Eulogy for My Mother

A year ago today, around 8 p.m., I was home. I was getting ready to start a new job and send the kids off to their first days of school the next morning. It had been an extraordinarily happy last day of summer holidays.

Then the phone rang. I saw it was my sister, and the good day got better. We were somewhat estranged, and I felt I had to make all the overtures, so I was thrilled she’d called me.

But her voice shook. She started telling me something about Mom and Dad. Something about them driving. And then she said Mom had been killed. Dad was in ICU.

I screamed because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you hear terrible news. But I didn’t feel anything yet. The only feeling I remember at the time was deep confusion. I kept asking people what I was supposed to do now. And I was asking them seriously because I did not know. I assumed for quite some time that I would go to my first day of work and my kids would go to school the next day, as planned.

By the next morning, I’d made arrangements to drive myself and the kids the 16 plus hours up to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where my dad had been hospitalized. I lay in bed calling schools, sending texts, and feeling very proud of myself for how well I was coping. I must be moving through those grief stages well, I thought.

Then I pushed back the covers, stood, and collapsed. My legs wouldn’t support my body. I crawled to the bathroom, making keening high-pitched sounds that woke my 7-year-old and brought her running.

Some experts talk about seven stages of grief. Some list more or fewer, but I’ve never yet seen a list that includes terror. But that’s what I felt right then, cowering in my bathroom as my youngest tried to comfort me.

This year has been – to put it mildly – intense. Grief is ugly. It hurts your body, makes your stomach sick, keeps you awake beyond exhaustion. It is complicated, and it doesn’t conform to charts and neat, pre-packaged stages. The more difficult the living relationship, the messier the grieving. Grief means ugly crying at work and staying dry-eyed at your mother’s funeral. For me, among other surprises, grieving meant losing almost all interest in two things that had been my lifeblood: reading and writing.

This year has been a reckoning. It’s been about reflecting and re-evaluating. And for that I needed to let myself feel real and painful things. I’ve sometimes used reading as a way to not feel, to not think about my own life. And I guess that’s okay. As far as addictions go, reading is a pretty healthy one to have. But this year I needed not to escape my feelings. And writing is about shaping real things into sentences other people might want to read. I didn’t have it in me to shape things this year. Only to feel and to let the feelings stay in their unshaped, most real, most unreadable, form.

My dad was hospitalized for three months. My three siblings and I live in three different countries. For these reasons, we weren’t able to have my mother’s funeral until this past February. The following is the eulogy I read for her. I know there are things I said she would have not wanted said, but I hope I did her life some justice. I hope she would have felt the love and respect for her that came a little too late to offer her in life.

Eulogy:

The other day when we posted my mom’s obituary online, one of her cousins used the words “sweet and humble little soul” to describe her. That was nice to read, but it’s not how I’d describe my mom.

If I chose one word to describe my mom it would be “strong.” 

My mom was strong. Inside our house, she was a force – THE force – to be reckoned with. The words, “FIND THE SCISSORS” can still strike fear into my heart. (Did I use her sewing scissors? Did I – god forbid – use them on PAPER? Did I forget to put them back? Please let them be found in Guy’s room, not mine!)

My mom was strong. She was little, and she would tell us that as a young girl she’d been painfully shy. She might not have looked strong from the outside, but to me everything about her life reflects her strength. 

My mom came of age in a time when admitting to mental health problems was pretty much taboo, and so she suffered with undiagnosed anxiety and depression on and off for probably most of her life. But this shows me her strength. One of her favourite phrases – it irked me like crazy when I was a teenager – was “You’ve got to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

My mom did that. Sometimes depression would sink her, but invariably she pulled herself up by her bootstraps without intervention or medication. One day we’d come home from school, and our house would be filled with the sound of her singing again. It makes me wonder what all she could have achieved if she’d come of age in a time when getting mental illness wasn’t so stigmatized. 

When I was sixteen, we moved to the house where my mom lived until the end of her life. It was tough on all of us, but probably most tough on my mom. I remember her telling me she felt like she’d lost a part of herself when we moved away from the house on Willoughby Crescent, the one she’d invested with so much of her hopes and dreams. But eventually, my mom pulled herself up by her bootstraps. She started singing again. She sang as she stripped away the ugly orange-brown paint that covered the gorgeous wood floors and bannister. That was hard work. Work she’d never done before, but she taught herself how and kept it up until it was done. She sang as she tore out rotten plaster and wallpapered our bedrooms. She didn’t like the view from one window, so she taught herself how to etch glass. She built bookshelves, replaced ceilings, and rerouted plumbing. She had a vision of what that house could look like, and she made it real. That took strength.

My mom had this unshakeable faith. Through all the upheavals life brought her, through the changes she saw in society in her lifetime, she never lost her faith and her love for her Church. That to me is a sign of her strength.

So too was her acceptance that her children didn’t share her faith. Although it meant so much to her, she figured out how to love us enough to stop lecturing us. To accept her adult children for who we are rather than who she wanted us to be. As a parent of a newly-minted 18-year-old, I am just becoming aware of how much strength of character it takes to watch your children make choices you don’t like. To bite your tongue and love them through their mistakes, their failures, their differences of opinion.

Anyone here who ever argued with my mom on Facebook or in person knows how much she loved to have the last word. Giving that up didn’t come easily to her, but for the sake of our relationships with her, she worked at it. It didn’t come easy, but she gave us that gift.

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just nine days before my mom’s death. They stuck by each other through everything life threw their way for fifty solid years. If that’s not a feat of strength, I don’t know what is.

My mom always loved to sing. She lived 72 years. She survived the deaths of her parents, several siblings, money troubles, breast cancer, estrangements from loved ones, and things I’ll never know about. In the end, she always sang. She was practicing Ave Maria in the car before she died. It comforts me to know she spent some the last moments of her life in song.

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The Wrong and Right of Book Banning

Aside

This week the American Library Association published 2014’s list of most banned and challenged books. Topping the list is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. That means many parents want it off required reading lists and out of middle and high school libraries. They want to protect kids from reading the “wrong” books.

Please.

Now, I don’t care for Alexie’s sake. He wins. His heartbreaking, hilarious, and honest book will keep selling. It will get read. Because it’s good, but also because of book banners. Do they seriously not get that?

As a former kid-who-reads, I know for a fact kids will read those wrong books, the ones parents wish they wouldn’t. My eyes still burn from early exposure to some naughty books my mom kept in her bedroom closet. That bumped them to the top of my must-read list. (Sorry, Mom.) Note to self: Move smut books to shelf next to XBox. Kids won’t look there.

And when a bookstore clerk refused to sell me Forever, it only made me more sure I had to read it. Published in 1975, Judy Blume’s novel still makes regular appearances on frequently challenged lists.

For the record, I want kids to have full access to innocent, fun books. Mysteries, light romance, comedy. Thankfully, not all kids have it rough, and I’m all for protecting the innocence of childhood when and where it exists.

And for those who do struggle too, escapism is fun and necessary. At one point I gulped down every Sweet Valley High book even though I had little in common with Elizabeth and Jessica.

But kids also need access to the tough, sensitive-issue books. We adults can’t ban the reality that every middle and high school, no matter how gated the community, contains suffering kids. Poor kids, minority kids, queer kids. Abused and molested kids. Anxious kids, mentally ill kids, addicted kids. Kids with no safe person to confide their gender and sexual identity issues. Kids who’ve started to believe an ugly label defines them. Slut. Fag. Retard. Fatso. Psycho. Loser. There are kids who harm themselves, and kids who think about suicide.

Luckily, banned books lists or not, reading kids-who-struggle still kind of win. They have this endless source of relief from the struggle, and so, with or without our help, at least sometimes they find their way to the books they need to read.

So then, if bans or challenges only increase a book’s popularity, why care about these lists at all? Who loses out when certain books don’t make it into school libraries?

The struggling kids-who-DON’T-read.

The ones who drag their feet into the library only when their English teacher forces them. The kids who skip pages and fall asleep reading. The kids who watch the movie instead. The ones who can’t connect the required reading list to their own big issues. That’s when a sensitive teacher or librarian or friend – with access to ALL the books – can make this huge potential difference.

No matter what, not all kids will become joyful, lifelong readers. But as a former kid-who-struggles, I know something else for a fact. Sometimes the wrong book in the right hands at the right time can change a life.

On Becoming American

Aside from my son, I’m the most politically engaged disenfranchised person I know. (And yes, I do realize that’s probably an oxymoron.) He has an excuse for his disenfranchisement since he’s not yet 18. My excuse? Not a citizen of the U.S.

However, my son is busy doing this thing called growing up. He recently informed me he’ll be old enough to vote in the next presidential election. I don’t even know how that happened, but it shocked me enough to make a resolution. I will vote in the next election, too.

So, after sixteen Green Card holding years, I’m applying for naturalized citizenship.

WHOA, NELLY!  Don’t be rash now! Have you thought this through, Marianne?

Yeah, I have. Canada and the U.S. have a reciprocal agreement, so I don’t have to give up my Canadian citizenship to become American. It’s the sheer volume of paperwork that stops me. This is actually my third time of printing out the application. The last two times, I did not make it past page 4: Listing my addresses over the past five years. For the record, that’s three addresses in three countries. But I have found my German and British postal codes and managed to turn the page. Several pages. I sailed on easily to page 7, where I confronted:

Part 8.

1. How many total days (24 hours or longer) did you spend outside the United States during the last 5 years?

That would be… just a minute now…. Most of them?

Not good enough? You need an actual number? Okay, I’ve got old calendars. I can do this. But…

3. List below all the trips of 24 hours or longer that you have taken outside the United States during the last 5 years. Begin with your most recent trip and work backwards. If you need more space, use an additional sheet(s) of paper.

The use of bold on this form is freaking me out. Is there an official somewhere who HAS kept track of all of my comings and goings? If so, could you please share with me? And if I miscalculate are you going to stamp a big DENIED on my form?

So I’m gonna skip this section for now.

Most of the rest is a relief. A delight even. Pages of easy fill in the blank and lots of checking the NO box. No, I’m not a habitual drunkard. No, I wasn’t a member of the Nazi party between 1933 and  1945. No, not a bigamist. And no, I’ve never worked in a prison camp or forced a child into military service. Not even once. If this application is any indication, I am squeaky clean.

But I have met the enemy, and it is page 13.

9. A. Have you ever (again with the intimidating use of bold) been a member of, involved in, or in any way associated with, any organization, association, fund, foundation, party, club, society, or similar group in the United States or in any other location in the world?

Umm….

I’m gonna go with… yes?

9. B. If “Yes” provide the information below. If you need more space, attach the names of the other group(s) on an additional sheet(s) of paper and provide any evidence to support your answer.

Uh oh.

Just how far back do I go? Let’s see…. There was Brownies when I was eight…. It just sort of snowballs from there.

But I will do this thing. I will. Third time’s a charm. I’ll keep you posted.

Up out of the Trenches

In 2012 I visited Verdun, a World War I battlefield site in France. It was a bitter cold day, the kind when the damp and chill cut right through your layers. We hopped out of the car, walked a few feet into the woods, and found shallow scars still outlining the trenches where nearly 100 years previously, young boys and men huddled, trying to get warm, to stay dry and alive.

I shivered until I couldn’t take the cold anymore (a whole five minutes maybe), and then we climbed back into our car, turned up the heat, and drove away, something those boys, many barely older than my son, couldn’t do. Many died in those bone-cold, wet holes in the ground.

I was reminded of Verdun on Christmas Eve, when the guitarist at my church played and sang a moving song by John McCutcheon called Christmas in the Trenches. According to the stories, on Christmas of 1914, German and English soldiers called a unofficial truce. They came up out of the trenches to play football, sing carols, share treats, show family photos, and hang out. The next day they had to return to killing each other. Wikipedia says this wasn’t even a singular event. During the first two years of the war, enemy soldiers called ceasefires and fraternized regularly. After that, what with poison gas and all, the war became too bitter, enmities too, er, entrenched.

However, after the Christmas ceasefire, Francis Tolliver, McCutcheon’s young soldier, has to ask himself, “Whose family have I fixed within my sights?” But he can’t help that. He’s a soldier in wartime, and that’s his tragedy. He has to remain in the trench to stay alive.

“Lest we forget” has become not much more than a cliche. A lot of people say it meaning, let’s honor the sacrifices of our soldiers. I’m all for that. But to me, McCutcheon’s song reveals the more important meaning: Lest we forget the essential humanity of our enemy.

We seem to be doing a lot of that these days.The list of horrifying daily events is endless and heartbreaking. And so much of it stems from the facile vilifying of those who vote/think//pray/dress/love differently than we do.

We don’t just have big Enemies of the WWI kind. We have casual enemies, many and sundry. I can list some of mine: Climate change deniers. Those guys who carry assault weapons into stores and restaurants. Anyone who uses the word feminazi seriously. Westboro Baptist Church. Rush Limbaugh.

And that’s fine, I suppose. Or is it?

It’s my prerogative to disagree vehemently with people for whatever I choose. But is it fine to vilify them? Ever? Unless someone has acted heinously, done something far beyond posting things I find despicable on Facebook, no.

No, it’s not fine at all.

Because “enemy” implies a lot of things. It screams “less worthy”. Less worthy of what? Of respect? Of rights? Where does that stop? What does it lead to?

It leads to turning a casual enemy into a capital E Enemy. To forgetting that those who watch the “wrong” news channel, who voted for the “wrong” candidates, who pray differently or don’t pray at all, who march for causes we don’t like, are just us in different skin.

It leads to blindness. To not looking all the way down the rifle sights, past the religious garb/uniform/protest sign/bumper sticker to the humanity behind it. To not seeing our own selves reflected back in every single face, including those with whom we disagree.

It leads both to terrorist killings of cartoonists and to deciding all Muslims are terrorists. It leads to shooting a 12-year-old for carrying a toy gun and to killing cops point blank.

The Washington Post recently published an article called Top 10 Reasons American Politics are so Broken. I think we all know this country is more polarized and less accepting of the other side than it’s been since probably the Civil War. We don’t just disagree with our neighbor’s politics. We dislike our neighbor for holding those views. And in fact, we may not even be neighbors with those who hold opposing views because so many of us live in trenches where we don’t even meet “the other.”

But unlike Francis Tolliver, we have a choice. We can come up out of our trenches any old time we like.

And we must. Because, you know, hate is too easy down there.

It’s a whole lot easier to vilify Rush Limbaugh, whom I’ve never met, than to hate my Rush-quoting next door neighbor who helped fix my flat tire in the cold. When you stay in your trench, whomever your flavor of enemy – the racist, gay-bashing Fox newscaster, the hippy Occupy protester, the uniformed cop, the black kid in the hoodie, the CEO, the mom on foodstamps, the hijab-wearing Muslim, the atheist – can all too easily become your Enemy. When you have never come up out of the trench to share a pack of gum.

Lest we forget. Lest we forget to see the essential humanity of those in our rifle sights. Lest we forget that “on each end of the rife, we’re the same.”

On the Shooting Death of Tamir, Part Two

Back in 2000, I was a young military wife living in Tempe, Arizona. My husband had been assigned to an ROTC position on the ASU campus, which meant I got to take classes tuition-free at the university. (Cushy life, but somebody’s got to live it.) I used to meet my husband on campus frequently. He’d be in uniform, of course. Every so often, I noticed looks of scorn focused our way. Once or twice someone gave him the finger. They judged him solely by his uniform, his career choice, and I felt judged in turn. It hurt my feelings a lot.

A year later, everything changed. Military appreciation discounts abounded. ROTC enrolment soared. No more fingers on campus. Small children were encouraged to approach my husband, tug on his uniform, and thank him for his service.The military and the people in it became heroes again, overnight.

Once again, my husband was judged solely by his uniform. This time it happened to work to our favor. Damn right I’ll take that 10% off. Free entry to National Parks? Great!

But guess what? He was the same guy, pre-9-11, post-9-11. The hero worship irked me nearly as much as the fingers, because I knew he was just a fallible human being like the rest of us. If he deserved respect, it wasn’t for donning that uniform in the morning; it was for upholding the highest standards of what that uniform represents. And the military is still the military. A flawed system like every other institution. As such it requires careful watch-dogging, constant checks and balances, addressing of problems as they arise (or at least as they are noticed).

That post 9-11 hero-worship did no one any real favors (aside from that free trip to Legoland. My kids appreciated that.). Instead it helped create a climate in which dissent from political/military decisions were read as unpatriotic, even as traitorous. And that led in turn to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I think there are few people left who see that decision as anything but disastrous, based on flawed information that wasn’t given the scrutiny it deserved.

Then and now I believe real patriotism means taking off the rose-coloured glasses. Seeing beyond the uniform to the person. Acknowledging that our institutions, our leaders, and we ourselves are all made of humanness, therefore essentially, forever, flawed. Thomas Jefferson knew this. He said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Part of the cultural dialogue lately has suggested that white liberals are engaging in a type of racism. That by iconicizing Michael Brown or Eric Garner we are actually saying this is the best of black humanity or something. We’re being prejudiced. I disagree. I think instead Michael Brown’s death was a catalyst for something that had long been brewing.

However, I’m hearing that criticism of any actions of the police involved in these shootings, or dissent with the grand jury decisions equals scorn of law enforcement institutions. Isn’t that prejudice? Saying that the police who have made bad decisions, who have shot unarmed people, who have gone in to situations trigger happy, are still up among the best we have? That’s the best they can do? That police are too fragile to tolerate scrutiny? That to me, is not respect. That’s coddling.

And I call bullshit on it. I can respect the law and officers of the law without thinking they’re perfect. Respect for police, to my mind, means insisting all are held to the same very high standard of behavior (and yes I think they should be paid way better too).

On Saturday I took part in a local black lives matter rally. I didn’t see any scorn expressed on the part of the ralliers. I saw people demanding parity of treatment by the law. I saw people demanding justice. I saw people suggesting a need for enhanced surveillance and accountability of police activity. None of this, to my mind, suggests lack of respect or scorn. Instead this will reveal both the many officers who are doing fine, wonderful work and the ones who are not. It will reveal the flaws in the system that exist and need to be fixed. Because, like I said, there are flaws in every system.

The police are people. They should be highly trained, and they’re doing one hell of a hard job. For that they earn and deserve my respect. But do I owe them my blindness? No way. The opposite. I owe them my scrutiny.

Blind respect for systems and uniforms, rose-colored glasses and hero worship. None of these are truly respectful. They help no one. They don’t better society. Instead they lead to disaster. We need only look back as far as Iraq to see that.

On the Shooting Death of Tamir

We all live inside various circles on a huge Venn diagram. I’m at the intersection of a white circle, a suburban circle, a straight circle, a North American circle, a middle class circle, and a female circle, which mostly puts me in quite the cushiony spot on the world diagram.

So I’ve felt my role these days is to listen thoughtfully and respectfully to people outside my tiny privileged circle. To read words written by people of color AND by people in law enforcement. To do my best to suspend my judgments and hear from those inhabiting other circles, and thereby weaken the walls between us just a little. But there comes a point when quiet might be construed instead of intense listening as complacence or complicity. And I’m feeling anything but complacent about a boy named Tamir.

Last week I flew with my kids to Georgia to celebrate Thanksgiving with relatives there. On Thanksgiving Day, as we prepared to eat our meal, my 13-year-old son approached with a realistic toy gun in his hands and made shooting gestures at me. I was annoyed, told him to stop, and shooed him away. And then I forgot about the incident.

We don’t have realistic toy guns in our house. We haven’t progressed past Nerf guns and the occasional paintball outing. This isn’t so much because of a parenting philosophy (I gave up on my no-violent toys-ever ideal the day my then 2-year-old son built a gun out of Lego) but simply because I don’t like them. I hate that clicking sound, and I hate seeing a gun, even a fake one, waved around. But kids are kids. They will play with all concepts and facts of the adult world, including violence, and as long as it remains play, I believe it’s best to leave them to it, even when I find it distasteful.

But back to the important point from above: I forgot about the incident. Because it was only an incident. Because all those Venn circles – suburban, middle-class, white – mean I got to forget. At least until I heard about Tamir Rice.

Tamir Rice, a year younger than my son, was acting just like him: ie, being a jackass. Because adolescent boys are excellent jackasses, one and all. My son takes obvious pleasure in getting my goat. After I told him to quit with the clicking, he got off a couple more potshots at me before disappearing. No doubt Tamir was enjoying bugging people with that toy gun. Or maybe not. Because adolescent boys are also precious, caught right at the fragile cusp of childhood’s end. Maybe he was just a kid lost in a kids’ world, playing some imaginary game that involved waving that thing around. Regardless, he made the tragic mistake of waving it outside, around people who didn’t know him. But more importantly, he did it as a black boy. (An aside: I’m still struggling with how anyone mistook him for a 20-year-old. I’ve walked the middle school hallways. I couldn’t mistake a one of them, not even the biggest and hairiest, for 20.)

My relative’s house on Thanksgiving was stuffed with people, food, and conversation. My son and his cousin, also 13, also white, could have slipped out with that gun, and had I noticed, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to stop them. I would have watched them walk out with relief. “Get outside with that outside toy,” I can hear myself saying. I might have thought to add, “Don’t wave that thing at people.” I might have forgotten to say that because it simply doesn’t occur to me that anyone could perceive my little 13-year-old, barely pubescent, son as threatening, with or without a toy gun in his hand. Is that because I’m his mother? Probably in part. It’s also because I have the luxury of that innocence regarding him. His white skin protects him – as it does me – from assumptions of him as dangerous. 

Now I’ve had to have some painful conversations with my sons over the years. When kids join Cub Scouts it’s required that parents discuss child molestation with them. I had to hold back tears as I did so. I didn’t want to take away my six-year-old darling’s sweet innocence with ugly knowledge of sexual violence against children. And more recently I’ve had conversations with them about their role and responsibility as young men towards girls and women. But I’ve never had to have The Conversation. I haven’t had to tell them that, by virtue of the color of their skin, they are in danger and will be perceived as dangerous by some people. Always, all the time, no matter what, so don’t act in this list of ways, and for the love of God, never be seen with a something that might be mistaken as a weapon in your hands. 

Instead I have taught them since they were small that if they’re ever in trouble, the police will help them, because that is our truth. Had my white son gone outside with that toy gun, waved it about in front of some jumpy neighbor who then called the police, I fully expect they would have driven up and seen the situation for what it was: Not dangerous. Had it gone differently, had the police perceived my son as threatening and shot him dead for holding a toy gun, I can’t even comprehend the level of shock and outrage I would feel. Had that happened, though, it would be a grievous but freakishly rare event. Tamir, on the other hand, has joined a long, tragic list of young black boys shot to death. The outrage and shock over his shooting death are there, but so are the people blaming him for waving that toy gun. For doing exactly what my son did.

I believe most police are well-meaning people doing a very hard job, but the fact is there is no equivalent long list of whites shot by the police to that of people of color. I’ll never forget something my high school history teacher, who had been a cop before becoming a teacher, said. He told us that he had never thought of himself as a racist, and then he became a cop, and his job made him racist. I get this. It’s easy to be compassionate when you’re not dealing with criminals. When your life is not at risk by the nature of your job. When you’re a suburban white person at the centre of all these cushiony circles.

As a former military wife, I know that every time there was a spate of some unwanted behavior – or negative publicity about said behavior – in the military community, it would lead to a self-reckoning within the hierarchy, which in turn meant my husband would soon attend several hours of mandatory training. Suicide prevention, anti-sexual harrassment training, domestic violence prevention, and so on. New rules would be put in place and attempts to enforce them made. I sincerely hope the same self-reckoning and retraining is now going on within police forces across the country.

I did have The Conversation with my son, but it went very differently than it must for black parents. I talked to him about that incident with the toy gun at Thanksgiving and how it’s best that he never plays in public with such a toy. But I also talked about his white skin and what it gains him in terms of safety, innocence, and privilege. And I told him about Tamir, kid being a kid, who will never have the chance to turn 13.

NaNoWriMo and Newborns: They’re Exactly the Same

Okay, not exactly. Alright, not even remotely. Having a newborn is way harder. But I’m writing this at 4:30 a.m., it’s midway through Week 2, and so I’ll milk this tortured analogy if you please.

It’s November 1, and you’ve given birth. You said you were gonna make this thing, and you did, and you can hardly believe it, and you’d rather go back to sleep, and no, no, don’t leave me alone with this thing! This tiny, needy, utterly dependent thing that is hardly more than a name right now. Did you give it the right name? It’s it too weird? Or worse, did everyone else just give theirs the same name? You will google this.

It will start out an unscheduled mess. No matter how much you planned for it. No matter how many books you read to prepare yourself. No matter even how many times you’ve done this before. You will be knocked to your knees with fatigue and shock at how relentless this thing is. It won’t matter if you’re a morning person or a night owl, it will demand you become both.

Your standards on everything will slip. Perfectionist much? Hah! Home-made sit down meals? Just don’t. Step away from the cutting board. Take-out is your friend this month. You will learn to type and eat one-handed as you negotiate the unending, mixed-up demands of your unscheduled infant novel and life. Clean is a relative concept, man.

No matter how much you nurse your greedy little bloodsucker newborn/wordcount, it will demand more. It will eat and burp and fall asleep in your arms and then wake up immediately after midnight, screaming as if you’ve been deliberately starving it. You will drain yourself dry, write yourself out, but somehow just by the very act of feeding this thing, you will create more food.

You will feel all the feels. Terror, elation, anger, depression, regret. Sometimes you will want to throw it out the window. But you won’t because that would be illegal you kind of sort of like it even if it has made you so sleep deprived you should be dead or at least have your driver’s license temporarily revoked. That tiny perfect curve of eyelash.That perfect little metaphor (that, ssh, I won’t tell you now, but you will kill dead in a later draft).

There will be poo. Shocking and appalling quantities of poo. But that’s a good thing. Poo equals growth.

You will have to take it with you everywhere. You will feed and change this little demon in every imaginable location: Airports, restaurants, grocery stores, bus stops, and park benches. The amount of equipment required to haul your infant idea along with you will stun you. And that one thing you didn’t bring (a fourth diaper/the entire box of wipes/your elementary school yearbook) will be the thing you need. So that dentist appointment you scheduled for November 20 back in September when you didn’t have a clue? Do yourself a favor: Reschedule it for February.

Google is your friend. No matter what time you’re up with this squalling, shitting little idea, no matter how strung out you are, someone else somewhere is living the same nightmare. Misery loves company. Except when that company becomes misery. You might find yourself on a thread filled with self-satisfied smuggles. You know the type. Them with their hyper-inflated word counts, placid babies born sleeping through the night. They’re only up this late/early to make you feel bad as they knit Christmas ornaments as thank-yous for their shower gifts while simultaneously handcrafting place cards for everyone on their Thanksgiving guest list. They’re already in talks with some Hollywood bigwig, and they just signed a baby modeling contract. Just block those smug buggers. They’re lying, okay? They’re just as strung-out as you are, and they have some sick need to pretend otherwise. But even if they’re not, fight the comparison monster. It wants to eat your baby.

It’s November 30. You’ve reached 50K words. You’re overjoyed. And then it shits right through its diaper all up its back, down its leg and onto your lap you start to read. And you realize something horrible. You’re not done. This is only the beginning. In fact, you will never be done (insert evil laugh here). You need to write more words, better words, and then you have to revise and revise some more and more and more and more and more, and oh my God, if you think it’s a bloodsucker now, just wait ’til it starts writing Christmas lists (Dear Santa, bring me all the Lego). You may never sleep again.

This thing you started will grow and take shape in ways that surprise even you, its creator, its first love. It will become something separate from you, something you can look at with a bemused, wondering pride. Did I really make that? Yeah, you did. But at some point it took off and kind of made itself, too.

And then it’s next year, and somehow you’ve forgotten just how hard it was, and you begin all over again.

It’s the Process

A while ago, I mentioned this broad, low balance beam I’m walking? Well, life circumstances have narrowed and raised my beam again. I’m busy, over-extended, and stressed out all the time. So, in August after finishing my last manuscript revision, I decided to take a holiday from writing. Two weeks. I’d pick up when the kids went back to school. Well, the kids went back to school, but my ever-present, ever-growing to-do list went nowhere, so that two weeks extended into four. And then five.

Some holidays are good for the soul. You come back with fresh perspective, restored energy, a renewed sense of purpose. And then there’s the other kind. It goes on too long, like that of a leather-skinned backpacker who can’t quit Koh Phangan. It has the opposite effect on the soul, turning it world-weary and cynical.

Self-doubt has plagued me my whole life, but in the last few years, as I’ve finally found the discipline to make writing and revision into daily habits, I’ve realized the power of working toward my dreams. It heals me.

The daily act of sitting down and putting the words on the page, has taught me bravery. I’ve never thought of myself as a brave person, but doing the work you love, divorced from any guarantee of reward, is a brave thing. Knowing I’m doing something that requires courage, weirdly enough, calms a whole lot of my fears. I like myself when I write. I’m nicer to my kids and everyone else when I write. I have more energy when I write. And it saves me all the time and money I’d otherwise need to spend on prescriptions meds and therapy.

I’m not saying success wouldn’t be lovely. It would. And outside positive reinforcement – a kind word from a critique partner, a chuckle when you read your work aloud – feeds me too. But the work itself, that matters most.

Holiday, such as it was, is over. I’m back from Koh Phangan, and here to tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Do the work you love. There’s nothing better.

An Interview with Aaron Michael Ritchey: Writing Prickly Characters

I heard author Aaron Michael Ritchey speak in February at the Pikes Peak Writers Write Your Heart Out workshop. During a break, we discussed writing likeable characters. He kindly agreed to take the discussion a step further here.

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1. Aaron, some people think characters must be likeable in order to draw in the reader. Others insist that “real” is more important than “likeable”. What’s your own take? How important is it to you that readers like your main characters?

There is one big exception to all rules on writing. All rules can be broken because what works, works. No matter what. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has characters everyone despises, but no one can stop reading it. If you have the talent and the patience to revise, you can pull off any trick.

Okay, that’s the big huge answer for all people everywhere. For me, personally, I want readers to like my heroes and to root for them. And so, I have a “pet the puppy” scene, early, early on. A pet the puppy scene is where the hero or heroine does something morally good, it’s a concrete action, and what I want is the reader to say, “Wow, that Chuck is a nice guy.” Then I have more leeway to make Chuck real because I’ve established him as a good guy.

I also have a “kick the puppy” scene for the villain ‘cause hey, who likes someone who kicks puppies?

2. I’ve put down books where I haven’t liked the main character enough to stick with them for two hundred odd pages. On the other hand, I’ve devoured books with main characters I despised. (Lolita comes to mind.) What do you think makes the difference?

Some of it is our fascination with evil. More importantly, I think we can relate to sick, broken characters mucking around in life because hey, I’ve done my fair share of being sick, being broken, and mucking. I think if the stakes are right, you can do a lot with characters and stretch people’s acceptance of them. Walter White in Breaking Bad is a good example. We watch him go from a middle-aged guy with a wife, a family, a mortgage to an evil, murderous gangster. But why does he start down that path? Because he has lung cancer, a pregnant wife, and no money. He wants to take care of his family and leave them a legacy. The stakes are high and morally just. Even when he starts doing terrible things, we root for him because we want him to win. And we’re fascinated with his evil and how despicable he can become. That’s part of the fun of the show. But we didn’t start there, right? We started with an average Joe.

Another example of the likeable anti-hero (at least for me) is the protagonist in Notes From Underground. Now there was a scumbag who was just foul. At the same time, the writing made me fall in love with him, empathize with him, because I’ve felt that way – alone and hateful. Again, if you have the talent and the patience, you can do anything. Fyodor did a pretty good job with that one.

3. How do you create a three-dimensional character with flaws and still maintain reader interest? Do you readers want a character who is a “regular guy” or do we want to read about someone who’s better than us, a hero?

It’s the flaws we like as reader. Even the Greeks knew that. They came up with that whole Achilles heel thing, the heroic flaw. Batman is a self-destructive vigilante, and Superman has cryptonnite. Wolverine from the X-Men is such a good character because really, he’s this anti-social alcoholic rebel-without-a-cause type of character. More and more, readers DEMAND three-dimensional characters. Which is why I think the Superman franchise is having a hard time getting off the ground. Superman is too good. He’s too perfect. But Batman, Batman is a rich guy with a death wish—there’s more to work with. Spiderman is a nerdy kid with a camera who sometimes doesn’t get the girl because, hey, nerdy kid with a camera. It’s much more interesting to read about flawed characters. However, the more flawed the character, the harder some people might have with him\her.

However, there are tricks you can use for your more seriously messed up characters. In The Sopranos, Tony Saprano was a narcissistic violent thug prone to anxiety disorders. And yet, when he starts going to therapy, he wants to be a better man. So the flawed hero who wants to be good is a way to garner audience sympathy. Or, again in The Sopranos, Tony’s mother is far more corrupt and ruthless than he is, and so another trick is to have other more flawed characters act as a foil to your unlikeable hero. Quentin Tarantino does that all the time. His heroes are evil, but they go up against villains who are even worse!

4. Lena, your MC in The Never Prayer is not doing particularly likeable things. She’s a drug mule, she’s mean to her aunt, and she wears makeup like armor, but alongside this, we learn her parents have died violently, and she’s responsible for her tiny brother whom she deeply loves. Also it’s clear from the very first sentence that she’s conflicted about dealing drugs and doing it only because she’s been saddled with adult-sized money problems. She grabbed my sympathy despite her prickly outsides, and so I liked her enough to read on. Is that the key to reader engagement with her?

When I started to write Lena’s story, I knew she was going to be a hard sell. And I knew I needed to have the readers like her immediately, and so I added in the character of Jozey, her little brother. Jozey did two things. The first, he showed how good of a mother Lena was to him, and how much the two loved each other. The second, he raised the stakes. If Lena was caught running drugs, she would lose Jozey, whom she loved. So in the first chapter of the book, I had a classic “pet the puppy” scene, where Lena holds Jozey while he cries for their dead parents. It’s a concrete example of her being good.

Aaron’s second novel, Long Live the Suicide King, was released last week. Click on the photo for the link.

SuicideKing_AaronRitchey_Cover5. Tell me about JD, your main character. On the surface at least he’s not particularly likeable. He’s snarky, whiny and apathetic, and despite his privilege (brains and affluence) he wastes his time doing drugs. How do you help your readers engage with a character like this? Or do you consider it your job as a writer to help your readers engage?

If Lena was a hard sell, JD was impossible! So I pulled out the stops. JD is funny. Humor can go a long way to help people like your character. I introduce other drug addicts that make JD look like a saint in comparison. Like Tony Soprano, JD wants to get better. He wants to get off drugs and be a better human beings while others around him don’t. That dichotomy is important. And I introduced probably my favorite character in the book, Inga Blute, an elderly German woman JD takes care of. Like Jozey, Inga shows that JD is a good guy, deep down. And I love Inga because she is such a great counterbalance to JD.

Because of the subject matter, some people are just not going to like JD, and I don’t expect them to finish the book. In the end, that might be the only rule of writing that has no exceptions. Not everyone is going to like your book.

6. Do you find it more important to make Lena, a female, likeable than it was to making JD, your male MC, likeable?

Now that is a fascinating question. The short answer is no. For me, my characters transcend gender. They are more than their parts. Yes, Lena is far more feminine than JD, and sees the world through the lenses of a young woman, but in the end, who they are is important than their sex.

But the question is good. Women are saddled with a lot of baggage: women are expected to act in a certain way to be, women should be a bastion of morality, and they have to be maternal and sweet. Old-fashioned baggage, stereotypes, yes, but a writer probably should take that into account. I don’t, but a writer should. Interesting that Lisabeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so popular, since she was such a broken character, and yet, her violent past touched a lot of people. But while it’s easy to come up with tons of male anti-heroes, finding anti-heroines is harder. Not impossible, but harder.

Should girls be nice and boys be rough? The rules are changing and I’m glad. Both sides of the battle of the sexes have been wounded long enough.

In the end, I’m there to tell my story, which includes a character arc and a story arc. In my books, I want my characters to grow because of what happens to them, which is the story. But I’ve learned. I can’t start out with my character too broken. I just can’t. So taking a page from Donald Maass, my larger-than-life heroes have flaws, and my flawed characters want to be better, and my normal or readers lose interest.

Donald Maass has some great stuff on character. He argues that total hero-types should have a flaw (like Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes, normal characters should be able to do something really well (Luke Skywalker has a special gift with the force), and anti-heroes should want to be better than they are. Tony Soprano fits there.

Thanks for answering my questions, Aaron.

 Thanks! This was fun!

Aaron Michael Ritchey grew up dancing with the demons of despair, but around nineteen he got tired of demons stepping on his toes. So he’s found other things to do like running triathlons, doing house exchanges across the globe with his two rockstar daughters and his movie star wife, and working a day job in medical technologies. He lives in Colorado and writes. A lot. It’s far better than dancing with demons. Each year, the diabolical music gets a little quieter. A little quieter. Long Live the Suicide King is his second novel.  Our friends in Amazon would love to hear from you!

http://www.amazon.com/Long-Suicide-Aaron-Michael-Ritchey/dp/0985564385

For more about Aaron Michael Ritchey, go to his website at www.aaronmritchey.com, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on twitter, @aaronmritchey.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding My Balance

I’ve made it through to the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA for short). Of course I’m thrilled. Look for my entry, Rock Solid, in the Young Adult category.

I’m also knocked off-balance.

This small step forward makes me happy. But it also means that, instead of writing my thousand words this morning, I’ve spent a chunk of it obsessively following the ABNA discussion boards, emailing with my writing group (Four of them also made it through. Yay!), and rereading the pitch that got me through.

Which means this afternoon I’ll have to choose between writing and fulfilling my other responsibilities. We just got our dental insurance; I need to find a good dentist and make appointments. There’s shopping to be done. Meals to be made. Prescriptions to pick up. Grades to check. And always, always the laundry.

Every time something either good or bad occurs in my pursuit of published authorship, I let it knock me off the beam. I end up wasting precious writing time, and worse, ruining precious family time. Two years ago when I made the quarterfinalist round in this contest, I got so wrapped up in it that I forgot to attend my daughter’s new school’s open house. (And that’s just the lapse I’m willing to record here in my blog. There have been others.)

When I signed with my agent last spring, thrilling as it was, for weeks I staggered around like a drunk, completely off-balance. Missing this, forgetting that, not even hearing my kids talk because the voices in my head were so much more interesting.

This has prompted some soul-searching.

Writing has always been my dream, but I spent a lot of years NOT writing. For a long time, I didn’t have the discipline to sit and write. Then I was busy with very young kids, moving from place to place and immersed in being mommy. With a husband who was away A LOT, I struggled to find some balance between pursuing my dreams and caring for my family.

During his third deployment and facing another move, I made an active decision to put my personal goals away. Something had to give, and it was that. Just getting through all the days on my own – dealing with sick kids, fixing the broken dishwasher/car/roof, preparing for yet another move, staying sane – often felt like trying to walk a high-wire with a kid in each arm and no safety net. It was them or me. I chose them. As you do.

My favourite saying during that time was “This too shall pass.” It did. Things eased off. I’ve been walking a wide and sturdy low beam for a few years now. Once my kids were all in school, a beautiful chunk of time opened up for me. I’m so happy to have reached a point where I have the time AND the discipline to (mostly) use it well.

I’m living my dream. Day by day, I’m putting words on the page and making stories come together. Published or not, paid or not, I get to do something I love. How lucky is that??

So now, I’m choosing me. This year I’ve been letting myself say no a lot. No to the PTA. No to volunteering in my daughter’s classroom. No to playing Scrabble Junior when I don’t want to. I bid a fond fuck-off to the laundry pile.

I’m getting all too good at saying no.

But they still need me. It’s a struggle to put away the writing and give my family my full attention.To remember the damned open houses. To chaperone a field trip or two. To pick family game night over editing time. Showing up and being there are harder than they sound.

I may be on the low beam now, but all too frequently I still lose my balance.