Click her to receive blog updates via email

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Read. Read it Again. Read it Again.

Sitting on my couch at 7pm on Sunday night, I'm exhausted. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. I'm home from a 48-hour retreat with seventh and eighth graders. I've spent the last two nights on a mattress on the floor in a cabin in north east Maryland with 10 eighth-grade girls at a Winter retreat for LCBC. Forty-eight hours sharing thoughts with 10 amazing young women. I'm a 41-year-old mother of two. I'm a writer and inactive lawyer. I've been to Italy, France, England, Ireland...California, New York, Washington D.C., Colorado, and, of course, Alabama (born and raised). I've lived through illness. I've lived through childbirth. I've lived through heartache. I've lived in a 10 by 10 room on Miami Beach scraping to get by and pay enormous student loans.

So I leave for this retreat hoping to reach these girls. Have them open up about what's going on in their lives so we can help them. Let them know that someone's listening. Someone loves them and cares. To be an unjudgemental ear to whatever they need to say. And while I knew I'd enjoy my time with them, I didn't expect them to affect me the way they did. They shared things that made me laugh. They showed strength and beauty and grace in ways that made me literally cry. They reminded me that although they are young, they have wisdom to share.

In referring to the story of Adam and Eve, one of my girls said, "I find it interesting that the Bible says Eve came out of Adam's rib. Because it means we're all connected. And I'll never be alone because I'll always be connected to someone."

Growing up in a Southern Baptist home, I've heard and read the story of Adam and Eve literally hundreds of times. I've heard it used to explain why we bury the dead: "Dust to dust." I've heard it used to describe the terms "man" and woman." I've, sadly, heard it used to justify the subservience of women to men. But I've never heard it used as a metaphor to describe how people are connected. And by a sleepy, eighth-grader.

After I'd finished "The Beauty of Grace," I put it aside for a few months before picking it up to edit it (for the fourth time). In reading through it again, I stumbled on mistakes, but I also stumbled on pieces to expound upon. Although I've read and re-read it a hundred times in the editing process, I still sometimes find something new to fix or work with. Just as when you read a novel a second time, you see things you missed the first time because of the immense layers. There's always something new to discover even when you think you've exhausted it.

And sometimes it isn't you who sees the nuance, but someone unexpected. Sometimes even a child. If we open our hearts and minds, our view of something we thought we'd examined exhaustively can be renewed. Deepened. Bettered.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sisterhood of the Traveling Book Club

Tonight, four of my favorite women and I had book club to discuss "Cutting for Stone." Calling it book club is a misnomer because only one person actually read the book. We've been having book club for several years and we typically only talk about the book for fifteen or twenty minutes before moving on to the happenings in our lives. As an author, I wish book club involved more discussion about the themes and underlying issues in our selections. I flinch at the thought that all of the heart and effort involved in writing a book and getting it published is reduced to a quick discussion that doesn't contemplate all that the author bleeds into her work. As an offender who hadn't read this month's selection, I had nothing to contribute anyway so I cannot complain. In the past, we've had discussions spin off that lasted hours. Two selections ago, we sat at the host's house and discussed the book, the time period it involved, and moved on to larger topics like health care, entitlement programs, and helping the less fortunate. The discussion was spirited and deep. Challenging and thought-provoking.

Tonight, as we sat, the discussion was calm and focused on learning about the recent updates in one another's lives. Without the debate and dissection of current events and issues. And this was so okay. Yes, I love these women for the layers they add to my life. The challenges they confront me with in forcing me to confront my own long-held beliefs. The ever-so-slight shifting of my perspective as I listen to and absorb theirs. But, like tonight, it is equally enjoyable to simply sit and be with them. To feel their love and support without needing it voiced. To know that in this circle of strong sister-friends, I can forgo pretense and be myself. Whether that be my dorky self. My sad self. My silly self. My sarcastic self. I can just be. And that is the type of acceptance and friendship we all long for. I am blessed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Golden Globes, Miss America, and What We Really Want Our Children to Aspire To

While preparing dinner tonight, the nightly entertainment news followed the national nightly news. We went from discussions of presidential candidates to what designer "the stars" were wearing. Hearing these entertainers referred to as "stars" over and over got me thinking. Why are celebrities the "stars" of our society? What is it about the lives of people who make movies and television shows so fascinating that they're stalked by paparazzi and people pay $4 a magazine to see what the latest "star" is wearing. Or a quick picture of them walking out of the gym. Or a coffee shop. Or strolling through the park. All the ordinary things that we ordinary people do everyday that no one documents. I know when I come out of Starbucks, there's no one waiting to take my picture in my baseball hat with my latte.

This was also the weekend of the Miss America pageant, in which we judge young women on their beauty and how great they look in a bathing suit. Is this really how far we've evolved? My brother-in-law joked that "inner beauty" doesn't pay the bills, but it does. These women might have a fleeting moment, but (with the exception of Vanessa Williams) do you remember a single Miss America? And we remember her because she was doused in controversy. The women who pay the bills get degrees in medicine and marketing and finance and law and education. Or they find jobs that challenge them or require them to work long and hard.

Yes, I sound like someone out-of-touch, with a grudge, and wearing Mom jeans, but it's so much more than that. I want more for my 11-year-old daughter than wanting to look like the women on the red carpet who contribute to society by parroting the words of others. And women who walk across a stage in a bikini needing desperately to be accepted. I want popular, celebrity role models who inspire creativity and activism and a sense of purpose beyond one's self. Although our "celebrity" is certainly lucrative and attention-receiving, those aren't the aspirations I want my daughter to seek.

And those aren't the aspirations I seek in my writing. It truly isn't self-aggrandizement or monetary gain. It truly is to reach people. Open their minds and hearts. Create discussion. To have a voice that is heard and that opens a channel for other voices to be heard.

No, there will never be the glamorization of a female Jeopardy champion and you'll never see an astrophysicist on the cover of People, but I hope that my husband and I are teaching our daughter that the fleeting moments of fame are not what you live for or aspire to. What we aspire to is a life that affects positive change. That challenges people. That helps people. Not that makes people wish to be you. But that makes people want to emulate what you do.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Pain demands to be felt"

One of the benefits of Twitter is that it exposes you to people you would never meet in person. I stumbled on a fellow author, Jessica Corra, who tweeted about a young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars. She simply endorsed it with an OMG. After reading the synopsis on Amazon, I downloaded it. On its face, it sounds morbid. Two teens battling cancer who meet at a support group and fall in love. It also sounds a bit cliche, with the whole young love in the face of death spin. But I've found myself laughing at the crass honesty of the protagonist, a teen girl who drags around an oxygen tank and an insight beyond her years. An insight born of the reality of facing death at the time in life when most feel invincible.

The protagonist, Hazel, refers to her favorite book and one of its quotes: "Pain demands to be felt." As I mentioned in my last post, one of the greatest compliments to a writer is when a reader puts a book down to digest something in her book. Mulling it over. Rolling it over your tongue. Understanding that it is profound before understanding why it's profound.

Pain demands to be felt. We try to ignore it. Some put ear buds in and run as fast as we can. Some immerse themselves in family and activities. Some soothe it with food. Some with drink. Some in the arms of others. Trying to forget the pain gnawing at them. Trying to push it into a deep place where it won't be felt. Trying to numb it. But like inflatables you can't sink in a pool, no matter how long you try to hold it down, pain will pop right back up. With a splash.

For as wonderful and incredible as my life is right now, there is enormous pain in my mother's disease. The aching hole in my heart because she isn't in my life--and my children's lives--is a buoy that keeps popping up. I try to ignore the pain. Focus on all that is wonderful in life. But her face and her absence is always looming in the back of my mind, and my heart. I have to allow myself to mourn the loss of having a mom who's actively involved in my life before I will be free of the nagging stone in my soul. "Pain demands to be felt." So we must feel it. We must confront it, embrace it, and deal with it. Because ignoring it only puts off the inevitable, and destroys us in the process.

So one line in a YA novel made me stop, reflect, and blog. I can only hope my words have such an effect.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Don't Know What You Got Til It's Gone

My Mama, a beautiful, 63-year-old woman, suffers from frontal-temporal dementia. She is bed-ridden, mute, and completely dependent. I love going to visit my Mama, but I go alone--as I did this week. It's difficult for my children to understand why Nana can't respond or look at them or recognize them. So I hop on a plane by myself and leave them at home. As the wife of a pilot, this reverses the roles significantly. It it usually Daddy who slips away for a few days for work. And, quite frankly, I don't know how he does it. From the moment I headed toward Baltimore to catch my first flight until I got home tonight, I felt incomplete. As if I'd lost an appendage.

Our children depend on us, and we provide. We give of ourselves and the experience of parenting is the hardest thing we'll ever do. But it is a labor of love. Each morning and night, as I hug my children and tell them I love them, their well-being is at the forefront of my mind. But being away from them, I realized that I needed them--and their father--as much as they needed me. Since becoming a part of this family, since helping create this family, I am no longer my own person. I can't go on a plane or away with my girlfriends and not feel as if a huge piece of me is missing.

Since I was a little girl, I've been independent. When I was seven, we moved to a log cabin in the woods and had no neighbors. It was me and the woods. Of course my brothers were there, but they were too busy with each other and their cars and sports to bother with their sister. So I built homes out of pine straw, pretended I was a cheerleader with an acre of invisible fans to cheer to, and fed the baby goats (yes, we had goats) and pretended they were my own. This was, quite frankly, the genesis of my creativity. The initial opening of my mind that allowed me to create worlds and craft realities. This independence served me well. And most likely explains how I was able to marry a pilot who can be gone for days and I'm okay. I sometimes tease him when he's home for too long that he needs to go somewhere. Even in law school, I lived alone. No roommates. I've always needed my own space to breathe. To reflect. To absorb.

Then I had children. Flying home to Alabama this weekend, I read "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." It's not an easy read because it's told through the (presumptive) perspective of an incredibly intelligent nine-year-old on the autism spectrum. It can ramble at times and be a bit hard to follow, but it is profound. There are nuggets throughout the book that made me stop and re-read and, more importantly, reflect. As a writer, I can think of no greater compliment than for a reader to stop and re-read a line and reflect on it. While reading "Extremely Loud," I came upon the line: "You can't love anything more than something you miss."

How true. I love my family with my entire being. I've sacrificed everything to be everything to them. And as I stole a few days away to go home to Alabama to check on my Mama, my heart ached for them. Of course each morning I love them. And each night when I tuck them in, I love them more. But being away from them. Missing them. Hurt. I understand that sometimes it is being away from someone you love that makes you realize just how much they mean to you. How much you miss them. How much you ache for them. And when you see them again, you hold on and don't let go.

Over the last couple of days, my mind flooded with ideas. Things to write about. Of course they happened while driving down the highway in the rain at 60 miles per hour or while sitting at the nursing home watching my Daddy feed my Mama, so I couldn't capture them all. Like butterflies, they flitter around and are gone. But they pulled at me and reminded me that while I love my family with all my heart, there is more to me. More to express and share with the world. And I've missed the devotion I had to my writing, and I love it more in light of its absence. So in this new year, I will allow myself to wait to fold the laundry if an idea is nagging. I will allow myself to write not as a luxury, but as a necessity.

Because we should never have to realize our love for something in light of its absence.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Cigarette Butts and Flashes of Light and Realization

Driving home this evening with my daughter, we passed a home in our neighborhood that is under renovation. In the darkness, the only light came from next to one of the trucks. A small, orange circle. The butt of a glowing cigarette. Under normal circumstances, the ember would go unnoticed. But because everything around it was dark, I could see it from meters away. This got me thinking about how not only our experiences affect our perception, but so does our surroundings. Regardless of where we've come from, been through, known, or done, we are sometimes slaves to our surroundings. When my family moved to Pennsylvania seven years ago from South Florida, it was a seismic shift in perspective. In a good way. Just as when I return home to Alabama to visit my parents, my perspective again shifts--even if only temporarily. In these changes, new things are brought to the forefront. Moving to Pennsylvania in October meant abandoning shorts for jeans, but also allowed us to embrace the changing of the leaves. Our children's first real snowfall. And the bite of winter that forces you to snuggle under a blanket in front of a fire with those you love.

The glowing cigarette butt also made me realize that sometimes light can only be seen in darkness. Some say that darkness is the absence of light, but sometimes it is light's stage. The medium through which the smallest amount can shine. One of my favorite Tenth Avenue North songs talks about healing your brokenness. They sing, "Come to where you're broken within, the light meets the dark." The shroud of darkness can sometimes illuminate a small light you would have otherwise not seen. The beauty of a child's smile is magnified when your heart is breaking. The warmth of your four-legged best friend on your lap underneath a blanket is most appreciated when it's cold. A glass of water is truly appreciated only when you're so thirsty you slurp down the entire thing--or you live in Kenya where the cleanest water source is miles away. A smile. A sleeping dog. A glass of water. Simple things that cause major shifts against the background of darkness.

In seeking publication and chasing this dream of mine for "The Beauty of Grace," I had a "cigarette butt" moment this weekend. A family friend had passed along the manuscript for "Grace" to a colleague who used to work in the publishing industry. Not only did she agree to read "Grace," she kept reading! She complimented my writing and the potential success of it. Months ago, when my number one goal was paper, I would have devoured this. "Can I contact her?" "Can I pick her brain for advice on approaching the industry?" And I just might still reach out to her. But this weekend, when my friend, Laura, was sharing these thoughts with me, I simply smiled and said, "She liked it? Wow." I completed "Grace" over a year ago and have begun to feel as though it's fallen into a black hole--never to be seen from again. Then I heard these simple words and my hope was re-ignited. Not for paper, but just that when I share "Grace" with people, it will mean enough to them to reach back.

Let's not wait for the darkness to appreciate the little glowing lights around us.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Redefining Goals Doesn't Equal Defeat

After an entire month of listening (almost) exclusively to Christmas music, I returned to pop radio. And didn't recognize half of the songs I heard. In just one month, the ones that played over and over on the radio in November seemed to have vanished. Even Lady Gaga had cycled and was now crooning about marrying the night (whatever that means). I'm sure in a few days, the repetition that is radio will have burned the lyrics into my mind. But for now, I just hum along. So this got me thinking about society's insatiable craving for newer and better. How "Born This Way" has been kicked off the playlist, "American Idol" is being trounced by "The X Factor," and "The Twilight Saga" is tired (look out Hunger Games!!). Flared jeans, skinny jeans. Converse, Toms. iPhone, iPhone 3, iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, iPad and iPad 2. Blockbuster fell prey to Netflix, which is now falling prey to Hulu. We want--expect--the newest, shiniest thing. When Apple launches a product, they have to put velvet ropes outside their stores.

As I've mentioned before, I've embraced the e-reader as a two-sided coin. I love books. The way they smell. The way they feel in your hand. That noise they make when you crack the spine for the first time. Being able to pass it along to a friend without caring if you ever see it again because you want them to experience the world you fell into when you read it. As a writer, I mourned the closing of Borders this year. Borders! Who's next? Barnes & Noble? Probably not. Barnes & Noble has its Nook, which it sells in its stores. You can also download books while in B&N, so even if you show up to drink the coffee and peruse the latest titles to decide which ones to download to your e-reader, you're in the store. Spending money. And will most likely buy something on impulse. The winding checkout line now resembles a grocery store. "Bargain" books for $5, magazines, cutesy gifts, cards, candy, and CD's (as if, but that's another post). Don't get me started on the toy store that exploded in front of the entrance to the children's book section. You can't even get your little one to the back to sit in Pooh's corner and thumb through a book without walking through a mini Toys-R-Us!

When I began the journey of trying to get "The Beauty of Grace" published, my vision was different. I pictured success only as being able to walk into a bookstore and see it on a shelf. A hardback with a beautiful jacket, then converted to the soft paperback sitting in turnstiles in the airport--begging to be read. Success meant paper. It meant an agent, a publisher, and an advance. Validation by the industry that my work warranted resources.

But my vision is changing. Because it really isn't about my ego or a need for professional validation. It's about the story that possessed me. That I had to write. "The Beauty of Grace" is a novel. The title character, Grace, has Huntington's Disease, which is neuro-degenerative disorder. Someone with Huntington's succumbs to severe tremors, physical debilitation, and dementia. All with an early onset. In the primes of their lives. I wrote the story not because I know someone with Huntington's (although I did exhaustive research on the disease). But because my mother has Frontal-temporal dementia. She's only 63 and she lives in a nursing home unable to care for herself at all. She doesn't speak, rarely opens her eyes, must be fed, clothed, diapered, and tucked into bed. She can't even hold a glass to her lips anymore. I wrote "The Beauty of Grace" cathartically. I needed to deal with my questions and issues surrounding quality of life.

So is seeing it in Barnes and Noble really the goal? Or is it that people read my work and think about these issues, too? Discuss them. Empathize with those going through them. Care about them. Is the point to stroke my own ego or is it to reach people? The answer seems obvious now. In 2012, I want to share "Grace" with you, even if only in an e-format. I may never hold a hard-copy in my hand or see my name on the New York Times' Bestseller's List, but if I touch one heart. If I get one email saying I effected change, then I'll find my pride and validation in that.