2018 Reading List

I’m going to do my best to keep this post updated with all the books I read/finish in 2018! I’ve gotten to a slow start this year. It’s just so easy to get distracted, but I’m hoping this page will keep me accountable and increase my awareness of just how much available time I have to read! I’ll include whatever chapter books I read with my kiddos, too, but we read far too many picture books to keep track of here. I’m totally cool with their rooms always being at least a little bit messy because there are books all over the place. 🙂

What are you reading? Let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for new titles to add to my “to read” stack growing on my side of the bed.

Mother Of by Lauren Coffin

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (reread with my son)

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (reread)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Haunted Mansion Mystery by Virginia Masterman-Smith – I read this as a kid and just finished reading it with my son ❤

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (reread with the kiddo)

Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (reread with the kiddo)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (audiobook read by Nick Offerman)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living – edited by Manjula Martin 

 

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An American Marriage: A Book Review

What to say about a book that was added to Oprah’s Book Club a few days after I pre-ordered it and is currently sitting at #4 on the New York Times Best Sellers list? Well, I could start by saying that I try to approach books without expectation. I don’t like to read a bunch of reviews before picking something up because I abhor spoilers, – so worry not, you won’t find them here – and I really just want to have an honest and organic relationship with a book as I’m reading it. No influences. Just living in the printed moment. That being said, the summary I read had me expecting one thing and Tayari Jones delivered something infinitely better.

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An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial, an educated and well-on-their way black couple living in Atlanta. Roy’s flair for business and Celestial’s budding career as an artist sees them traveling a road to success in comfort and faith in the future. Just 18-months into their marriage, Roy is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Two people, in love and in pain, attempt to make sense of the wrong done to them and how to move forward with a life you thought you had avoided.

At its core, this book is a love story, but Jones wrote about love on the realest of real levels. Love is tricky and tangled and it changes with time and circumstance. She skips the theatrics, what you’d expect to be the meat of the story, and instead shows us the moments in between. The moments where it becomes real for the people living through it. The quiet moments when they make decisions without realizing they’ve been made. The vulnerable moments when they can’t quite face the totality of their situation so they each forge ahead toward a future they have yet to accept has altered irreversibly. Most incredibly, you are there when those layers of quiet self-deceit begin to peel away and are invited to witness the beautiful rawness of what’s underneath.

The writing was so good that I didn’t even realize just how good at first because she writes these people so realistically that it seems like you’re just looking in on these people’s lives. A story that you expect lots of flashes and bangs from, is really a slow burn. I didn’t even think I liked the book until I was finished and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve gone back over and over in my mind to these people brought to life and when I re-read – something this book merits, likely more than once – I will not take the unassuming richness for granted.

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I’m having a hard time approaching the acknowledgment that Jones is a black author writing about a black family living a life that is forever altered because they are black. In a world full of people itching to be overnight experts on how someone different than yourself experiences life, I’d rather shut my mouth and listen. So I’ll just say this: I’m a white woman and that privilege does not give me a right to act like I know something about how a black family lives because I read this book. What I will say, and mean from the depth of my heart: It was enlightening, it was heart-wrenching and heart-filling, and I am better having read it. I will choose to see more because I read this book and was shown more.

What Are We Bleeding For?: A Special Edition

When I started this blog, I made a quiet decision to keep my political inclinations out of it. I felt like there was enough commentary on the goings on of the world and another voice would just add to the cacophony. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about my beliefs and will readily share them on my personal pages. It’s just not why I started this blog and I didn’t want to get distracted from my intentions for it. Today I’m breaking my own rule because I’ve been completely immobilized for the last eight days. I publish new blog posts every Thursday and Sunday, but what I had planned for these past two deadlines seemed trivial and entirely inauthentic to my feelings and thoughts right now. So, for today, I’m baring it all.

On Wednesday, February 14th, fourteen children, and three adults were shot and killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A nineteen-year-old man, a previously expelled student, opened fire and slaughtered them during a six-minute long shooting spree using an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle. A favorite among mass murderers, this type of rifle was used in the Aurora theater shooting, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas music festival shooting, and the Sutherland Springs church shooting just three months ago.

This rifle was designed to kill quickly, and kill easily. And that’s exactly what it does. Originally designed for the military, this semi-automatic version of the M16 is everywhere. The NRA estimates that Americans own over 8 million of them. That’s enough for 1 in every 40 Americans. Sadly, this particular gun is not the only problem.

There are things like bump stocks, which are legal gun stocks that allow semi-automatic firearms to fire like an automatic. I had never even heard of one until after the shooting in Las Vegas and was shocked…but not really… that, while a ban on automatic firearms has been strictly regulated since 1934, there is no current federal ban on bump stocks.

Real quick, the difference between an automatic weapon and a semi-automatic weapon is in the firing. An automatic rifle will continuously fire while the trigger is held. A semi-automatic weapon will fire one round each time the trigger is pulled without needing to cock the weapon hammer between rounds and while preloading the next round from a magazine. An experienced shooter can fire around 90 rounds in one minute from a semi-automatic rifle, that’s including buffers for the time it takes to reload. The average magazine for a semi-automatic rifle holds 30 rounds, however, it is possible to purchase larger magazines that hold up to 100 rounds.

I tell you all of this so that you, my dear reader, will have a better understanding of what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about these guns. I have listened to and read a lot of testimony about semi-automatics and why they are so popular and something that I keep hearing, particularly regarding the rifles, is that they are, “a lot of fun.” Generally speaking, the people who purchase semi-automatic rifles are invested in the hobbyist side of gun-ownership. They may have a 9mm Glock (another semi-automatic weapon, by the way) hidden in their bedside table, or, hopefully, stored in a safe in case of a home invasion, but more often than not, they have entered into a culture that seems centered around a lighthearted collector’s mentality rather than one that truly understands the gravity and responsibility of owning a weapon like this.

It’s important to me that we understand the difference between automatic and semi-automatic because knowledge is power, right? Let’s all have a deeper understanding of what we’re all fighting about. Let’s at least acknowledge that banning automatic weapons, but allowing semi-automatic weapons, especially with modifications like bump stocks, is disingenuine and frankly, a load of BS. It’s kind of like the difference between standing in the middle of an Interstate and standing in the middle of a highway. Yeah, the traffic isn’t as fast or as busy, but I certainly wouldn’t call it safe.

Now, I’m from Texas, daughter of a gun owner, and I’ve been to a few gun shows. Frankly, I have never been more uncomfortable in my life. I wouldn’t quite say I felt unsafe because there are some safety measures taken. There are uniformed officers on the premises that check that all guns being carried into the gun show are unloaded and lock tied with plastic ties. These ties are cut with scissors or box cutters when you leave. All guns on display are required to be unloaded and lock tied as well. Vendors in Texas are required to have a Federal Firearms License only if they sell firearms for their livelihood. However, private sellers are not required to perform background checks. The last time I was at a gun show, the few tables with licensed vendors were pointed out to me with a not-so-quiet conspiratorial tone of, “Don’t go to those tables unless you want a background check.”

Interestingly, brass knuckles, ASPs, and nunchucks are prohibited because they are illegal to own in the state. The ASPs have some exceptions for security guards and things of that nature, but overall these weapons have been deemed too dangerous for the public to own.

I know I’m getting long winded, but please bear with me because I’m still grieving the death of nuance. Too many arguments are treated like the answer is black or white. Here’s a clue, it’s not. While you’ll know my thoughts and feelings by the end of this article, I invite you to use your amazingly developed brain to do some thinking and processing on your own. Follow your emotional reactions to what you read and see what’s hidden underneath that rock. I can almost guarantee there will be creepy-crawly biases chilling out.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, I’m for better gun regulation. I do not, and will never, believe that the right to own a certain type of firearm is more important than the safety of our children. Period. I know that’s upsetting to some, and I understand that it goes against the culture that we have here in America. That is ALWAYS uncomfortable for people. Change is scary no matter what kind it is. I get that. However, 150 years ago, our culture in America included owning other people based on the color of their skin. It didn’t change overnight, but we’re overdue for a cultural shift around firearms. Gun regulation has been around in some form since 1837 in the United States which means we attempted to regulate firearms before we abolished slavery. We’re overdue.

The Second Amendment is constantly debated and tossed around as the ultimate and irrefutable argument of why the legislature should never, under any circumstances, touch our right to own guns. First, here’s the actual Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

According to Merriam-Webster, a ‘militia’ is defined as:

1: a: a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency
    b: a body of citizens organized for military service
2: the whole body of able-bodied male citizens declared by law as being subject to call to military service

I don’t want to derail this whole conversation by going into the history of the militia in our country, but take this information and do some research. It’s pertinent, relevant, and will give some context for the Amendment itself.

My point in bringing up the Second Amendment is to highlight the hypocrisy of how so many of our citizens wear this particular Amendment as a badge of honor while choosing to ignore the many other Amendments and Acts that have been passed since the Bill of Rights that clarify how they are to be followed. We added the 15th Amendment to allow black men the vote because it was not specifically stated in the Bill of Rights, and that omission was recognized as something that needed to be fixed. The same was done for women in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Times changed, we grew as a country and realized that the laws in place in 1776 were no longer adequately applicable to our country and its people.

I think we’ve more than proven that, as a country, we are not mature enough to handle owning semi-automatic guns. We have not shown to be collectively capable of handling the responsibility of this level of gun ownership. We have the highest rate of gun ownership of advanced nations and the highest rate of gun violence by…a lot. Guys, it’s not even close. There are tons of comparisons of us versus other “advanced” nations, but let’s frame it a different way. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, when compared to the ten countries in North Africa and the Middle East…you know, the ones with all the brown people we’re supposed to be afraid of…with the highest rate of gun violence, the United States of America has a rate of gun violence higher than all of them except Iraq. In 2016 our rate of violent gun deaths was 3.85 per 100,000 people in our country. That equates to roughly 12,439 violent gun deaths in one year.

We hide our household chemicals and cleaners under the sink because our children do not fully realize the potential harm they may cause. Well, what do you do with a toddler who keeps getting into the chemicals and cleaners under the sink? You install a child safety lock until they are old enough to understand and give these unsafe materials the proper care and respect they merit. Until the citizens of this country have proven themselves to be mature and stable enough to handle the great responsibility of modern gun ownership, we shouldn’t own or purchase guns without the necessary regulation that protects our people, and most importantly, our children.

Mental health is the newer, trendier scapegoat of gun violence. It easily harmonizes with the infamous NRA propaganda, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” It places blame on the person shooting with no fault falling with the weapon. Hey, I’ve seen the memes. I know that a gun isn’t going on a killing spree all by itself, however, it’s not just the gun we’re really talking about. We’re talking about how easy we are making it for mentally ill or unstable people to acquire them. I cannot fathom the argument against a waiting period, sometimes referred to as a “cool down” period in other countries that recognize that a delay in purchasing ability can save lives when a hothead’s impulse is to kill someone. I cannot comprehend the argument against mental health checks. Is it because it’s inconvenient? Or are you afraid you won’t pass? Either way, my kids’ lives are more valuable than any argument against it.

Japan not only requires mental health examinations before purchasing a gun but yearly reexaminations to minimize the cracks and loopholes people can fall through. They also require gun training prior to purchasing a gun and a rate of accuracy over 90%. There are other laws and stipulations in place, but that’s another rabbit hole. Let’s just say Japan’s gun violence rates are so low that it’s not uncommon for the police officers to have a single-digit rate of even needing to fire a gun. Countries like Australia and the U.K. have had great success in decreasing their gun violence rates with better restrictions and regulations for gun ownership.

Oh, and we can’t forget the age-old argument about criminals. If they want to get a gun, they’ll get a gun; a silly law isn’t going to change that. Well, let’s make it a bit harder for them, please. You know, like we did at the airports after 9/11? If you aren’t willing to make it harder for people who intend harm to acquire a gun because you think the laws to prevent it won’t do any good, let’s just go ahead and do away with vehicular laws, or regulations that require fire escapes and alarms. You know, as a matter of fact, the minimal laws we have to protect our children at school, they obviously won’t stop a criminal, so let’s just chuck those, too. An argument against regulation because criminals will be criminals is an argument for anarchy.

So, Kelsey, aside from a firearms buy-back program and waiting for our legislatures to agree on gun reform, what else can we do to protect our communities and our children from gun violence? Shouldn’t we arm our teachers? Or at the very least, place armed guards in all the schools? I have a better question: Do you really want to be the kind of country that needs to militarize our educators? I don’t. We honestly aren’t paying our teachers enough as it is. We aren’t funding education adequately enough to provide everyone with enough pencils for the school year, but you want to spend the billions of dollars it would take to even begin to properly train and arm all the teachers in schools? How about we take that money and fund a better teacher/student ratio. I’d also love to see better ratios of counselors to students, so the fringe kiddos who feel rejected by the world have better resources available to them. Let’s demystify mental health and create a culture that welcomes therapy and medication when it’s needed. Universal healthcare that makes that care accessible to everyone would go quite a long way. Just saying.

I’d like to close this article with a few quotes I’ve come across in the past week that I think it’s important that we acknowledge. At the end of the day, people are hurting. People are mourning. People had to bury their children this week. People are angry. People are scared. And people have a right to be. Let’s do our part and set our egos aside. Being wrong isn’t a crime. Being wrong doesn’t make you weak. Being wrong, and accepting it, is the greatest opportunity for growth you will ever encounter.

I will not give names as I did not ask permission to provide them.

 

“Let’s take a moment to honor the sacrifice of our brave school children who lay down their lives to protect our right to bear arms.”

                                                                                                                           – a concerned citizen

“just know, i love you” “I love you too” “forever and you’re the best brother”

“We’re gonna get out of here I promise” “are the cops here? my teacher died”

                                                              – texts exchanged between two brothers during the                                                                  shooting at Stoneman Douglas

“‘Wait, Miss.’ she said, ‘If you lock us in the closet, doesn’t that mean you’ll be out here?’…’You would do that?’…’In a heartbeat. Just stay quiet so you get out alive. Make it worth it.’”

                       – A teacher’s account of the conversation she had with her students at                            a neighboring high school while they reviewed protocol for an active                              shooter situation while waiting to hear if anyone they knew had died.

“But nobody died in my classroom today. Just a piece of my heart.”

                                                                                                        – The same teacher, in closing.

 

I chose not to source my resources today because I want you to do some work. You can read this and any other article you stumble across and have some feelings about what it says, but I doubt you can do yourself the honor of formulating an honest and authentic opinion on a subject without doing some digging of your own. Nothing you read here today is hard to find information about. Check your sources, fake news is actually a real thing. And hey, learn some stuff. Surprise yourself with what you know and what you don’t know. Our children are worth it. Beyond that, let’s stop the name-calling and the finger-pointing. Something real must be done. I don’t want to be the kind of country where children feel they have take to the streets and march for their lives because us grownups can’t get our shit together.

I didn’t write this to change anyone’s mind. I just absolutely needed the catharsis of doing the research and putting my thoughts onto paper. Apparently, this is my current stage of grief. My heart and prayers meet you at yours.

Love: A Favorite Word

We are nearing Valentine’s Day, and while the current traditions of this holiday may be a topic of contention, I choose to celebrate the day in honor of love. Not solely romantic love, but the existence of it in all its many incarnations. It also happens to be a favorite word of mine. It’s a simple word at first glance – just four little letters, after all – but it’s a favorite because it can trigger endless pondering. Like “God”, “universe”, or “soul” it is a word that is exquisitely simple and infinitely intricate. It all depends on how you use it and what it means to you.

I wouldn’t say love is something to be feared, but just like the depths of an ocean or the great height of a mountain, love is something to be respected. You can welcome it for its beauty, for its healing, you can even prop it up against you to crutch through difficult days, but always it must be respected for the power it holds.

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Love holds power that I don’t believe humans can fully comprehend. Just as we know that we have not even come close to identifying all of the organisms in the waters of our earth, we have only begun to catalog and inventory the true purpose and potential of love. Simply put, it’s a word we take for granted. We profess our love for paint colors, coffee cups, and the shoes on our feet. Slightly deeper, we might announce our adoration for a film that particularly moved us to laughter or tears, a song that rippled chill bumps up our arms, even a book that put words to our deepest secrets and a name to our greatest fears.

 

I imagine levels of love to move down as they grow, rather than rising to new heights. To me, the greater the love, the deeper it has burrowed into our souls. Simple love is the bloom on a spindly branch of a tree, momentary but yielding easy appreciation. The deepest of love grows, reaching into the rich earth as roots supplying all nourishment a soul might need.

The love you feel for a partner, for your child, for your family – these all stand solidly in the trunk of the tree. They are foundational loves. They are the loves that you draw strength from when life rattles you. They are the loves that we are most concerned with, the loves we most desperately fear to lose. We agonize over it. For without our trunks, how can the blossoms bloom? How can the roots forage? Death or dissolution of these loves can cease and seize the life from flowing within us if we let it. These sorts are strong and can stir passions, achievement, even heroics, but they still allow the side effects of the earthy human experience. Jealousy, expectation, disappointment. I don’t wish to cast a shadow on them, as I feel them deeply myself, but I acknowledge the fragility of them. While they may not ever break, they can chip and fray with hurt feelings and things left unsaid.  

So what are the roots, you ask. The roots of love are made of the oldest and most ancient of loves. Unconditional. “But I love my children unconditionally!” My husband, my wife, my mother, my father, sister, brother, and on we go. Yes. Yes, of course, you do. But truly unconditional love does not stop with the name or title of one person. Or even many people. Unconditional love, the kind that burrows deep into the very nature of humanity, the very gift of consciousness we have achieved as human beings, is the love of all people without requirement or design. Understanding is not required. Introductions, not required. Sameness, common history, belief, morals, anything at all. The roots of love, as I see it, are for growing past what we can see and easily comprehend, and accepting the sustenance of that power without question.

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At the heart of unconditional love, is the love of self. It is in recognizing that every word misspoke or intentionally aimed, every judgment reflected, every dimple, wrinkle, or scar – they are all perfect. Even in our worst moments, there is purpose. Purpose sprouts from the acknowledgment of, “Yes, I can grow from this.” Loving yourself isn’t conceit, it isn’t prideful, and it is not undeserved. Celebrate that this week. Yes, I’m being bossy-britches about this, but please. Celebrate love unconditionally for what you know of it, what you haven’t yet discovered, for what you feel for others, and what you should feel for yourself.

I love you — now get back to your roots.

Favorite Books: On Writing

If you know me, then, chances are, you’ve heard me make a Stephen King reference. I honestly love the man. While known for being horror royalty, there’s a depth and creativity in his writing that often gets overlooked. All of his stories have elements that are scary, but most of his work is not at all what I would classify as horror. Definitely weird, sometimes quite macabre, he’s the master of asking himself the question, “What if…?” and then taking his readers on the ride to find out.

Eight years ago, fresh off my first King novel, The Gunslinger, I found myself completely obsessed with finding out how in the world he came up with his ideas. Luckily, he wrote a book that answered my question and so many others I hadn’t yet realized I had about writing and the development of stories.

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This sounds dramatic, but reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was life-changing for me. This was before I had started writing again, before I took my first writing course, before I had written more than a few pages here and there of anything of substance at all. I was still firmly in a place where writing, though I loved it and ached for it, was so daunting that I didn’t even try. But every time I turned the page I felt a little more capable, the fire of passion burned a little brighter, the whole idea of writing for a living started to seem obtainable. It was exhilarating.

On Writing is the one and only book that I have ever read, and, upon completion, literally turned right back to the first page and started over immediately. It’s that good.

I’m sure some of you are like, “Really, Kelsey? A book about writing?”. YES! A book about writing. And let me tell you why. He tells his story from about three years old and onward and how life formed him into a writer. He explains how ideas and inspiration have happened for him, how two seemingly unrelated things can be pure story magic if you can see how they fit together. Only in the last third of the book does he cover any technical rules or tips for the mechanics of writing. The perfect amount to be helpful without feeling like reading a textbook. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves writing or appreciates the craft, anyone who loves reading, or anyone who is curious about the kooky guy who writes a shit ton of books that all seem to get made into movies.

Speaking of, if you’ve only ever seen the movie versions of his stuff, do yourself a favor and amend that. There couldn’t be a better example of books being better than the movies than almost the entire catalog of Stephen King films.

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I’m re-reading On Writing for the fifth time right now, and I’ve found that it’s become meaningful to me in a different way. When I first read it, my life was pretty chaotic. My marriage wasn’t doing very well, I was a new mom trying to figure out how that worked, I was preparing to move across the world from everyone I knew, and…, and…, and…etc. I was entirely overwhelmed by all of it. I felt like I was watching tiny, little bits of myself chip and fall off everywhere I went and the rest of me was starting to crack under the pressure. Something about reading this book when I did helped to ground me. Change was a hurricane, and I was still along for the ride, but rediscovering my love for writing kept me tethered to something real and something completely my own. When I was reminded that I had the capability to do something special with my talents, even if it seemed like a dream far off into the distance, I felt powerful again. Well, maybe not quite yet, but I remembered I could be powerful. And when you’re in the middle of an upheaval of that magnitude, just knowing something like strength exists within you is enough to get you through.

Because of this book, and the dozens of others I’ve read since, Stephen King will always be my writing spirit guide. When I find myself feeling wobbly or in serious doubt about my work, I look to him…and to the tattered pages of this book.

A Writer’s Mind

Follow me down the rabbit hole of how thoughts beget thoughts that connect and spark ideas that fall together to inspire a story. It’s fun and weird and…well, you’ll see.

 

Podcast

New book by Tisby something or other

Mrs. Brisby from Secret of NIHM

Auntie Shrew

Taming of the Shrew

10 Things I Hate About You

Trust after deception

Marriages that continue after infidelity

Loud anger

Quiet anger

Living together without living together

House of Cards

F*ck Kevin Spacey

What’s he up to now?

Is he sorry?

Or just sorry for himself and his situation?

What does that do to a person, having to face the monstrous parts of themselves without a single sympathizer to the pain of doing it?

What’s something horrible that a person can do and then have to live with the consequences?

Accidentally killing someone?

Marriages that continue after infidelity.

What’s worse than just cheating on your spouse?

Cheating on them when they are already weakened?

Cheating on them when they need you to be their hero?

After a loss?

During an illness?

What would hurt me the most?

Betrayal.

Betrayal of everything I thought was real in my life.

Wonder how often men actually have dual lives with two families and two wives that know nothing about the other.

That’s crazy.

Would they be different? Like, complementing personalities, filling in the gaps of the other?

That’s an interesting dynamic.

Would the guy treat them differently? Or have personality traits that are more pronounced with one family than the other.

A book told during one timeline from two wives perspectives as they live their separate lives and discover that they are both married to the same man.

One finds out first and then tells the other?

Or they meet by chance and discover it together?

Do they confront him?

Do they agree to continue to live the lie?

And then what?

Let me find out…

Kate (name from Taming) lived a solid and dependable life. She woke up every morning at five fifteen, dressed in leggings and a matching shirt, pushed the button on the coffee pot, and quietly left for her morning run. She was back, showered, and setting breakfast plates on the kitchen table just in time for her sleepy-eyed children to come down from their rooms and plop down to eat the expected eggs and toast or cereal and fruit that Kate alternated during the week. Unless Jeremy (name of the crow in NIHM), Kate’s husband, was home, then it was eggs, bacon, toast, fruit, and pastries. His rigorous travel schedule for work kept him away half the time and Kate relished in presenting him with lavish meals and bedroom romps meant to keep his returns home something to look forward to. She hoped, so privately she wasn’t fully aware of it herself, if she made home appealing enough, he’d find a way to slow down and stay…..

A Story, Spoken: Chapter Two

If you haven’t read Chapter One of my serial, A Story, Spoken, you can read it here.

Three months had passed since we’d lowered my mother’s body into the ground. Three months since I’d thrown a handful of dirt onto a brown box that contained the broken shell of bone and flesh that once held her soul. Three months of living a life that no longer made sense, but was my reality, though I hardly felt awake.

Nan had been released from the hospital a week after the accident. Neither of us wanted to be alone, but unable to bear speaking the words, I quietly drove her back to the apartment instead of to her house around the corner. She never asked me why.

I gave her my room, but I’d slept on the couch, pushing its aged springs and cushions past their limit with my heavy-hearted weight. It was second hand, to begin with, frayed and creaking, now it was a bowing cradle I retreated to at the end of every empty day, longing for the woman who’d rocked me in my first.

The medical bills came, then payment requests for a loan I was furious to hear Nan had taken out against her house to help me pay for college. All those years of sending checks with a simple explanation of, “It’s just something I had tucked away.” I was angry at her for the risk and angry at myself for not realizing the impossibility of her having that kind of money simply “tucked away”. Knowing that we couldn’t sustain the payments, we made the hard decision to rent out Nan’s house and officially move her into the apartment with me. We’d use the rent money to pay bills and climb out of the financial hole that seems to appear as a twin to tragedy. It wasn’t a long-term fix, but it was a place to start where we both felt comfortable.

Cheney, my best friend since grade school, had come over the day before the move to help me go through Mom’s room. I’d gone in a few times to look for documents required for a variety of things, and I’d picked out an outfit for her body to be buried in, but I hadn’t been able to handle the reality of vacant space. I think Nan had it somewhat easier in that sense. She was occupied with trying to figure out how to live without her sight, and I imagined how nice it would be to not see the obvious emptiness of life, of space, that my mother had filled.

Cheney left me in the jumble of my mother’s clothes and tchotchkes to pick up some storage bins. I had filled a box and most of a trash bag before I saw the glass on her bedside table. A thin beam of light from between the blinds was reflecting off the side and I could see a smudge on the rim. I held up the glass, staring at the rough, lined imprint of my mother’s mouth. Not one to wear lipstick, it was the slightly pink tint of cherry-flavored lip balm. I stared at that smudge, trying to trace every wrinkle into my memory. Unsure why it was so important to remember. Knowing I couldn’t ever, really. I lifted the glass and carefully aligned my lips with hers and pressed them into me. I drank the dusty water that shuddered in the bottom, taking it in like I was drinking her essence. I didn’t lick the excess moisture from my lips, not wanting to mar the sensation of the glass, and the print it held.

I stood and carried it with me outside to the flowerbed, unable to still the image of fairies scattering that flashed before my mind’s eye. I snapped and ripped the stems of the few blooms not wilting in the summer heat and carried them back to the apartment. I refilled the glass with water, placed the flowers inside, and set them on the window sill above the sink, turning the glass so the overlapping marks were facing outward to the sun.

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The next day found me alone in Nan’s empty house after the mover’s had left. Cheney had gone on to meet them at the apartment a few hours before and tell them where everything should go. I had stayed to clean the place up for the new tenants, enjoying the quiet of busy work without questions about where my memories of the house were to be stored or sold.

I was working on a scuff mark on the kitchen linoleum, lost in the mindless motion of the task when I realized I was writing a story.
I had been thinking about the scuff, the shape and sweeping lines of it that reminded me of an errant brush stroke. My mind skipped like a record from scuff marks to scuff marks on the soul, scuff marks on the soul that kept someone from living their lives the way they wanted to, kept them from reaching for their dreams because what dreams could come true when you are scuffed and broken.

I pictured a young man, one pained by abuse and abandonment, a true Dicksonian character. I saw him trudging down a windy city street, holding the hood of his jacket across the bottom of his face, trying to keep the rain and cold from stinging his tender skin. He was walking toward something important. No, he was walking to something mundane, but today he was aware that the act of doing it, or rather not doing it, stopping in his tracks with people bumping into him from behind, cursing him, would be life-changing. Garrett was his name, and he had just experienced a rare moment of knowing exactly what must be done to pull himself from his current state of existing and into something more.

I didn’t know the details of his story, just a very vivid understanding of that moment of clarity. I saw it play out in my mind. I saw his young face with early lines across his brow. I saw the rain dripping from his dark eyelashes. I saw him blink them away just as he blinked away the dazed life he’d been leading up until the moment that he wasn’t anymore.

He looked across the street, saw a park with open trails of calm and quiet, and then looked back toward the path he’d been walking. He followed the mundane continuation of his life stretching out before him and on into his eternity as a fabrication of a grieving mind. I watched him turn deliberately, coming to a decision, and walk toward the welcoming green of the park. I watched as the sun broke through clouds, and the rain slowed as he crossed the street into a new, unplanned future.
I battled with myself as I scrubbed, wanting to scratch the image down on paper, but not enough to stop the rhythmic motion of the brush on the floor. I was giving in to the excuses and comfort of my weaknesses, but I didn’t care. It was just a man walking to a park instead of down the street. He was nothing of substance – nothing I couldn’t call from memory later if I really needed to. I just kept swiping the brush over the scuff, silently damning the movers who’d drug Nan’s dresser instead of lifting, feeling the burn of tired muscles start to twist and tighten.

He was still in sight, not quite lost in the foliage. I could still get up and write him down. I could flesh him out. I could find out what his mundane life consisted of. I could find out what his past held, what made him afraid to be alone. I could explore whether I thought that loneliness ate at him, shaming him into solitude, or if he so craved attention and intimacy that he was cavalier with his heart and with his body. I could explore what future he was walking toward. I could find out what his dream was, the one strong enough to pull him from the ease of monotony. Would he succeed? Would he fail? Would any of that matter because it was really about the journey and not about the outcome, especially considering that stories never really die until a person does. And even then, they live on with all the other people they touched along the way. As I asked myself these questions, I was already answering them. I knew I could fill them out even more. I knew I could build his world, his entire existence into something meaningful.

But I couldn’t. Not anymore.

I moved on to another section of the floor, leaving Garrett and his story on the square of linoleum where I’d found them.

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The front door opened behind me, and I jumped, nearly slipping as I turned to see who had entered.

“Hey, honey.” Cheney smiled at me as she pushed the door open before hooking her arm back through the crook of Nan’s elbow and helping her step over the threshold.

“Nan, you didn’t need to come out here. Everything’s done already.” I stood and crossed to help walk her over to the window seat in the living room.

“I know that.” she snapped. “But it’s my house and I’m here.”

Cheney eye-balled me over the top of Nan’s head. Clearly, it had not been the first sharp moment for Nan’s tongue in the hours since I’d left the apartment that morning.

“How’s it going?” Cheney changed the subject, going back to stand by the open door now that Nan was safely seated. She wanted to go. I could see she was tired and she’d already helped so much.

“I’m done. Just being nitpicky now.” I lifted one corner of my mouth in the best smile I could muster and then let her off the hook. “Why don’t you go home. We’re all set for the night. Nan and I can drive through Jake’s on the way home for dinner. Tell your mom I said thank you for helping with the consignment stuff.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll tell her.” Cheney held her hands in front of her, wanting to say more, knowing it wouldn’t help.

“It’s okay, Cheney. We’re good.” I managed both corners that time and she nodded in acceptance.

“Okie dokie,” she chirped back, clearly trying to lift the mood before retreating. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yep.”

“Thank you, Cheney,” Nan called just before the door shut behind my friend. I watched Cheney turn through the window, hearing Nan’s voice and waving before sheepishly pulling her hand back down and lifting her shoulders to me in apology for forgetting Nan couldn’t see it. I waved her on and smiled a little more easily.

“Cheney waved.” I couldn’t hide my mirth. Nan grunted a small laugh in response and then a deeper chuckle rumbled up.

“Oh, that’ll be fun to give people shit about,” she sighed. “Keep snitching on them, will you?”

“Doctor Reeves even did it at your check up the other day,” I confessed with a small laugh.

“Ha! That’s rich,” she shook her head, still smiling. “Remind me next time so I can tease him.”

“You’re gonna get me in trouble, but okay.” I laughed, stretching out the tightness in my shoulders.

“I sure hope so.” Her blank eyes wandered around the room as she turned her face from side to side. “Tell me what it looks like, Annie.”

“What do you mean? It’s an empty house.” I leaned my head down, resting it on her shoulder as I stared at the hollow space before us.

“Babe, I lived here for almost forty years. Your grandpa laid the bricks on the front walk. I brought your momma home to this house. Watched her grow up in this house. She brought you home to this house after your daddy disappeared. When you ran away from home, you came here,” she paused, wiping away a tear, sniffing back the threat of more. “I never thought I’d leave it. And now I can’t even see it for the last time. But you can tell me what it looks like.” She kissed the top of my head and waited.

“Okay,” I swept the tears from my own eyes and cleared my throat. I sat up and looked around, still seeing where everything used to be, picturing vividly the moments that made it so hard to leave.

“Remember the crescent-shaped burn mark on the counter by the stove?” I began. “It’s still there. I always thought it looked like a taunting smile, endlessly reminding Mom of scorching it with that giant stock pot you guys used to make soup in,” I looked back to see Nan smile at the memory and continued. “There are dimples on the carpet where all the furniture used to be, like everything is still there, just suddenly invisible,” I looked around for something else. “The sun is coming through the kitchen window, and it’s almost to the edge of the living room carpet. I used to look for that when I was little because it meant Mom would be here to pick me up soon.”

“Really?” Nan laughed, sniffing again as more tears ran down her soft face. “I never knew you did that.”

“Yeah, every day. I don’t remember when I first noticed it, but it was like my own secret message that she was on her way. ‘When the light met the gold’” I laughed, quoting my childhood imagination.

“What’s that?”

“Well, you know the little strip of gold between the carpet and the linoleum?” she nodded in understanding.

“I don’t know. It’s just what I called it.” I shrugged, glancing around for something else to jump out at me that I could tell her, but there was nothing more to see. Stains and scuff marks were all that remained in the house she loved.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.” I gasped in as the knot in my throat clenched and I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. “It’s just empty.” I fell back into Nan’s arms and even as she shushed me, she cried.

I suddenly felt sick of the whole thing. I didn’t want to be in the house anymore. It hurt too much to sit on the bench my mother had read countless books on waiting for Grandpa to get home after work. I hated that when I looked up to see what time it was, the mantle clock wasn’t there to chime. I couldn’t stand that all I could smell was cleaning products and the sweat of strangers and not the mixture of staling potpourri, fresh bread, and Pledge that should have been there.

I stood, realizing I was on the verge of a panic attack and needed to move, and then I saw Nan. Her eyes were wide and frantic, glossy with tears. She was lost. I didn’t know if she couldn’t tell where she was or just worried where I was, or if she was lost in the pain of memories she could no longer call forth with visual clarity. I pulled her up off the bench and wrapped my arms around her.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.” I held her gently and somehow swallowed the rest of my sorrow for the moment. I was needed and so couldn’t need. Not right now.

“Are you ready to go?” I whispered in her ear.

“Yeah, baby. I am.”

I took her arm and walked her to the door, opened it and stepped out before her to allow more space to walk through. I turned to face her, still holding one hand, but she stopped in the doorway. She reached up and set her hand on the wooden frame, patting it gently like you would a good pet.
“Thank you,” she said. Not to me, but to the house that had held her life for so long. I could swear I saw her absorb every memory she’d let the house carry for her so she wouldn’t leave them behind. Her shoulders dropped almost imperceptibly as the weight of them settled around her. She grasped my hand tighter and stepped out on the stoop, the door swinging shut behind her.