiled at how funny they sounded.  And then I turned around, and instead of seeing a clutch of cute baby girls, like I’d been hearing, I saw a carful of nine-year-olds, and it hit me: I’m halfway there.

In just nine short years, my daughter will be eighteen.  If we’ve done our job right as parents, she’ll be on her way to the next stage of her life, the stage where our work is (mostly) done and her choices are her own responsibility.

Already, I can see that next stage in her face and the faces of her friends — the round, chubby cheeks are mostly gone, their elbows are no longer deliciously creased with fat, their legs are sturdy and muscular, not plump and soft.  Glimpses of the babies they were are hard to come by.  Glimpses of the teens they’ll become — in a toss of the head, a  challenging tone, a bid for independence — are more frequent.

When I turned 18, I left for college and never looked back.  Oh, I came home for summer breaks, for holidays and the occasional long weekends, but never again to live.  I’d landed a job and an apartment before graduation and was set to show whoever needed showing that I was all set, thanks.  I could do this on my own. I know how it will be with my daughter.  Already, she’s twice as independent as I ever was.

It’s  not enough time, I want to say.  I need an extension on that deadline. But there are no extensions, no excuses, no second chances to get my words right.  There’s only now, this minute and the next and the one after that, all of them hurtling us toward the future, toward her independence and my obsolescence.  There is no rewrite.  There is no do-over.

Halfway there.

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A Trying Day

 

The slavering beast's work

 

Yesterday was a trying sort of day.  I kept trying to write, but kept getting distracted.  The slavering beast kept trying to remove the gutters from the house.  (He succeeded, too, despite his bleeding gums.)  My son kept trying to launch rockets onto inappropriate places, such as the top of the media cabinet, at the ceiling fan, and into the gaping maw of the slavering beast. (Still bleeding.)

Later that day, my daughter, exhausted from a full day of school and ballet class, kept trying to avoid her homework.  And at the very end, alerted by pathetic cheeping noises, we found a chipmunk trying to escape the now bashed in gutters.

I hate trying days. They try my patience, which, everyone knows, is in limited enough supply on a good day.  As a child (oh heck, let’s admit it — until five or six years ago, even) I had no use for the serenity prayer.  You know the one: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change….” I HATED that prayer.  I tend, when confronted with an obstacle, to keep bashing my head against said obstacle until one of us collapses.  Sheer stubbornness has gotten me through many a difficult situation.

But a few years ago, one of those internet memes was going around.  A friend forwarded it to me, and in the say ‘something nice about this person’ section, they’d written “I admire how she never stops trying to make the world the way she wants it to be.”

On the surface, it sounds lovely, and the glow from that kind commented stayed with me for a day or two.  But this person has called me a stubborn #$@#@ more than once. Or twice, even. And eventually I realized that they were saying the exact same thing, only in nicer words.  And for some reason — perhaps the timing — I took it to heart.

The thing is, you can’t outstubborn a small child.  Or you can, but it’s ugly, and it usually ends with both of you in tears.  And what exactly are you trying to do, anyways? Change the world to fit your specifications? As if you’re the only one living in it? As if you are the only one trying to accomplish something?

 

Worn out from destroying the house

 

So yesterday, I kept trying. Trying not to lose my patience. Trying to model the type of behavior I wanted. (Minus the gutters.)  Trying to recognize that just because I wasn’t accomplishing my goals didn’t mean that others weren’t meeting theirs.  Trying to remind myself that, even on the most trying days, I can still try tomorrow to get it right.

(Prize winner is Teresa — she gets a copy of Turtle Moon and a very cute Evenfall mini-bookmark!)

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