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Saturday, November 19, 2011

My Little Brother

Thirty-eight years ago, Michael Todd Kelley was born. He was a sweet kid and a wonderful little brother. Sure, we had our ups and downs. We fought as siblings do. We tattled. We yelled. But we also loved. And laughed. And shared. When our older brother, Derek, was in a tragic accident in 1987, which left him in a coma, our parents needed to be by Derek's side. They held vigil in the ICU, leaving me and my little brother to work through things on our own. We never blamed our parents for their focus and devotion to our older brother. We loved him and worried about him, too. So we turned to each other for support. I remember holding Todd (we often go by our middle names in the South) while he cried over Derek. Todd was only 13. I was 16. Over the next few years, my bond with Todd grew stronger as he began to confront demons. Alcoholism. Drug use. And other issues too personal to share in cyber space. But through it all, I held on tight. He was my little brother and he needed me.

As we grew older, our lives diverged. I went to college, then to law school. I moved to Miami to take my first job as a lawyer, leaving Todd behind in Alabama. I thought he'd be fine. After all, he had incredible charisma and was extremely intelligent. When he was just 12, he was writing programs in binary code on our old Commador 64 dinosaur. He wrote beautiful poems and stories. He was thoughtful, philosophical, and kind. By the age of 29, he was the General Manager of a country club in Montgomery. And good at it.

But on January 3, 2004, the demons that chased my little brother his entire life caught up with him. He was 30. To this day, almost eight years later, just thinking of the way his bright life ended so abruptly brings tears to my eyes.

So I think of him today, on what would've been his 38th birthday. I miss not being able to call him to wish him a Happy Birthday. Or invite him for Christmas. I wonder if he would be married and have children. Nieces and nephews I could dote on the way I love my niece, Rebecca, and nephew, Sam, on my husband's side. I pray that one day I can think of him on his birthday without the cloud of sadness that inevitably arrives on this day. Every year, I wish the pain were gone, but it never is. I miss him. Who he was and who he would've become.

To try to alleviate some of the ache, I write. This is, above all else, why I write. You hear writers, including me, talk about the compulsion of it. The fact that writing is an internal force that can't be contained. But the genesis of that force differs for each writer. For me, many of my words represent tear drops. A physical and psychological release of pain. Just as sadness can overwhelm us, making us unable to contain our sobs, my fingers often move across my keyboard without my conscious involvement. Because I can't force or control my words anymore than I can the emotions flowing down my face with my tears.

Rest in peace, little brother. I love you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Twitter: Connection, New Friends, and Grammar Lessons

Before I took the plunge into Twitter, I asked, "What's the hype? Do I really need to know you're at Starbucks?" I assumed this social networking tool was for the narcissistic compelled to broadcast their every move. My pronouncements were not made out of fear, but misunderstanding. I didn't understand or appreciate the doorways Twitter opens. As I blogged about previously, I've made connections with people I never would have known about or had the opportunity to converse with in the absence of this tool. Twitter is a simple but massive thing. The possibilities are endless. You can network socially or professionally. You can reconnect or make new connections with people who can influence your future. Or just cheer you on.

Many of my friends (and loved ones) won't take the plunge. Our generation (1970's kids) lived without cell phones, the internet, or even the ability to actually record a show or movie and watch it later. What do we 40-somethings need Twitter for? When you take a peek at your children's Twitter accounts, you see references to parties, boredom, and homework. But we don't take the time to explore what it can do for us. How we can use it to further our careers, pare down the massive amounts of information coming at us from other mediums, and keep a pulse on our children's world. It's an underused tool. A secret weapon we're afraid to unsheathe. I've tried to explain this to my BFF's and my honey, but my words fall on deaf ears. I've explained that you can filter the massive amounts of information. You learn who to follow and where to look for those who can provide you with information you actually need. I love scrolling down my Twitter feed in the morning and culling articles from writers, agents, and publishers, and learning something new almost daily about pursuing my dream of getting published.

An analogy: you're in your home in the morning. The TV's on, the dishwasher's going, the news is in the background, your kids are talking to you and one another, the dogs are running from room to room, and your cell phone is going off with reminders, emails, texts, and Words With Friends alerts. But you function, and function well. Because you have an internal filter that alerts you to whether something is important and worthy of your time. It yanks your head aside and forces you to pay attention. It might be a news story playing the background. Or one of your children calling the other a name. Or the washing machine wrongly whistling in its spin cycle. But you can filter out the important stuff. Twitter is the same.

I enjoy absorbing the information I receive from Twitter, and have enjoyed discovering new writers who inspire me and whose words move me. But I appreciate it for another (geeky) reason. I appreciate the content and grammatical lessons Twitter forces on its users. It requires 140 characters. Brevity. Clarity. Condensing thoughts to digestible bites. No room for pontification or gratuitous blabbering. You must say what you mean and do it concisely. As a writer, using Twitter is a daily exercise in editing--cutting out the superfluous. Because if I use Twitter to announce my lunch choices instead of wielding it as a tool in reaching those in publishing who can help me become a better writer, then I'm speaking into the wind. Nothing gets you "unfollowed" faster than minutia.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Necessity of Redundancy

The other day, I glanced left while stopped at a red light. The lane to my left was actually a u-turn to get back onto a major highway. Through the turn were several arrow signs pointing in the appropriate direction of the turn. Not one sign, or even two, but several. I noticed the rest of the day that almost every time I went into a sharp turn on a roadway, the side of the road would be peppered with directional arrows. I asked myself: isn't one enough? I saw the first one. The first warning. I see the bend in the road. If you calculated the cost of all the extra directional arrows in Lancaster County (which is full of twisty roads), it would be high. In this era of unnecessary government spending and ridiculously unbalanced budgets, wouldn't simple cuts like extra road signs make a difference?

In staring at the signs (yes, I'm a dork who ponders road signs), instead of government waste, I saw jobs. Someone designed that u-turn. Someone made those signs. Someone installed those signs. Someone made the equipment that was used to install those signs. Someone did the advertising and bidding for the company that received the contract to install those signs. Jobs. And for the cost of those couple of extra signs, money was poured back into our local economy through the workforce involved in creating them.

I also realized that the issue isn't the cost of the extra signs but the cost of lives because for some people, they are necessary. For most of us, redundancy and repetition aren't useless nagging, but required. If you only told your kids once to clean their rooms, would they? If you only reminded your husband once to grab a carton of milk on the way home, would he? If you only told your dog once to "go potty," would she? We remind our children daily to brush their teeth, do their homework, pick up their toys, say "please" and "thank you." We remind our husbands about teacher conferences, dental appointments, their mother's birthdays, and how much we love them. The redundancy isn't needless, tedious, or annoying (okay, maybe it's annoying). But without reminders and redundancy, life would be much less efficient, stressful, and even painful.

Writing entails much redundancy. In crafting a novel, you create draft over draft as you edit and rewrite. You read the same sentences over and over to discover their weaknesses, and their strengths. You examine and reconsider verbs to ensure they are succinct. Creating your best work requires review, rewrite, redundant reconsideration. Because as in life, once simply isn't enough.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I Love to Cut The Grass and Paint Rooms

I love to paint. Not canvases, but rooms. Living rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms. And I love to cut grass, especially when it's really tall. Okay, so maybe love is a strong word, but I do enjoy these mindless, monotonous tasks. Today, I painted my (almost) 12-year-old daughter's room. It was lime green and lavender with a dozen or so wallpaper flowers I'd lovingly pressed on several years ago. She'd decided her room was too "little girl," and asked if I could help remedy that. She chose the color "comforting," a warm tan that, quite frankly, makes me tear up with its maturity.

So I spent this rainy, cold, November Thursday in her room. Dipping a brush into a bucket and tediously and slowly "cutting" the edges and doorways and windows. Then I rolled between the lines, using muscles that will certainly cry out in protest in the morning when I begin coat number 2. At some point, my honey poked his head in the door and asked, "You like doing this? I hate it." I paused, considered his question, and responded, "Like? No. But I don't mind it."

Returning to my work, I pondered our conversation. Painting--and cutting grass--bring me peace. The monotony and mindlessness of the tasks allow my mind to clear. It's akin to sitting still. Not sitting somewhere waiting for something, but truly sitting still. When you focus on a singular task that doesn't require much mentally, your mind is free to rest. And in that rest, thoughts bubble to the surface. So often, we have our fingers on keyboards, touch screens, and cell phones. Our minds are constantly engaged in what we're working on, and we often multi-task. With the attention required of us most of the time, our minds aren't allowed "free play." That unstructured time that allows ideas, imagination, and solutions to float to the front unbeckoned.

This is one of the reasons why I "love" to paint and cut the grass. The other reason is much simpler. Both of these tasks bring instant, positive results. After cutting the grass, you look at your lawn with pride. Appreciating its beauty and your blessings. After painting a room in your house, it lifts your spirits to see how your space has transformed and been renewed so simply.

In writing, the creative process (for me) feels forced if I sit at my computer and try to make things happen. Not only does this result in writing I end up hashing over and over, I sometimes even trash it all together. Because creativity cannot be forced. The writing pundits preach "write something every day." I appreciate this advice and understand its basis. Just as with exercising, if you stay away from it too long, it becomes easier and easier to de-prioritize. But for me, if I stop focusing on the writing, the ideas come more freely. Driving in my car, taking a shower, and yes, cutting the grass or painting, push the noise to the back of my mind so the thoughts bobbing around inside my heart and soul can make an appearance.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Game of the Decade, Social Networks, and Being Part of a Team

Today my honey sent me a text (he's in Las Vegas on a trip): "Turned down Cirque tickets because I want to watch the game. Am I nuts?" My reply: "It's the game of the decade. Of course not."

After this short conversation, I spoke with a few of my friends. They didn't understand why he would give up Las Vegas Cirque de Soleil tickets to sit in a room and watch Alabama play Louisiana State on television. It's just a game. You can see the final score. Know who won. Why pass up tickets to watch Cirque live to watch the game on TV?

Because it's college football and the #1 ranked team is playing #2. And it's SEC. It's intense. It's watching boys on scholarships giving their all and hoping they've made the right choice. It's parents sharing excitement with their children. It's hotdogs on grills. Tradition. Family. Something to cheer for.

There is so much beyond our control. The economy. The decisions of Congress. Disease. War. But just as with life, in an SEC football game, we cheer for our team. We cling to loyalty based on geography (some call it Bama football, some call it patriotism). But for those few hours, the problems and stress that surrounds us everyday fall away. We focus and find hope in cheering on a group of boys. We find identity. Something that glues us to where we are. Because we all need a tether that grounds us to something. That gives us a sense of belonging.

Writing is a solitary pursuit. It's difficult to find that tether and sense of belonging when you work in a coffee shop surrounded by strangers, or at your kitchen table. But social networking has changed that. Twitter, Goodreads, and Scribed allow me to connect with other writers. Ask them for advice. Cheer them on and receive their encouragement in return. These tools have pulled me into a virtual world in which I'm now part of a team. And just as with the Boys of Fall, I believe I can finally get across that goal line because I'm surrounded by others who want the same thing.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Choices, Loving our Dogs, and Deliberately Living

This morning, I walked our dog, Ellie, after Ty got on the bus. It was cloudy, 50 degrees, and windy. As much as I love walking through our neighborhood in Fall and savoring the beautiful leaves, this was not a pleasant walk. I was cold. But I was there because Ellie needed me to be. She needed to expend some energy and, yes, relieve herself. After rounding the first bend, the scene struck me as funny.

My cold self wanted to go back to the house for a cup of coffee, but instead I walked on in the wind because Ellie loved it. It also struck me that I was carrying a plastic bag of her poop. Considering the situation, I asked myself, "Who's the Master here?"

Often in life, we find ourselves in uncomfortable situations in which we surrender our desires to the needs or wants of others. As mothers, we do this on a daily basis. In fact, we do it all day long. We allow a frightened child whose ventured into our rooms at 3 am to slide in to the warm spot we've been creating all night. We get up early to make sure everyone has breakfast, brushes their teeth, and has what they need for their day. A big one--at least for me--is the surrender of career and a life outside our homes because we believe it's best for our families. Especially when the other parent works hard and long hours to provide the life we want to give our kids.

As adults, we all give up the carefree world of childhood. We have little "unstructured play time." Yes, my husband loves being a pilot, but he loves being with us more. It is a sacrifice for him to be away as much as he is. He's fortunate that he can do what he loves, but he's surrendering something. Several of my friends have spouses who are physicians that spend nights in the hospital on call, and weekends away at continuing education seminars. Another friend stays home with his two boys so his wife can travel the world for her work.

In these situations, who is the Master? Our children? Our jobs? Our responsibilities? The answer to that question depends entirely on your perception. I chose to marry a pilot. I chose to stay at home when my children were small. I chose to give up a career in law to be there when my kids get off the bus. And today, I chose to walk Ellie. Rather than see myself as sacrificing for the best of others, I choose to see my life for what it is. A conscious choice that brings me fulfillment and joy.

In attempting to publish The Beauty of Grace, I am not a victim of the process. I don't pump out query letter after query letter and pursue all avenues of social networking with other writers, agents, and publishers because I have to. While writing is a compulsion for which there is no therapy or medication, I choose to put my work out there. To seek a place in the publishing industry. It might be cold and windy, and some days I might feel as though I'm carrying a bag of dog poop, but it is still my choice to be there.