Thanks for the memories

We’re gathered around the small backyard fire, fingers spread to absorb its warmth, and I watch as a woman’s childhood crinkles colorfully in the flames. Stick figure families, die cut snowmen, grade school report cards. One by one licked by fire and turned to ash that floats above our heads like burnt snow. What made her decide after thirty plus years to burn all of the papers so carefully horded? My sister in law snapped photos of half-burnt chalk drawings and texted them to her friend, the one who had offered up her memories as kindling. It’s not like you can take all of this with you when you die, someone reflected. And why would you want to pass it onto your children? What are they going to do with a poem about cows?

Still. I found it painful to watch all of the papers curl up and reduce to nothing. I’d never met the woman, had no connection to this pile of her past, but it left me thinking about my own. Back home, I’ve made yet another commitment to reduce the amount of crap in my house, this time inspired by a college friend who has decided to move into a tiny house. She’s letting go of her material possessions systematically until she is down to the bare essentials. I admire that. I picture myself in a tiny house someday, surrounded only by the things that give me immediate pleasure. A library book. An empty journal. A pen that writes in purple ink. A single mug, filled every morning with hot tea. A fuzzy blanket. I do not need five of everything, and I certainly don’t need a house full of things I never look at or use. But letting go isn’t easy, and for me the reason is often two fold. 1. Will I need/want this someday? and 2. Can I find a new home for this? Someplace where it sill get a second chance for use.

Following the phone call with my friend, I set out to make yet another schedule (which I stuck to for exactly one week) and started in on the basement. I made wonderful progress at first: Giant bag of old blankets and towels for the SPCA! Recycled several bins full of old gift boxes! Donations brought to the local Salvation Army! And then, the memories. Pandora’s Box, so labeled because it contains all of my journals and angsty teenage poetry, and once opened sucks several hours of my life reminiscing about the drama that once surrounded me like a storm cloud. How can I part with that? I managed to get rid of several, particularly cringe worthy journals I’d written in middle school and the folders containing my papers from the first two years of college. (It took me a while to discover that hey, maybe I do need help becoming a better writer.) But now, in classic Sandi fashion, the living room looks like the 80’s exploded (I found an honest to goodness trapper keeper in there) and I’m stuck trying to figure out what to do with the stack of my elementary school report cards and four shoe boxes full of letters.

Conversation with hubby:
Me: “I just don’t think I can get rid of all this.”
Him: “And where exactly are you going to put it when you move into your tiny house?”
Me: *contemplates* “One day, when I’m retired and have nothing to do but sit around and read all day, I’m going to build a fire, then read each of these letters one by one and burn them.”
I think this is brilliant. He scoffs and walks away.

We all struggle with this, some of us more than others. Some of us hold onto each and every childhood drawing until we reach our 40’s and then suddenly decide our friend should take it away and burn it all. Some of us admire a thing, then immediately find a new home for it (in the recycling bin hopefully, and not the landfill). Some of us bust it out every few years, get weirdly emotional about that past, then box it all up again. (Hey, there’s no judgement here.) I think, hm, I could use this particular turn of phrase in my writing someday, or, yeah, it feels good to read the comments of my rhetoric professor who said I had great potential as a writer. Or I find stuff like this, written in April 2000, four months before I got married and most likely after a long night of re-reading old journals.

I must always leave something behind… so on late nights, as this one, when nostalgia shakes in my skin, I can look back on the days of naivety and passionate ramblings. I must always write, even when the passion has seeped out of me and there are no more passing fancies to idolatrize; the ink must flow from the pen until it finds inspiration. I must always dream – of greater things, of unsolved mysteries, of unrequited love, and look to these dreams for the magical message they convey. I must always love and hate myself, nurture and challenge myself, rescue and abandon myself – with equal intensity; it keeps the spirit strong.

A little dramatic, perhaps a little cheesy, but the theme is clear. There are certain things that make us who we are, and although no, we cannot bring them with us when we die, if we connect with them on a level, no matter how strange it may seem to someone else, we should find a way to keep them in our lives. And yes, this is me justifying a bit of clutter. And yes, I do still want that tiny house someday and there won’t be room for all my crap unless I seriously get a grip and let go.

But not today. I’m not ready for the flames just yet.

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August book report

Forgive my slight lateness, back to school and all that jazz. Which around here is two-fold as work has been slightly insane the past few weeks. I am in admissions, and you would think students would have that part already done, ya know, BEFORE classes started? Nope. First day was yesterday and there were still fall applications coming in. Insane, I tell you.

I had a little less reading time in August. Finished one book alone, one book with the kiddo, and a handful of audio books, most of which I listened to while processing applications as they do an excellent job of drowning out the chaos around me.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth
The main character in my WIP is bisexual, and I put this book on my TBR list back in the planning stages. It is an excellent coming of age story about a girl in a conservative town trying to process her feelings towards other girls and ultimately getting sent to a conversion camp. It takes place in the 90s, but it left me thinking a lot about the way some parts of the country/religious groups are attempting to change who people are and how they feel. The book is beautifully written and heartbreaking. I’d love to see it as a film someday.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
I love the movie, so when I found a copy of the book at a used book sale, I snatched it up and told the boy we should read it together. It’s always interesting to go backwards (movie to book) and I find that I usually end up preferring the movie. The book is a bit old school and my son and I had a hard time mustering up any sort of sympathy for Harriet. He kept saying, “I don’t like Harriet. She’s just so mean.” Oddly enough, I’ve started going through boxes in the basement and came across my middle school journals. I wasn’t especially nice either – in between my boy obsessed entries, I generally had petty things to say about my close friends. Guess it’s a good thing no one found those back in the day.

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Listened to this one in the car, although I’d been wanting to read it for a while. I love Anderson’s writing – she totally nails the teenage experience. This one has a male main character and despite the fact that I have not ever been a teenage boy, it seemed to be spot on. My husband confirmed that yes, boys do spend a fair amount of time thinking about their relationship with their father and that whole “what it means to be a man” theme. Definitely worth the read/listen.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
My sister’s boyfriend recommended Bill Bryson, and this was a perfect audio book to keep me focused at work. It describes his journey along the Appalachian Trail and is interspersed with fun facts about everything from bears to hemlock tree devastation. Over the weekend we stopped at the Delaware Water Gap and I was excited to see one of the places that Bryson had described. Personally, I could never hike the AT, but I do enjoy hiking and being out in nature, and the book had several laugh out loud parts, which probably made my co-workers wonder what I was up to.

10% Happier by Dan Harris
Ah, self-help books. I’m such a sucker for them. Stumbled upon this on the library available audio books shelf, but after I posted that I had read it, a friend reminded me that she had talked about him a few weeks back. Harris is a newscaster who suffered from a panic attack on the air, which eventually led him to discover Buddhism and meditation. Ironically, I spent most of the book multi-tasking, which is the opposite of what someone who wishes to be more mindful is supposed to do. But I have put a few other recommended books on my TBR list and suggested to my children that we set aside time to meditate. Stay tuned, I’ll try to do a post in a bit about how that is going.

That’s it for August. No ARCs this month, but an ever growing list of books I want to read. Our local book club released it’s selections for the year (they meet October-May and feature local authors; one of my friends is on the list!) plus it seems like wherever I go someone is mentioning a great book they read. But please, send me suggestions if you have them, or if you’ve written a book and would like a read/review. Happy to help other writers out and link to your site!

Row, row, row your boat…

…not so gently into the swimming area.

I spent this past weekend at cub scout camp with my youngest son and a handful of other scouts and their parents. The weather was great, our boys had a blast, and I thoroughly enjoyed having someone else cook, serve, and clean up after me at every meal. Despite my fear of various living things (snakes, bees, giant hairy spiders, etc), I love being outdoors and feel a renewed energy after spending time in nature.

The weekend was a lot of fun with one minor exception, which from this point forward will be known as the great rowboat debacle of 2017. Let me back up. Last year at camp my husband and oldest son were enjoying a lovely time canoeing when the boy decided to make a quick shift from one side to the other in an attempt to get away from some antagonistic boaters and promptly tipped the boat and its human contents into the lake. Later that day I overheard a bunch of parents laughing about “The dad and his kid who fell into the lake” and I proudly declared them as my family. Because why not. They are the type that can laugh about these sorts of things.

I am not. At least, not right away. In the moment, I panic. And usually cry.

During open boating time, youngest and I decided to take a lovely spin in the paddle boats. He could reach the peddles this year! Success! Then I suggested a different vessel. Canoe perhaps? No way, daddy and brother tipped over last year he announced. As if I had forgotten. Kayak? Yeah, they don’t look quite as steady as our never-before-tipped-over inflatables back home. How about a row boat? Yeah, great idea.

Or not.

During lunch the staff members sit with various packs and visit, and that afternoon we had a silver sunglassed lifeguard at our table. He seemed witty and relatable and laughed at my jokes. So I was pleased to see him at the boat station and felt comfortable announcing that I had no experience on a rowboat and could he please give me some tips? Sure. Don’t let your son make any sudden moves and if he does, make sure you’re sitting in the middle of the boat. Yup, we figured that one out after what happened last year? Anything else? I asked as I clumsily slipped the oar pins into their holes. Nope. Just a shove out into the lake.

Yeah, I’m not very good at rowing. Something about the going backward thing, coupled with the fact that I’m pretty sure our boat or oars or something wasn’t even because it appeared as though my one arm had super human strength and I could not for the life of me get the boat to travel in a straight line and every time the boy tried to help me correct it from his perch at the front of the boat it just made us travel in circles and eventually I heard this: “STAY OUT OF THE SWIMMING AREA.”

And that’s about when the panic set in. Because each time I tried to correct our course I spun the boat in more circles and continued my path toward all the unsuspecting swimmers like that horrible scene in JAWS. The yelling continued, to which I responded “CAN SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME?!?” And a guy on the dock tried to explain that I needed to pull my arms toward me and not away from me like that was my only problem, and some of my friends stood near him laughing at my complete inability to navigate small craft, and all of this just made me panic more and I felt the tears build up, and oh shit.

I cannot panic in front of my child.

Moms are supposed to be strong in the face of adversity, and parenting with anxiety means that not only do I need to figure out how to stay calm for my own well being, but also for my kids’. Thankfully one of the lifeguards guided me toward the swimming pier and then another one swam the boat back. I felt terrible that she had to swim through the tangling seaweed that surrounded the boat dock, but at least it made for an interesting story to tell her friends. The boy and I waited for her to complete the task (she had borrowed my life jacket for the swim over), and I tried to maintain composure and a sense of dignity despite wanting to break down and bawl right there on the beach.

It was a simple mishap, silly really, but sometimes things like that aren’t easy for me to process, and when they are coupled with a lack of sleep and being away from home I have a hard time maintaining a steady emotional state. Later, when my friends returned to the campsite and jokingly told me the video was already posted to YouTube (I was on the phone with my mom who actually tried to find said video… Lord knows what she typed into the search engine: cub scout mom adrift on rowboat?) I told them I had legitimately panicked and had to keep myself from crying (again) while they laughed. Not meanly. Innocently. Like, it’s funny when something stupid happens, don’t take yourself so seriously kind of laughter.

And so I did my best to embrace the incident, to brush off the ripples of panic and fear that try to imprison me on a daily basis. Because what else could I do? And when I told my husband the story, he nodded, and didn’t seem surprised at my reaction. He gets me. Has come to understand what it means to live with someone with anxiety. I can laugh about it now, but in the moment, only dread. But I’ve learned to recognize the triggers and how to get myself out of a situation and calm. The boy and I left the beach and went to the camp store to buy some gum. He held my hand and we talked about frogs.

Tonight, my friends will come over for drinks on the deck and maybe it will come up, and we’ll laugh about it, and it will all be good. Until next year, when back at camp, we visit the boats again. Perhaps the kayaks? I’ll wear my swimsuit just in case.

July book report

I love reading and discussing books, and I’ve decided to dedicate a blog post here and there to what’s been on my nightstand, in the van’s CD player, or loaded on my phone/Kindle. A monthly (or every other month, depending on how crazy life gets) book report of sorts – what I read, why I chose to read it, and what I thought about it. Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments and I’ll add the book to my always growing to-read list. My go-to genres are coming of age, memoirs, women’s fiction, YA contemporary, and historical fiction.

Books read in July:

The Witch of Painted Sorrows by MJ Rose
I don’t remember how this particular book landed on my to-read list. I’m currently about two years behind right now, and the date listed leads me to believe I added it during the PennWriters conference. Someone mentioned the title, I was on the lookout for good historical fiction, and there you have it. I don’t usually go for books that are heavy on romance, and it’s been a while since I’ve read anything supernatural, but I was hooked into this book early on, curious about what dark forces were at work in the main character. The author is prolific and I can see why. Her writing is crisp, her sex scenes steamy. A good book to escape into.

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
Again, I’m so far behind on my to-read list, that I have no idea who recommended this book to me or why, but the timing was almost comical. Hubs and I finished the latest season of Orange is the New Black the same week I started to read this gritty, girls in juvie, Black Swan-esque book. And no surprise, I had a few jail related nightmares in the days that followed. It’s an intense read. The book is told in alternating POV’s, which I have been devouring lately in an effort to help with my revisions. It is dark, beautifully written, and reminded me of my good friend Kate Karyus Quinn’s book, (Don’t You) Forget About Me  A touch of paranormal subtly woven into a chilly narrative.

Books listened to in July:

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Between the road trip to North Carolina and camp drop-off/pick up, I’ve spent a lot of time in the car. Four books worth of time, to be exact. This book was recommended during book club, and it kept my attention all the way down south. I am a sucker for a good coming of age story, especially when the time period is the same as my own coming of age. The story deals with the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s and examines the fear of what we did not understand through the eyes of a young girl navigating her first love (a love that is not the traditional girl crushes on a boy in her class variety).

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Saw the preview for this movie and was intrigued, but not enough to add the book to my to-read list. But when I was looking for a hubs friendly, 10hr+ audio book that we could listen to on the way home, I saw it on the shelf and decided to give it a try. Eh. I enjoy a good, humanity driven dystopian, and was a big X-Files fan back in the day, but this book didn’t really do much for me. I found the main character a bit too vapid, and the plot not very believable.

Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang
 There are a lot of books about bullying and teen suicide, and there should be because it is an important topic to read about and discuss. This book approached it a bit differently, with the student doing the bullying feeling like she couldn’t go on. Lately I’ve been having a harder time with some YA novels, maybe because my son is rapidly approaching the age where he will make bad choices and take dangerous risks, and I want to reach into the pages of the book and knock some sense into these characters. Honestly, I had a tough time with this one – I didn’t connect with the main character and had very little sympathy for her and her friends, and the misogynistic, homophobic boys that permeated the school.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
I listened to Grasshopper Jungle a few months ago; the main character mentions The Chocolate War and its controversial content. I’d read one other Cormier book before (The Rag and Bone Shop) and know this is a classic, so I decided to give it a listen. Strangely, I found it in the children’s section, not the YA section – it clearly deals with topics not appropriate for the under 12 set. The book was an interesting look at mob mentality, and Cormier portrayed the teenage boy with precision. I didn’t mind the self-pleasuring references, but there is a scene with terrible homophobic slang that made my skin crawl. It’s worth a read and would pair well with Lord of the Flies and my favorite Twilight Zone episode: The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.

Recent ARCS:

No Place Like Home by Dee Romito
Being in the writing community has its perks, and one of them is reading books before they’re released to the general public (known as ARCs or Advanced Reviewer Copies). My wonderful friend, Dee Romito, has two books coming out soon, and my 6th grade son and I read her middle grade novel, No Place Like Home. We loved it, especially when he found out she named a character after him! It is a sweet book about friendship, family, and fitting in and will be out on September 19. Read my full review here.

Happy Reading!

My Time at Camp

The night before my early July road trip, a bunch of writer friends were texting and tweeting about Camp NaNoWriMo. For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It takes place every November and the idea is to write a novel (50k words) in a month. Camp NaNoWriMo takes place in April and July and is more laid back and flexible. You set your own word count or project goal and “win” if you reach it. Writers can opt to join a virtual cabin, full of people who make witty camp related puns and encourage one another throughout the month.

Sounds great, right? And I didn’t want to be left behind. So as I was busy trying to finish packing for my trip, and more and more of my friends were jumping on the camp bus (see, the puns are endless!), I decided to sign up. I need serious motivation to finish my current round of revisions and figured it would help to have a little online encouragement. When it came time to set my goal, I thought that sixty hours over the course of the month (roughly two hours a day) would work. Totally doable.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

As hubs kindly pointed out: I forgot about life. There were a few days where I buckled down and did two to three hours in one sitting, heck I even had an awesome stretch of four hours, thanks to sprints with my cabin mates and the family being otherwise occupied. But on a daily basis, between work, soccer, and general mom/homeowner/adult duties, it is extremely difficult to carve out two hours a day. And yes, I realize that anything I say in the next few sentences will sound like an excuse, but unfortunately writing often takes a back seat to everything else in my life. Especially when I’m trying to revise something that I have read and re-read so many times it makes me dizzy.

My office floor contains multi-colored post-its lined up in rows, surrounded by an edited copy of my manuscript and piles of notes. Several days this month I walked into the room, plopped down on the ground, and simply stared at everything. At one point I asked the cat (who likes to nap on the post-its because of course she does) if she had any suggestions. She didn’t. Revision is not easy, and I may have been foolish to think an online camp would be enough motivation to face the difficult task ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. Camp was great. I had fun exchanging cute gifs on twitter and loved our “craft tent”. When I can carve the time to do it, writing sprints are one of my favorite online tools (write/revise for thirty minutes, then break for ten and report your progress) and a few of my cabin mates joined in, which made me very happy. But it wasn’t enough.

Capture

Sad, right? It’s the last day of camp and I’m barely at 25%. On the positive side, I revised for 14 hours this month. One of my cabin mates hit her goal of 50k. A few others are close to reaching their goals. August is a bit less busy – no soccer, but two real world camping trips – and I’m hoping to start querying this project in September. In fact, I’m declaring that as my new goal: Query ready by labor day. And I’d like to have the outline of my next project ready for NaNoWriMo in November. Because we all need to keep stretching and challenging ourselves in order to grow.

Good luck to anyone pushing to the finish line today, and have a safe trip back home, campers. See you next year!

Research and Reconnection

There’s a saying about people being in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. I’m not sure if I’m completely sold on that idea, but I do know there is a small handful of people who will be in my life forever, even if we only see each other once every few years. One of those people is my friend Sam (I’ve changed her name out of respect for her privacy). We met in high school on the bus to a soccer game. She was a sophomore, I was one of only three freshman on the team. While I can’t remember what we talked about that first day, I do remember that I knew right away we would be friends. She was funny and sweet, and she spoke her mind. My kind of person. Together we navigated the tumultuous teenage sea, had plenty of adventures and misadventures, and became die hard Monty Python fans.

Fast forward several years. Sam moved to North Carolina after college. We had remained friends, and I went down to visit her a few times. But then life happened. We kept in touch, but the time between phone calls stretched larger and larger, and I worried that she no longer considered me a friend. It was no one’s fault really, it happens to most of us. And now social media makes it easy to check the box of, “I posted on so and so’s wall for their birthday and commented on a picture of their kid – we’re caught up.” But there is something to be said about seeing a good friend in person. Giving them a hug. Seeing their space. Knowing that they will be in your life a little longer.

Sam’s brother lives in town, and last summer he told me that she was getting married. I knew I needed be there, no matter what. And I was. Plane tickets were too expensive, so I got in the car at 4am and drove twelve hours to see my friend. Totally worth it.

On the way down, I decided to take a quick detour to the 14th Quartermaster Detachment Memorial in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Part of my current project was inspired by an Army Reserve unit that suffered the greatest causalities during Desert Storm. I wanted to see the memorial, for research purposes, and also to pay my respects to the soldiers who were killed or injured. I want so much from my writing, and one of the things I hope to accomplish is to give a voice to untold stories, to remember the sacrifices of not only the men and women who fight, but also the family and friends who love them. Sam’s dad was deployed during Desert Storm, and while he survived the war, he did not survive the cancer that followed. We cannot forget that war does not end on the battlefield, especially now when battlefields are not clearly defined.

I didn’t make it to his funeral. Work, life… excuses… and it is something I deeply regret. I wasn’t there for my friend when I should have been. Maybe that’s why I needed to go down for her wedding. But it’s more than that. Friendship isn’t easy for me. I can be insensitive without meaning to, and I don’t like to be vulnerable (translation: you need a lot of explosives to knock down my walls). There are a handful of people in this world that I truly, deeply love. That will be my friends for a lifetime. Time passes, but that feeling doesn’t change. So I’m taking some time this week to try and reach out to people who have shaped me, changed me, loved me back despite my myriad of faults. And I encourage you, my beautiful readers, to do the same.

Because in the end, we need people who know us. Truly know us. Who will be there in tragedy and celebration. But we should also continue to expand our circle, to reach out to someone who may be lonely or hurting, to ask for help if we’re the ones lonely or hurting. Let’s travel on this road together.

 

Living in Infamy

One way my social anxiety manifests its ugly self is the fear of small talk. That whole – what to say, how long to stay in the conversation, is my face doing something ridiculous right now that makes it seem like I have no idea what the other person is talking about – thing regularly sends me into a tailspin of panic. And no matter how many times I plead with my brain to not say anything stupid, it regularly does. The problem is, unless I run away to live in a secluded cabin in the woods (ah, someday…), small talk is a life necessity. And my new job requires that I be somewhat good at it. So I persevere. Take baby steps to being a better communicator and remind my face and brain to behave themselves.

I’m attempting to overcome this aspect of anxiety by making small talk with strangers. That way, if I say something stupid it won’t matter. Much. Maybe they’ll share it with their partner over dinner and laugh at my word diarrhea. But chances are we’ll all go about our day and everything will be grand and maybe eventually it won’t scare me as much to talk about life’s insignificant details. Sometimes it works out well. I made a joke! The cashier laughed! I did not make an ass of myself! Sometimes, I’m recognized. And then I panic.

I taught for four years as a long term substitute at a local high school, and many of my lovely former students are out in the community working and doing productive things with their lives. And me? I disappeared. Okay, not exactly. But leaving the school was a difficult transition for me, one that I did not choose but eventually led to new opportunities in both my writing journey and career. It took a while to fully accept that transition, to give myself time to wallow in regret and what-ifs before I accepted life’s new path. So when I come across someone from that former life, I’m always a little thrown. Last night I was having a lovely conversation with a cashier about the trials of being petite (why oh why can’t they make maxi dresses for people under 5’5″?) and I was so proud of my brain for not messing it up. I used an ID for a discount and when she saw my name asked if I used to teach. Turns out she was in one of my co-taught freshman classes, but I didn’t recognize her until she said her full name.

Then, the panic. No, how have you been since then, what are you up to? (Working at this store, obviously.) No memory of something interesting she had done way back then. My brain just turned off. Wandered into the black hole of that time period and refused to come out. Insert embarrassing exit and that feeling of, why can’t I interact like a normal human? How are we supposed to work past our fears and anxiety when they constantly battle for our submission? I want to be the sort of person who can face my past head-on and not be afraid. This girl had no idea what happened to me after our year together. I’m the one who wears the stone around my neck. But I’m tired of it weighing me down.

Normally I’m not one to give advice about letting go. But I am getting better about facing demons. Gradually. Old me would avoid the store for all of eternity for fear of seeing my former student again. New me says, that chapter is over. Go forth and continue your quest to be friendly. Reality says, wow, what you said this morning to the other parent at camp drop off was really stupid. Try harder next time not to sound like a complete dork.

It’s a never ending struggle.