Tiny, Beautiful Things

Monumental events are making the news lately.  We just finished the 2016 US election, a super moon hangs low on the night sky, the Cubs won, and Brad and Angie are officially kaput.  At least one of these seems to have the country’s mood in its clutches, kind of like when dementors drift through the aisles of the Hogwarts Express.

It’s heavy.  In a lot of homes, maybe yours, there’s a real possibility that it could hijack next week’s Thanksgiving as you sit gingerly next to people who see things differently, or who cast a different ballot.  Like that 15 pound turkey Mamaw used to roast, it’s a lot to digest.

So I’ve been thinking small lately, and not just because of the news.  Some days there’s just not enough coffee and I CAN. NOT. EVEN.  Because I got home from the crowded grocery store and forgot a crucial item, a good friend just watched her mom go into assisted living, and my doll-sized mammogram cape kept flapping open all the way down the hall.

Overwhelmed is the word of the day.  I can’t fix poverty and racism, make people love each other, or even remember to pray for everyone on the list.  It becomes too easy to pull the covers up to my chin and surround myself with purring cats and Nutter Butters, or the rejects of the Halloween candy.  Clearly, not a healthy alternative. Also, people have had Christmas lights up since October and we are hurtling towards the holidays–which are a big reason the word overwhelming was invented in the first place.

As I stood outside this afternoon trying to recover from the flapping cape incident, I noticed the chickadees throwing a party on the spent coneflowers.  They were after the seeds. A neon arrow pointed down from the heavens, obnoxious enough that I recognized it in spite of myself.   Seeds.  Tiny, beautiful things.  Birds, with their teeny bird beaks, have to eat them one at a time.  They can’t mindlessly cram in handfuls like we do with potato chips or M&Ms.

Everything seemed to contract, reduced from the noise and angst of all the big Too Much of the world to a spiky black seed no bigger than a splinter.  One tiny, beautiful thing.

These things will save all of us.  One tiny irridescent raindrop at a time makes a downpour.  Tiny seconds stretch into hours, days.  Tiny grains of sand pile into miles of beach.  One act.  One prayer.  One smile.  One dollar.  One seed at a time.

One of the smallest of all seeds is the mustard seed.  You can hardly hold it in your hand without it falling through your fingers, but hallelujah that’s all that’s needed.  Some days that’s all that’s left.  A measure of faith that small can move mountains.  We aren’t required to live every day in grand, sweeping gestures that remake the whole world.  We aren’t asked to fix it all, do it all, be it all, know it all, or believe it all.

For now, we can all have one ounce of courage, show one person love, be grateful for one thing.  Baby steps. Tiny, beautiful things.




Writing & Other Acts of Bravery

“I am a writer.”  I said that out loud to a stranger earlier this year and immediately glanced around to see if the store’s security was hurrying forward.  I must have been blushing because I felt my face get hot and my stomach somersaulting–kind of like being twitter-pated in the springtime.  (It’s a Bambi reference.  Go back and review your Disney films.)

I felt like any second my subterfuge would be discovered.  It wasn’t like I’d claimed to be a 300 lb black woman, a fraud people could instantly detect.   Anybody can raise a hand to be counted as a writer and no one would ever know the truth.  I was buying a ceramic octopus, intended to sit on my desk as inspiration for a YA story I was working on.  The lady in line behind me asked what it was for, and before I could shrug it off as a silly knick-knack, the words just slipped out and there it was:  now the universe knew.

I hadn’t really written since college, when I had deadlines to churn out short stories, screenplays, and for a while some truly awful poetry.  Before that, since I can remember, I dreamed up tales for fun and was always in favor of essay tests instead of multiple choice in school.  When the real world of work, family, and responsibilities closed in, I pushed writing to the back of the closet, pulling it out now and then to write silly Christmas poems for friends or edit other people’s writing.

All this was fine, I told myself, because you’re not a writer.  Instead, I read constantly.  Digesting a steady diet of words, craft, and imagery, whether I knew it or not, kept me tethered to possibility.  Daily, the crowd of impish meanies in my head scoffed rudely and produced lists of reasons why I could not and should not try this at home.   It doesn’t count if once upon a time your mama said you were good.  If you dare crack open that door, you will be like the pathetic American Idol contestant who can’t carry a tune in a bucket but who imagines they are Barbra Streisand.  A clown.  A hack.  A public joke.  So fear got to be the boss of me and I reasoned that the world had plenty of amazing writers already.  Exhibit A:  my overflowing bookshelves.

Plus, I was too busy.  A small business and growing family left no time for indulgences. I had “nothing to say.”  Then my oldest left for college.  I’m sure there’s an entire psychological avalanche of reasons why, but suddenly the excuses petered out.   Now a couple of decades older, I had had experiences that perhaps did give me something to say. I no longer cared about the impish meanies.  Why had I listened to their chorus in the first place?

So I started pecking out blog pieces, personal essays mostly, bits about my crazy family. There was no snickering, rotten tomatoes, or death threats.   Turns out when you hit “publish” and your message in a bottle drifts on the universe’s currents, no one much sees it.  Then I wrote a chapter based on an idea I had and made my teenage son listen to it.  Every few days, I’d do another installment, our evening miniseries.   Two more ideas later, I have another YA novel (the octopus) and a supernatural thriller in the works.

Each small step has led further down the path to connections, exposure and bravery.  Lots and lots of bravery.  It dawned on my that I preached to my kids about taking risks and pursuing their interests while I sat like a mouse huddled in a corner with what really mattered.  My oldest went sky diving this year.  Sitting at a keyboard and turning yourself inside-out across a page can be kind of like that.  Every fiber screams that this is a really dumb idea and you should just back out, but then you hit publish and you’re airborne, sucking wind and trying not to die.

But the parachute!  Once that sucker opens and you’re not hurtling towards earth, it’s kind of cool up there.  The view is fantastic.  Your fellow jumpers are all giving you the thumbs up with goofy grins plastered across their faces.  Floating like that releases a feeling of freedom and rush of endorphin because you know you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

The community I’ve discovered on Twitter and Medium, the blog followers and Facebook commenters are the lift that enables flight.  Julie Valerie’s monthly blog hop has been both a motivator and an inspiration.  So many resources are available today that weren’t when I was literally typing out drafts on a manual typewriter all those years ago.   In this next year, I plan to participate for the first time in NaNoWriMo to force me to complete one of the half-drafts filed on my desk.   I will continue to submit beyond the blog to other outlets and contests.  Next fall, because I plan to guard my work time more jealously, I will enter PitchWars.  Because, curse you, impish meanies:  Why Not?!

And because, like I told the octopus lady in the store, I’m a writer.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-oct-2016

Something Fishy

This summer, photographer Tim Samuel was freediving off the coast of Australia when he happened by a curious sight:  a fish stuck inside a jellyfish.  Who knows how the poor guy got into this predicament–a lost bet?, a quick dart for cover?– but there he was, encased in the transparent innards of another being, struggling to set his course.

Much like the Pushmi-Pullyu of Dr. Doolittle lore, the fish tried valiantly to steer in one direction, but the jellyfish had other

Doolittle's pushmi-pullyu
Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu

ideas; that is, as much of an idea as a non-sentient creature can have.  So the two ended up in a frustrating dance, the fish leading in one direction for a few hopeful moments, then twirling in circles led by the motions of the jellyfish.

Utterly stuck.

I stared at the pictures of that little fish for a long time, alternating between fascination and pity.  This was no symbiotic clown fish-anemone bargain.

It was a Big Oops.

How long had they been existing like this?  Had he surrendered to his plight as the new normal or did he hold out hope of escape?   Do fish hope?

Sometimes we cruise along merrily, caught up in the current’s rush and not paying much attention, and something takes over, recharting our course.  Maybe it’s a surprise pregnancy, a sudden loss, or a change in job status.

Image: Tim Samuel
Image: Tim Samuel

Oh, hello, Jellyfish!  Didn’t see that coming.  We have to readjust, struggling to steer with limited visibility through the gauzy haze that’s fallen.  Eventually, we part ways with the jelly because it was a temporary retreat.  Like Jonah’s whale,  it spits us out once we’ve sat long enough to learn the lessons within.

Then there’s the more worrisome situation.  The light shines down through the waters one day just enough to light up our prison.  We wake up out of our fog and see the walls of our own making.  All this time we thought this was living.  Realization settles in and a lump grows in our throats:  Regret.

Imagine how the heart sinks.  We never took that class, got the degree, popped the cork on a bottle of chilled champagne.  One day we look around and our passports remain unstamped, our taste buds untitillated.  As we drifted aimlessly inside the jellyfish, the current made the easy choices for us, leaving the hard, messy, rewarding roads open for those who swam unswaddled by limits.  There, the lowest common denominator makes the rules, and too much of anything (joy, faith, love, discovery) is frowned upon.

Sometimes we’re lucky enough to get shaken awake and make a run for it.  Unlike the unfortunate fish, we can escape from the trodden miles of waste that lie behind (wasted time, chances, calories) towards a different path.  Outside the jellyfish there’s an abundant waste, one that comes from an overflow.  Outside the jelly, we are in all the pictures because makeup and good hair doesn’t matter.   There, we ride the rides, eat the chocolate, and take scary steps of faith because the alternative is a lack of oxygen and color that shrinks us.

Outside the jellyfish an alabaster jar pours a wealth of grace at our feet.  It’s okay–encouraged–to pray big, sing loudly, jump into a pile of leaves like when you were young, and be so touched by beauty or kindness that it brings tears.  It’s no big deal to learn to tango, start that novel, or dress up like a T-Rex because it taps into your happy.  You don’t have to go 3.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu, but at least you have the option.

We weren’t born to just pay bills and die.  Somewhere between wanting to be a fireman when we grew up and sitting on the porch in our 80’s with a blanket across our knees there’s big wet sloppy kisses and zip lines and ice skating.  There are broken hearts, outrageous risks, and the cold side of the pillow.  There’s stuff in us waiting to be turned inside out and shown to the world because that’s what living out loud and living on purpose look like.

Stretch out your arms big and wide.  Draw a breath from the well that lies low in the depths.  Relax your shoulders and neck from where you’ve been balancing all the shoulds and oughts and expecteds and think about that fish.  All that open ocean and he’s stuck tight turning in circles.  Regret like that is heartbreaking.  Let’s put on some Jailhouse Rock and blow this joint.




Getting Carded

I have a relic in the corner of my dining room, a dinosaur that I often have to explain to younger visitors.  They mistake it for a toolbox or curious storage cabinet.  “This,” I say, running my hand across the rectangular drawers, “is a card catalog. It’s how we used to keep track of books in the library.  Kind of a prehistoric  internet.”

I get it, when the young ones digest this information with puzzled expressions.  Now that information is a click away on a glowing screen, when Wikipedia does all the heavy lifting, a bank of file drawers with titles, authors, and subjects typed by hand on index cards seems archaic, like an abacus, or 8-track, or jello mold.

As soon as I was old enough to pedal my bike without training wheels, I headed for our local public library.  My mother helped me get a library card, an official laminated square with my very own name on it that magically gave me free access to shelf upon shelf of books.  When the librarian asked to see my card at the check-out counter, I slid it across to her like it was an American Express on Rodeo Drive.   That card was my sole reason for owning a wallet.

It was my impossible goal one summer to read every book in the children’s section.  I got mostly through the A’s before realizing there was juicier fodder in the card catalog.   I loved the crinkly plastic jacket covers.  I loved the pocket stuck to the back cover that held a card stamped with dates tracing the number of times this book or that one had been selected, borrowed, and returned again.

Then, privacy wasn’t such an issue, and the card bore the names of past readers, their signatures a witness to their interest in a given topic on a given day.  The names on those cards used to fill me with stories of the imagined lives of the borrcard-libowers.  Why did Alice Dodd renew Sounder three times?  Was her life so hectic she couldn’t finish it or did she just like a good cry?  What kind of a person was Mark Amos that drew him to read Sylvia Plath?  I always felt sorry for the books with blank or sparse check-out histories.  If I found one, I’d renew it just to give it an extra stamp.

High school research papers forced me to the library for business, not pleasure.  I gained blue-booknew respect for librarians:  the Fairy Godmothers of Knowledge.  No topic was too vague or obscure for them.   A few flips through the card catalog and they could unearth the holy grail itself.   I honed my hand-eye coordination by operating the microfiche machine in a dim-lit room, scrolling through old newspapers to find material.  Librarians will run heaven’s registrar office.  You will be able to cross the pearly gates after a nasty bump on the head with no idea who you are.  They will peer down at you, size up that scar on your left knee and the slightly upturned nose, flip through a dusty tome or two and recite your ancestry, character flaws and deeds of note leaving plenty of time for lunch.

Libraries exert no pressure.  Unlike bookstores, where I feel as if I must carry around a book or two to give the appearance of being a potential purchaser, libraries are for loafing.  Borrow it, or don’t.  Read the whole thing in the chair by the window and they won’t cast disapproving looks at you because they’ve lost a sale.  If they don’t have it, someone else in the world wide library family probably does, and they’ll send it over!  Even their overdue fees are ridiculous!  Ten cents a day?  No other civic institution operates on these sort of fumes.  Libraries are the best game in town.  They don’t play favorites.  Anyone can come to story time, have access to reading, and take home a stack of books to explore.  They give out library cards like Halloween candy.

Some of the most beautiful places in the world are libraries.   We stopped in Dublin’s Trinity College Library this past summer for a glimpse at the famous Book of Kells.  This was one of the most beautiful books in the world housed in one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.  When we left after our tour, my husband and I were both pretty much like this:

Image result for so cute crying meme

Seriously, floor to ceiling leather-bound volumes with gilt edges.  An arched wooden ceiling with a spiral iron staircase leading to the topmost stacks. trinity-library Golden letters on the shelves to alphabetize by author.  Unfortunately, they weren’t keen on a couple of American tourists becoming “Readers in Residence,” despite our offer.

Because libraries often rely on donations and limited acquisition budgets, they tend to keep books around a long time. The more ancient and historical libraries are literal repositories for the history of the world.  As Virginia Woolf said, “I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.”  Indeed.

Plus, when you reach a “certain age,” they’re one of the only places where you’re still going to get carded.  Free books and an ego-boost:  who can’t use more of those?

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-sept-2016

Too Quiet

The rules of physics shift when we become parents.  Somehow the airwaves change and we are suddenly tuned in to sound in a new way.  Noise is now a thing we both fear and crave.

A  baby can scream non-stop for two hours from colic or exhaustion or teething, fraying every nerve in your body until you make unholy bargains with the devil for some quiet.  When he finally falls asleep and that blessed quiet falls upon the house, the crazy sets in.  Now your radar is super-tuned to the static of the baby monitor.  He doesn’t usually sleep this soundly.  It’s awfully quiet in there.  You quiz your spouse:  do you think it’s too quiet? You ninja-creep into his room and hold a finger under his nose:  is he breathing?

With age, the noise increases, especially if siblings are in the mix.  I can scream louder than you.  No, I can!  Then eardrums are no longer a thing, and it’s worse than having spent three hours at an Iron Maiden concert.  It’s an endless barrage of questions, singing, yelling, and fighting. On the way home from an afternoon of errands, I used to tell my kids “Mommy’s ears are tired!  Let’s let them rest for 5 minutes!”  Who do you think invented the Quiet as a Mouse game?  A mom.

But you don’t want them to be quiet either.  You know the kind of quiet I mean.  A friend of mine foolishly relished a few extra minutes of sleeping in one morning.   Her rambunctious toddler twins were unusually quiet.  She got up to find they’d emptied five pounds of flour all over the kitchen and living room and were gleefully driving their trucks through the paths of “snow” they’d made.

Quiet does not bode well.  Quiet means smearing the contents of their diaper all over the crib and walls.  Quiet is eating the cat food, cutting their own hair with great concentration, dropping your earrings in the toilet one by one.  If siblings are involved, quiet gets more interesting:


My older sisters quietly devised a fun game one afternoon while my mother made dinner.  The oldest had to capture the younger two in a cowboys-and-Indians charade.  She found the first sister, tied her hands and feet and added a gag and blindfold for good measure. She ordered her to stay put while she went off to find her other quarry.  As the bossy first-born, she expected her instructions to be followed and didn’t think it important to tell the prisoner that she’d been stationed at the top of the stairs.  Like any self-respecting prisoner, the first sister attempted escape:  hop, hop, CRASH, TUMBLE, CRASH!  She landed at the bottom of the stairs with her knee through the drywall, the other two sisters staring wide-eyed from the top of the stairs, and my mother incredulously trying to make sense of the scene as she rushed around the corner.  On the upside, they learned from my father how to patch drywall.

As tweens and teens, the quiet is harder to navigate. The noises are loud music, friends hanging out and raiding your fridge, slammed doors, and huffy sighs.  Does an eye roll have a sound?  Yes. It speaks volumes.  That Spidey sense when it’s too quiet still works, but the signals can be hampered by hormones.  They are the ones who now both fear and crave quiet.  Mom, why do you have to ask so many questions?   Seriously? I am transported back to their loud public toddler queries:  why is that lady so fat?  why do we have to poop?  do babies come out of your bottom, mom?   In comparison, my questions seem civilized and tame.  They want you to be interested but not too interested, near but not too near, available but not intrusive.  The quiet you worry about now is the silent scrolling through the phone or clicking sites on the computer.   What are they up to?  You’re still holding a finger under their noses, checking for signs of life:  are they depressed?  lonely?  sad?  worried?

Sitting on the porch this morning with my coffee, it was blissfully quiet. The good kind, not the hair-prickling uneasy kind.  It’s nice to have an occasional coherent thought and time to just be.  I get times like these more often now that the kids are mostly grown, but now I look forward to the noise.  There’s peace to be had in noise, too.  Noise means life and love live here.  Noise is wrestling, jumping in the pool, and slamming car doors when your kids come home for the weekend.   “Guys!” I yell, when the couch almost tips over.  “Quiet!”   A little voice inside pipes up with a smile:  But not too quiet.

Just a Minute

I had a solid grasp of time before I became a parent.  I knew how to keep appointments, schedule my day, and meet deadlines.  Time was my minion.  It was just lying in wait to stage a coup, it turns out.

Once the babies arrived, it was all about the clock.  Meal time, bath time, play time, blessed, blessed nap time.  I had to schedule the day around those things or we’d all pay the piper.  My first born thrived on routine.  She needed to know what was coming next, and counted time in “how many sleeps” before the next activity.  The youngest was more of a play-it-by-ear sort.  Sleep was to be avoided at all costs lest he miss the party.

Juggling these polar opposites was part of the universe’s scheme to undo me.  Toddlers don’t live inside time.  This is why you never, never tell a small child about an event more than 5 minutes before it happens.  Their emotions are volcanic.  Anticipation cannot be contained.  When are we seeing Santa?  Is it time for Santa?  Can it be time for Santa now?  Mommy, Santa, Mommy!!!!  If you mention Christmas in casual conversation sometime in October, you will hear about it 157,000 times a day for the next three months.

Minutes mean nothing.  Minutes are sands in the hourglass.  An hourglass snagged by small, sticky fingers that gets tipped, shaken, and hurled into the wall.  You hold up a finger to indicate these minutes while you’re on the phone:  Just a minute, honey.  While you’re checking out at the grocery store:  Hold on a minute, sweetheart.   While you’re in the bathroom:  For the love of all that’s holy, IN A MINUTE!

Once, I was in a long line at the post office waiting to mail six heavy boxes of Christmas presents I’d stacked on the counter. As the line inched forward, I slid the boxes and my squirming toddler along together.  She had to go potty, of course, because she absolutely did not have to go before we left home.  “Can you wait a minute, punkin?”  She sweetly nodded twice, and then let go, all over the counter and down the sides onto the floor.   Turns out “wait a minute” in toddler-speak means “now.”

Parenting is full of now moments. Our bodies get in on the game at ground zero and we have nine months of having to eat now, sleep now, go into labor now.   Parenting puts us at melting-clockthe mercy of the universe’s clock, which looks more like the ones in a Salvador Dali painting.  Babies demand soothing now.  Small children want everything right now.  From the time they can talk, we hear “Watch me!  Are you watching?  Look what I can do now!”  It’s exhausting.  Some days you spend wishing for time to speed up.  Bedtime can’t come fast enough.  If only they could walk, talk, be out of diapers, be more independent!  Some days, the ones you just survive, last forever.   Some days, the ones full of rocking and smiles saved just for you, you wish you could freeze frame.

Parenting is full of delayed moments.  Eventually, as they grasp the concept of time, instead of making life easier and more organizable, somehow it backfires into you having to wait.  The minutes you desperately wanted them to grant you, they give you in spades.  Except with the words “five more” tacked on as a prefix.  Time for bed!  Five more minutes??  Time for dinner!  Five more minutes! I’m almost to the next level/waiting for this show to end/on the phone/doing my hair/catching a Pokemon.  Some days you spend wishing they’d catch up.  Hurry up is an impossible dream.  How long can it take a human being to finish a bowl of cereal?  Find their shoes?  Walk out to the car?  For crying out loud, we are going to be late to school/practice/church/life again!   Some days, the days you spend in a mad scramble of calendars and agendas, disappear in a dizzy haze of push and pull.  You’re Alice’s white rabbit.

Parenting is full of later moments.  Teens want everything later.  When are you going to take out the trash?  Later.  Have any homework?  I’ll do it later.  When will you be home?  Later.  How about scheduling a college visit?  Can we do that later?  Gotta run, mom, I’ll text you later.  Their time becomes more their own and their friends’ and less of it is reserved for you.  The now’s have turned into “whenever’s.”  It’s rare that they yell for you to “watch me!”  More likely, they prefer privacy and hands-off.  Still, you watch the clock with sleepless worry when they’re out late behind the wheel.  You bite your tongue and try to wait to be invited to talk about the heartbreak or disappointment they’ve faced. With fewer demands on your time, there’s somehow the backward sense of time speeding by, those hourglass grains slipping through your fingers even as you try to gather them.  Time warps:  the days are long, but the years are short.

I’m fast approaching the empty nest, when I’ll return to being able to schedule my days and minutes sans interruption.  Funny thing is, I stopped wearing a watch about a year ago.  My oldest turns 20 this week–an age I can’t fathom.  All the now’s, hurry up’s and later’s seem like both yesterday and ages ago.  Suddenly, I want to pause:  just a minute!  Five more minutes?  But time, in its own cadence, marches on.

The Care & Feeding of Book Groups

A staggering statistic has been battered about lately.  Something like 28% of American adults did not read a single book last year.  Not in print, not on Kindle, not even plugged into an audio book on a long commute.

Who are these people?  I do not know them.  Books accompany me at all times, just in case I have extra minutes in the pick up line at school, in a doctor’s office, or at a kid’s sports practice.  Whispered confession:  occasionally, if it’s a real page turner, even at long red lights.  They tuck me in at night and share my breakfast when I wake up.  Going a whole year without turning a page would be like giving up chocolate:  no bueno.

My bookshelf houses mostly fiction.  Turns out, that’s mostly what women read, while most men who read (a much rarer species) head for the non-fiction. Supposedly this is because fiction has characters, and women specialize in empathy, making it easier for us to get caught up in the story.  Also, we are (again a generalization) a more patient gender, and from an earlier age have learned to sit still to actually make it to the end of a novel.

Women congregate.  We huddle up.  We have play dates, lunch dates, ladies’ night out, and entire girls’ weekends.  Women who read, it stands to reason, gather over books.  Book clubs are a lot like friendships.  Some weather all phases of life and meet steady as clockwork for decades.  Some wax and wane with the members’ seasons of life, knitting new ties and loosening old ones.

I’ve been in several book clubs since my 20’s, each with its own flavor.  With book clubs, as in life, diversity of membership is best for interesting discussion.  Over the years, members have included different nationalities, races, ages, religions, and marital status.  Best book we discussed:  Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy.

Book clubs are dynamic entities that require care and feeding to survive.  While book clubs are as varied as the books they celebrate, some basic principles apply to each.

First, (duh) book clubs work best if the members read the book.  If you hate it, choke it down so at least you can say why you hated it.  If you read it weeks ago and can’t remember any of it, jot down some notes or highlight your copy so you can point out thought-provoking or well-written passages.  Reading books does take time and some self-discipline.  Knowing I have to share some halfway intelligent opinions by a certain date spurs me to turn off the TV and quit scrolling through Twitter so I can finish and contribute.

Whether you rotate who chooses the book or your group is led by a scepter-wielding dictator, people’s preferences differ so don’t shoot the messenger.  The person who picked the book probably didn’t write it, so if it was the worst drivel you’ve ever slogged through, blame the author, not the chooser.  Intimidation and insults don’t stimulate meaningful conversation, generally.  If this happens a lot for you, maybe you’re in the wrong group.

Also, kind of the whole reason book clubs exist is so you can branch out, grow, learn from others’ experiences and perspectives, yadda yadda yadda.  So probably you shouldn’t dig in your heels and refuse to be flexible.  Unless it’s one of the group’s stated tenants that it “doesn’t read horror,” for example, it’s kind of like eating at someone else’s house.  You don’t make faces, declare it “Yucky!” and refuse to try a bite.  Surely something in the book will interest you.  Come on, just try it!  You can read your personal preference outside the group.

Some book groups are highly disciplined, following the reader’s guides in the back of the book and staying on task.  Some have good intentions but manage to keep falling down tangential rabbit holes.  If your goal is actually to discuss the book and not just to finish the bottle of wine, it helps for the person who chose the book to have some questions to rein in the gossip and chatter. Depending on the personalities in the group, this can be a herculean task and frustrating for those who came for a book club.  This is when Dory’s voice plays in my head:  “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, that’s what we do, we swim….”

Mix it up.  Many popular titles are released as movies or TV series. (Think Outlander or Girl on a Train.)  Double dip and have a girls’ night out field trip to compare the book with the movie.  (Spoiler alert:  the book is always better.)

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-aug-2016

Out of Reach: The Risk of Parenting

My oldest went sky diving a few weeks ago.  She took off with a group of friends and jumped out of a perfectly good plane while, 2 hours away, her dad and I checked our phones nervously for news of a safe landing.

This is par for the parenting game. About three seconds after I became a parent, every cell in my being zeroed in on the safety of that little bundle.  And about three seconds after that, my kids seemed to delight in finding new ways to hurt themselves.

I did all the right stuff–electrical outlet covers, car seats, a lock on the chemicals under the sink, talks about strangers, the internet, drugs and alcohol, driving skills, and safe sex. Still, they found ways to get broken arms, ding the car, and make asinine choices.  From their first steps (right into the edge of the coffee table) to the scraped elbows from the epic wreck on the bicycle, 90% of parenting felt like I was chasing them around with bubble wrap, which they’d fling off and set fire to.

I put my 3-month-old down for a nap once, grabbed the baby monitor and went to our unfinished upstairs to paint some window frames.  My husband came home for lunch that day, poked his head up to say hello, then left a short time later.  When I heard the baby stirring on the monitor, I headed down to get her and discovered he’d locked the door, which was always our habit.  I was trapped, the baby out of reach with no one around, no phone.

Panic!  I calculated how many bones would break if I jumped out the second story window. Tried throwing myself into the door to break it down.  (It doesn’t work like it does in the movies.)  Everyone else in the cul de sac was at work, except…  A solitary teen aged boy was playing basketball several doors down.  I screamed at him, hanging out the window and waving my arms like an insane person until he came over, let himself into my house, and freed me from my prison.  (Clearly, his parents had not taught him about Stranger Danger.)

This same child locked herself in her room as a toddler, and I sat on the other side of the door, our fingers touching underneath, frantically fumbling with the skeleton key.  There is nothing so agonizing to a parent as being helpless to reach a child who needs you.

Ask any parent of a chronically ill child, watching as they’re wheeled to yet another procedure.  Or the parents denied access to their adopted child month after month while foreign governments sift through red tape.  Divorced parents who share custody with an irresponsible or abusive ex.  Parents of deployed soldiers.  It’s all part of the package, except, eager to reproduce, none of us ever reads the fine print.

A friend who recently dropped off her kid at college lamented to me that she couldn’t stop worrying about something happening and not being able to get to her daughter.  I get it. My own is scheduled to study abroad next semester and I’ll admit to feeling similar twinges, especially after Paris, Brussels, and Nice hit the news cycle.  But that’s fear talking.  And fear is not the Boss of me.  “Love is what we’re born with,” says Marianne Williamson.  “Fear is what we learn here.”

Parenting is nothing if not risk.  From the time they’re born, we perform a kind of catch and release with our hearts.  It’s a tight-wire balancing act:  keep them close, send them out; swoop in to rescue, let them learn to fall.   The end goal is, after all, to work ourselves out of a job.

Full disclosure:  I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when we rode our bikes miles from home (sans helmets) and drank straight from the garden hose  The surgeon general was barely even a thing.  I’m in favor of running barefoot, grabbing mane on a galloping horse, climbing trees, and “Swing higher, Daddy!”

Yes, there are moments of panic and anguish as a parent, times when you can’t protect your child or prevent every misstep.  Did we really believe it would all be giggles and lollipops?  We can’t fetishize safety because of a world that feeds off fear like it’s sugar.   When did failure became the new F-word?  Failure is the only way forward.

The flip-side of risk is where the good stuff hides out.  The flip side of risk is connection, creativity, a life with flourish.  Sometime, we have to let go of the back of the bike and quit running along behind.  I’m too old for that noise, for one thing.  And parenting was never supposed to be about my fear–it’s about their launch.



It’s the kiss of death:  the eye roll accompanied by a muttered “she’s so annoying.”   If you’re around teenagers at all, you probably hear it often.  Everything, it seems, is annoying.  Their hair, teachers, friends, homework, schedule, chores, siblings.  It’s an endless list, and if you happen to parent one of these pleasant creatures, I don’t have to tell you that you often make the list’s Top 10 as well.   Your rules, your music, the way you ask questions, whatever you choose to wear out in public.

Maybe it’s most obvious with that age group because they haven’t yet mastered self-restraint.  While the millenials (a.k.a. Generation Me) may seem to captain the helm of narcissism and snark, this constant state of annoyance doesn’t rest solely with them.  A brief scroll through social media reveals a smorgasbord of political, societal, and personal pet peeves. Everyone is annoyed by something!   Which may explain last fall’s hype generated by the possibility of an eye-roll emoji.  Because we needed more ways to convey sarcasm and superiority.

This trendy dismissive attitude even shows up in the way people (especially females) speak.  One of my favorite examples is this clip from Faith Salie on the vocal fry used by young women.  As she points out, each generation will always develop a way of speaking that is unique to them. It’s a way to set themselves apart from the other, presumably more annoying, generations.  This current trend of vocal fry communicates a kind of apathy or cynicism that is apparently a means to appear chic.  Ironically, it also sounds totally–well–annoying.  Much like the toss-off “What. Everrrrr.”

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is about the “that’s so annoying” refrain that bothers me so much.  Sure, some things by definition ARE annoying:  mosquitoes, pop-up ads, and that 2011 “Friday” song by Rebecca Black.  But what is it that makes everything so annoying?  At its heart, annoyance is a symptom of preoccupation with self.  If it doesn’t suit me, my tastes, my needs, my desires, then it is beneath me and not worthy of my concern.  When it comes to a persistent house fly, yes.  When applied to another person, no.

Ask any middle schooler.  There’s no faster way to be ostracized than for someone to declare you “annoying.”  It seems more benign than “fat,” “ugly,” or “stupid,” but the label, usually delivered with a hair toss and eye roll, sets you in the category of the unseen, not even worth my notice.  As a tween girl, it doesn’t get  much worse than that.

Annoying is selfish.  Rooted in pride, it conveys superiority, and unchecked, it slides easily into contempt.  Contempt is a nasty beast.  In a court of law it can land you a hefty fine or jail time because judges, at least, recognize it for what it is:  disrespect.  Contempt is the last stop on the train to dehumanizing someone and making it okay to wound them.

Pride and contempt, says CS Lewis, have been “the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”  Recent research has found that the eye roll may be the number one predictor of divorce.  Not that shocking given all it conveys to the person you’ve vowed to honor and cherish.

Annoying is a cowardly habit.  It requires less of us.  Annoying requires less compassion, less bravery, less personal change.  It’s much easier to be dismissively cynical than to engage another person, to know them and give them grace.  It requires nothing of me to dismiss with irritation any given political candidate and all his/her fans.  It’s nothing to me to drive by the homeless guy and grouse about his laziness.

How many consistently annoyed people do you know who are happy?  Are they fun to be around?  Do you enjoy their complaining?  The vicious cycle of everything and everyone being annoying is that eventually your annoyance becomes the very thing you despise–it makes you tiresome.   And then it’s just like your Mama used to warn you:  you keep making that face and it’ll freeze that way.


surprise emoji

College Move-In Day

We are two years in to having a kid at college.  This weekend marks our 4th move into or out of a dorm.  Sometimes we get lucky and have an elevator.  Occasionally we’ve had to lug carpet, mini fridge, and endless bags of clothes up and down stairs.  In August.  In the  sweltering humidity of the south.

I’ve watched the social media postings of friends over the past week as many of them experienced this transition for the first time.  It’s emotional.  It’s a big step for you, for them.  It  changes things for the siblings left behind, even if they score the vacated bedroom.

If you’re one of these first-time parents of a college kid, you’ve probably simultaneously relished the last weeks of summer with your darling at home still under your roof and occasionally gritted your teeth and checked the calendar as if to hurry along the exodus.  A pre-adult stretching his or her wings and chaffing at the bit to be free can be both wondrous and maddening.

When you moved in, you met the roommate and other parents.  You negotiated room arrangements and shifted furniture this way, that way until it was livable.  Then, you realized you had to lift everything AGAIN to put the carpet down.  Advil was your drug of choice at this point.  If you were really industrious, maybe you assembled a shelf unit or helped hang curtains, stocked the mini fridge with healthy snacks, delaying the inevitable goodbyes and hurried advice to “make good choices!”

Fast forward 9 months to the end of freshman year.  It’s hard to fathom now, here in the heat of August, but it will come sooner than you think.   Weren’t we just moving him in here?   The sheets, no longer fresh and creased, might never have been washed at all.  They, along with the comforter, pillows, and other bedding, will be stuffed unceremoniously into a garbage bag along with a sock or two that you’ll discover jammed between the bed and wall.   Don’t even open the mini fridge.  You don’t want to know.

The things that were so carefully packed in Rubbermaid containers back in August will be wadded up and crammed so the drawers hardly close.  And the carpet?  God help you if the dorm housed girls.  I don’t remember this being a shag carpet.  It’s not.  That’s the new three-inch layer of hair coating each fiber.  Try not to touch it as you roll it up and slide it into the elevator.  All of this is coming back home with you for the summer to be stored somehow in their room (over their sibling’s dead body!) or garage, or if you’re lucky enough to be out of state, maybe in a rented storage unit where you don’t have to see it.

Now, two years in, the towels and sheets have been replaced.   Sheets don’t stand up well to a bed that’s used as a place to sleep, study, hang-out, eat, and cry over finals.  We will not speak of the original first-year carpet.  The one we’ll be moving in this weekend is a hand-me-down.

As a pseudo-veteran of this process, I offer a few suggestions for key items you might put into your student’s boxes–if you can fit anything else into the back of the van.

  1.  Medication.  Odds are, with the new environment (which we’ve already established is not always as “sterile” as it could be), the stress (good stress) of being in a new place, and close quarters with lots of other germy people, at some point your student will come down with something.  If you are not there with chicken soup, it’s helpful to have a small pharmacy of cold medicine, etc. to choose from.  Give them their own insurance card in case they need to visit the campus clinic or other doctor.
  2. Chlorox wipes.  (see #1)
  3. Quarters, for laundry, not drinking games.  In theory, this prevents them schlepping it all home en mass, where 47 loads must be done in the space of one weekend.  In theory.  They still will schlep.
  4. Pizza cutter.  Plus a few other basic kitchen tools like a couple of bowls and silverware for quick cereal before that first class when there’s no time for the cafeteria.
  5. Tool kit.  A small starter tool kit with some extras inside like Command hooks, various tape, glue, tape measure, small hammer and screwdrivers.  They’ll be the most popular kid on the hall.
  6. Essential replacements.  Light bulbs, batteries.  Extra printer ink and paper.  These are lifesavers during late-night studying or paper writing when they’re up against a deadline.
  7. Starbucks card.  (see #6)  Just because you’re nice, and you will miss them, a little.
  8. Electric blanket.  My father gave my daughter a spare one of these and she has said repeatedly it’s her favorite item she took to college.  Dorm room temperatures aren’t always controllable, and it’s nice for a cozy afternoon nap.
  9. Useful decor.  If you have a daughter, consider assembling a place to hang/keep jewelry where it won’t get tangled.  We made one (see pic below) out of an old frame and painted pegboard with bookshelf rests.  Super cute!
  10. Car Stuff.  If they have a car, make sure they have all the insurance and registration info, and consider signing up for AAA.  Peace of mind for minor breakdowns or if they get locked out.

necklace board

About a third of the stuff they can’t live without the first time they move in will trickle its way back home over the next three or four or seven moves back and forth.  My cousin’s parents actually moved her thirteen times.  Thirteen.  Just let that sink in.

Take heart, rookies:  they do come back.  They won’t be the same shiny new freshman you packed off that first semester.  They will meet people and have experiences you will know nothing about.  They will grow into themselves and become even more interesting, funny, and big-hearted than you can imagine.  I know this to be true, and we’re only halfway through.

I found a chrysalis in the backyard this summer and watched it carefully for signs of the butterfly emerging.  Of course I got busy with life and the cocoonnext time I checked, it was empty, its inhabitant finding its wings just fine without me.  I’m not gonna lie:  I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to witness it all first-hand.  But I’m guessing maybe it needed that independent struggle to emerge the way it was meant to, in a flutter of brilliant color, winging skyward.