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.

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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.”

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.

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.

A Likeable Character

Recently I submitted a manuscript to my critique group. I loved my story and I loved the main character, and I was anxious to get their feedback.

Let’s just say they didn’t feel the love. After sinking into despair for a few days and then revisiting the manuscript I saw why. I’d submitted way too early a draft to them. My story needed work, work, work!

And so to work I went. It’s a much better story now, and I credit my critique group for that.

But one thing has niggled at me. Some commented that my main character isn’t always likeable. And so I changed her. I made her spunkier. Less introspective and more active. And I’m worried that I’ve changed her in a fundamental way that makes her less the girl I want to write to.

As readers we have to feel that a main character is worth our time. We have to root for him or her enough to want to read their story to the final page. An easy way to show a character’s worth is to make them likeable.

When I was a little girl, I devoured the Anne of Green Gables books. I loved Anne Shirley as if she were my best friend. But I was no Anne Shirley. I wasn’t spunky and effervescent and unself-conscious. I was shy and withdrawn and watchful. I was not a particularly likeable child, and so I didn’t see myself in many stories, except as a side character. 

I’m not saying the quiet kids can’t learn a thing or two from all those fearless, charming heroines. Imagining ourselves into a different way of being is a powerful tool for change and growth.

But don’t we all deserve to be the main character once in a while? I’m not writing my stories for the feisty, fearless girls. I’m not writing to the popular girl or to the class president or the class athlete or the smartest girl in the room. 

I’m writing to the quiet girl sitting midway down the side row. She has a couple of friends or maybe none. She walks quickly from class to class, head down, holding her books like a shield across her chest. She gets good enough grades to escape notice but not so good as to gain any. She’s not anything extraordinary to look at, and she doesn’t offer anything willingly in class. She’s no talkative, redhaired firebrand. When you look her way, you might not even see her.

But this quiet, unobtrusive girl is fighting battles on the inside. With nobody telling her otherwise, she’s starting to think she’s not worth the space she takes up. And so, without any fuss at all, she is giving up hope. She is falling through the cracks.

When I was fourteen years old, I would go to school and slink through my days, trying desperately to escape notice. Then I went home and tried desperately to escape notice. Mostly I managed to stay under the radar, but when I didn’t it was bad.

One night everything hurt enough that I took a whole bunch of pills and went to sleep hoping I wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

I did wake up. I went to school, and there I got very sick, so they sent me home. That was all. No one noticed. No one helped me. No one knew.

I hope and believe that today those kids have more resources than I did. I hope people are noticing the quietly desperate kids and giving them the help they deserve. And I hope those kids are learning to speak up, not be ashamed of their pain. But in 2013, suicide was the third leading cause of teen deaths. That’s thousands of kids. Even more try and fail. Kids are still falling through the cracks. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

I made it though, and I do believe I’m a stronger and more compassionate person for it. However, I’m still quiet and more inclined to think than to act. Am I likeable? Only to a few people, but I know I’m worth the world to those few.

So when I write my characters, I guess I’m just not thinking of likeability.

I’m thinking of quiet, desperate girls who are worth a story too.

Wasted on the Young

Friday night I saw a local production of Death of a Salesman at Theatreworks in Colorado Springs.

Last time I had anything to do with this play was somewhere back in university when it so underwhelmed me all I remember is a professor droning, “LO-man. LO-man. Think about that name. LO-man.” So I didn’t go to the play with high expectations, and I wouldn’t have gone at all if my husband hadn’t already bought the tickets.

But I was blown away. Moved. Depressed. Enlightened.

And Arthur Miller wrote the first act in a day and half, people. A. Day. And. A. Half. As someone who is 16K craptastic words into Nanowrimo, this resonates.

So why, if it was so great this time, didn’t I think so the first time I saw it? I think it’s simply because I’m ready for it this time. At 20, I wasn’t Willy Loman yet. I wasn’t even Biff.

So why do they bother teaching that kind of literature to the very young? In high school we were forced to read The Stone Angel, a novel about an 80-year-old woman who’s looking back and making sense of her life. Lord, how I loathed that book.

But after high school I discovered Margaret Laurence for myself and fell in love. I’ve read each of her novels and short story collections at least twice. Every one of them. Except The Stone Angel. I haven’t been able to touch that one since Grade 12 English. Maybe it’s time to give it another try.

So what other experiences are wasted on the young?

Naptime. Definitely. Since my kids were little more than babies, I’ve fought with them to take the occasional midday nap. And I still remember hating kindergarten naptime myself. But now? Oh, to nap. To sleep. Perchance to dream…. There are days when the thought of a nap is all that gets me moving in the morning.

School. I’ve spent enough years fielding “WHY do I have to go school?” to suspect it’s simply wasted on the young. It was on me. I would have been better off if, once I’d learned some basic readin’ and figurin’, I’d gone to work chopping wood for the next fifteen years. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was ready to learn. And now? If someone ordered me to spend six hours five days a week in a purpose-built setting getting taught things I didn’t know? For free? With clubs and music and art too? And silent reading and library time and study hall? And, and naps? Did you say naps? Oh, yes. Yes. Yes, please.

Travel. The first time I saw the Rocky Mountains I was 15 years old, driving west across Canada with my family. I couldn’t have cared less. Seventeen years later, I drove through them again, and I got it. Now I travel with kids. I want them so much to look up. See the world. Notice its beauty. Just… look up. Guess what? They couldn’t care less.

Give them fifteen years.

Books for Kids about Moving

When we left the US, my kids were 9, 6, and not-yet-born. We’re returning with a 15-year-old, a 12-year-old, and a nearly 6-year-old, each of whom will be facing the emotional and physical upheaval, all the challenges and changes associated with leaving here and starting somewhere new. New schools, new people, new rules, new climate, new almost everything.

When I face any challenge or change in life, I turn to books. Sometimes it’s purely for escape and other times it’s for answers, advice, or ideas of how to cope. So I’m making my book list. Here’s what I’ll be checking out at my local library or buying:

Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst. This is for the 4-8 crowd, and it consistently comes up with great reviews on lists of books about moving. Like Alexander, my daughter is adamantly opposed to moving, so I hope this book will offer her a relatable character and potential upsides to moving.

Moving by Fred Rogers. Written for preschoolers, this one may already be a little young for my daughter. But it’s by Mr. Rogers. Nuff said.

The Moving Book: A Kid’s Survival Guide by Gabriel Davis. This is non-fiction, which will appeal to my 12-year-old son. It looks to be for the 8-12 crowd, making it a little young for him, but WRITER ALERT!! There is a serious dearth of books about moving written for adolescents and teens!! Quick, write some more!! The book deals with both the practical and emotional aspects of moving. Again, this one appears on many moving day lists.

Moving Day by Ralph Fletcher. Written as a series of poems by a 12-year-old boy who is facing a move, this one also may be a little young for my own son. It seems to focus on the emotions associated with saying goodbye to the old rather than on those hello to the new. 

The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’ve been pushing these books on my 12-year-old for years because I just know he’d love them. He’s an outdoorsman, born to camp, fish, climb trees, and cook over an open fire. At this point, he may be a little old for them, but I started re-reading the series about a year ago and fell in love all over again. And man, that family is tough. When they move house, they MOVE HOUSE. They don’t have Skype or email or phones or plane tickets for visits home. When the Ingalls say goodbye to their grandparents in the big woods, it’s a forever goodbye. Kind of puts my own pain into perspective.

Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume. School Library Journal says this is for kids in grades 6-10. Tony is 13 and dealing not only with a family move, but also with the onset of puberty. This might hit close to home. I’m curious to find out if this book, first published in 1971, stands the test of time. I think it will. After all it’s by the incomparable Ms. Blume, writer of books kids need to read.

The Year My Parents Ruined My Life by Martha Freeman  Sixth grader Kate moves with her family from California to Pennsylvania, and hates everything about her new life. She makes a disastrous trip by herself back to California, and (not much of a spoiler) makes peace with the change. As she should. As you want your own kids to. The reviews are mostly good. I expect it will be relatively light-hearted and fun to read.

Military Kids Speak: Celebrating the Way You Think about Being a Military Kid by Julie Rahm. I’ve tended to stay away from military books. Although we used to be a military family, I’ve never been good with the rah-rah, it’s all for the greater good, sacrifice and stiff upper lip stuff. However, this book intrigues me. It starts with a collection of essays written by military kids aged 10-16. They discuss the tough stuff about moving all the time, but also the perks. The second half of the book is a collection of interviews with famous former military kids. Role models! Of which I am not one. I can’t even quite fathom what it’s like to be my oldest son, who at 15 is facing his seventh move. He’s lived in four American states and four countries. I didn’t even fly on a plane until I was 19.

Club Expat: A Teenager’s Guide to Moving Overseas by Aniket Shah and Akash Shah. Another non-fiction offering, this book is written by a couple of teens who have traveled the world with their family. The reviews are positive, and it sounds like a decent offering for my 15-year-old.

The Year My Life Went Down the Loo by Katie Maxwell. 16-year-old Emily is forced to move with her family from Seattle to a small English village for a year. This mirrors – sort of – what we did two years ago, and I’m pretty sure my own teen (13 at the time) would have related to the title if nothing else. It sounds like a funny, lighthearted, upbeat read, and sometimes when you’re going through a tough transition, that’s precisely what you need. Escapism is good. 

So what did I miss? Do you know any great books for dealing with moving?

What I’ll Miss

Soon I will leave England, and I am sad. I’ve lived here for two years, and in that time I’ve barely scratched the surface of seeing and doing everything there is to see and do, and what if I never get to come back?

I don’t want to go!

Well, I do. But I don’t!

But I do. So I am.

There’s so much I’ll miss. I’m going to miss hearing my five-year-old daughter, who speaks mainly in an American accent, read to me in a British one. She’s attended a year of preschool and a year of primary school here. It’s hilarious to hear her mixing the accents and words, but that’s going to disappear fast once she’s back in North America. She’ll stop saying zebra with a short e. She’ll forget she ever called herself a “silly sausage” or a “clevah guhl.

I’m going to miss hearing her call out to other tiny people with ridiculously old fart names like George, Harriet and Imogen.

I’m going to miss walking around my village, seeing cottages older than anything in North America nestled right up next to new construction. I’ll miss cathedrals next to shopping centres.

I’ll miss driving on the left and roundabouts. I’ll miss walking everywhere and feeling safe. I’ll miss gun control and sensible healthcare.

I’ll miss Cambridge right down the road and London only two hours away. I’ll miss day trips to thousand-year-old Anglo Saxon burial sites.

I’m going to miss hiding my grin when my 12 year old asks for a rubber to erase his maths mistake. I’ll miss going to his football matches. Although I might do the pretentious thing and keep calling it football. I’m sorry but it just makes more sense as a name

I’ll miss having to catch myself before I say pants. They’re trousers. Trousers is a great word. I never want to say pants again. Unless I am in fact talking about underwear. I’ll miss the slang. Skiving and scupper, blimey and crikey, twee and prat. I’ll miss the fabulous comedies on the telly.

There’s so much more. I’ve barely settled in and begun to make this village home. It’s not an easy place to call home when you’re not from here. In two years I haven’t reached that comfort level here where I think of this place as home.

But it’s in England. The home of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and so many of my favorite writers. And every day I’m here I see the possibility of it becoming MY home get a little more real.

I’ve made good friends here and so have my children. Making friends is never easy for me, and as with every move, it took me a while to stop being constantly lonely. But then suddenly I wasn’t. I had people who I care for a little bit more every day. It hurts to say goodbye to those friends, to the ease of seeing them in person regularly. I’ve moved a lot through my adult life, and I know that friends, real, in-person, huggable friends, are a lovely necessity.

I just don’t know how to put a positive spin on the fact of leaving them behind, the probability of never seeing them in person again. I don’t know how to make that okay. Not for my children and not for myself.

I’m leaving. And soon these particular people whom I have grown to love will be memories, Skype faces, emails. This place will be photographs, an address I struggle to remember.

I hope that in leaving we’re moving to a place that will become home in the way I long for. Real, permanent, watch-my-friends-get-old home. But right now, what I know is I’m leaving here. THIS place. England. This temporary home with its wonderful words, infuriating roads, and abysmal yet lovely climate. I’m leaving THESE irreplaceable people.

It’s time to go. It is. But I’m a little bit heartbroken right now.