The House of Broken Angels: A Book Review

As I have jumped head first into this whole “being a serious writer” thing, I’ve exposed myself to pretty incredible literature that I can’t believe I’ve been missing. I think I’ve mentioned before that I had a decades-old habit to only read old classics, or best sellers long after they’ve lost their new book luster. I think I had some twisted sense of responsibility to catch up somehow with all the books I’d missed before I read the new stuff. Like that makes sense, or is even remotely achievable. Along with featuring new publications in my book reviews, I’ve been listening to several podcasts about the current goings-on in the literary world and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been starving myself. Yes, the classic greats will always be great, but there are some truly incredible authors living right now, publishing right now, creating right now, that are simply too good to miss.

That is my disclaimer and poor excuse for never having read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea until now. Holy cow, can this dude write. I mean, it says “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” next to his name on the cover, so I should have known, but sometimes there’s a certain…pretentiousness in books with that honor…or books even close to that honor. There was nothing pretentious about this book. The House of Broken Angels is humble even in its striking beauty.

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The story spans two days with the De La Cruz family as they come together for a final birthday celebration for the ailing grand patriarch Big Angel. A week before the party, his mother passes away at nearly a hundred years old sweeping the family up in a blur of reminiscing and dreaming of what the future holds.The partitions between the aging generation that made their way to America from Mexico in their youth and the younger ones who barely speak Spanish are blurred, as the De La Cruz house bulges with familia and theatrics of emotion.

A slow read, its lingering sentences draw you to read them again just to bask in their light. This is a book you read a bit at a time, letting each moment sink in before you continue. The structure reminds me of music composition. The first third of the book serves as an overture, explaining the scope of the story, introducing themes and revealing backstories of the many players. You are then submerged in a dance of perspectives as you jump from character to character, what they see and experience in the forty-eight-hour period. You fall in love with their individualities, their simple pleasures and jagged pains, known, but not acknowledged by the others.

I felt entirely immersed in the culture of this family, each person so distinct but part of a powerful whole that leapt from the page. I stopped reading at one point and announced to my husband, “This man needs to write a screenplay.” The dialogue and simple painting of the picture are so pure and perfect I couldn’t help but make small exclamations of pleasure, adoring the very act of reading his work.

This is not what I would call an easy book, but it’s not hard either. The language is easy, the story is a meandering family fable with sharp gut-checking moments when a revelation hits true north. A stunning story that deserves to be savored for every delicious word. Luckily, it’s written in bite-sized portions, easily consumed in spare moments, but the words will follow you off the page to percolate through your mind long after closing the book.

As fate would have it, while I was reading The House of Broken Angels, I listened to another podcast, not literary-related, yet they referenced and quoted Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway as they spoke about the history of border control and immigration from Mexico. Just the small bits they read were enough to prove that this guy is not a one-hit wonder. I will be reading as much of Urrea’s writing as I can get my hands on.

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Happy Birthday To Me

I’ve had a birthday since the last time we spoke. It was a pretty big one, too.

I turned thirty.

Thirty.

I know the typical reactions to those digits tend to be ones of fear or at least a rapid uptick in blood pressure as we start to ask ourselves, “What in the world am I actually doing?” However, I’ve been looking forward to this one. I’ve managed to cram a ton of life into my thirty years, the details of which I’ll save for my memoir if I ever write one, and in doing so, I grew up pretty fast. Even as a child, I gravitated to the adults in a room and didn’t shy away from trying to participate in whatever most astute and mature conversation they were having. Precocious is what they called me, and while I appreciated the recognition that I was able, on some level, to “hang with the big dogs”, there was always a little laugh or a little flippancy hidden in the corner of their smile.

At some point in childhood, we all become aware of the thirty milestone and what awaits us on the other side. Often joked about, a dress-rehearsal for the even more feared “over the hill”, thirty has its fair share of foreboding whispers.

Once you leave your twenties you’re not young anymore. You’re a “real” adult now.

While some of my peers may have slapped a big ole warning label on the distant “thirty” in their psyche, my eyes lit up. Thirty! That’s what I want. That’s what I’ve been waiting for. I want to be thirty. I want to be an indisputable adult. I want the mantle of respect and acceptance of my adult peers. I want the simpering smiles and chuckle of surprise when I speak to stop so that my words are actually heard.

Now, I’m not naive. I know now that my initial idea of what turning thirty would mean isn’t how the world works. There will always be someone older than me, assuming that wiser is a given. And I’m okay with that. I welcome the opportunity to give them something to think about.

I know that what was and is beyond thirty is entirely what I make of it. Thirty is youthful and wise. It’s hopeful and serious. It’s excited and prepared. It’s believing in your dreams in a solid way. Tying the balloon of imagination to a platform where it can take root in reality. It’s earlier nights and earlier mornings. It’s coffee, but even more water. It’s recognizing health as a privilege and something you have to work to maintain. It’s looking back at the last thirty years in appreciation for their tempo, and not allowing it to quicken as you continue.

The years ahead of me are sweet. There will be inevitable bites of bitterness, but growth and development follow closely on its heels. When I close my eyes, I imagine a little girl hunched over a pile of kindling. She is rocked by sudden gusts of wind that threaten the ember she is coaxing to life. As she grows before my eyes, the flame rises and the soft fibers of wood begin to burn. The young lady carefully places twigs around her fire, feeding it, nurturing it. As she turns to retrieve a larger branch, the light catches her face and you see the fine lines forming on her brow and in the creases of her eyes. She slowly sets the log on the growing fire before her. She does so with such meticulous care that you worry her hand will burn. How can she bear to stand so close? But as the wood hits the flame, it ignites and sparks fly. The woman steps back, watching the fire she has created and mothered into strength. And she smiles, feeling the heavy presence of the mountain of fuel set beside her.

Thirty isn’t the finish line of youth. It’s not the end of anything. I carry forth what I know, and my lust for life and all its treasures just like any other day. Thursday was no different than Tuesday. I’m still feeding my kids, I’m still running the laundry, I’m still writing.

But still, I’m thirty.

A Story Spoken: Chapter Three

It’s been raining like crazy for weeks around here, and now the storm is hitting Annie’s hometown. This month, we learn that she’s been hiding something from Nan. What kind of secret would Annie keep from her beloved grandmother, and will Cheney convince her to fess up?

If you haven’t read the first two chapters of my serial or need a refresher before you continue, you can read Chapter One here and Chapter Two here.

 

A rhythmic “shave and a haircut” knock rattled the front door to the apartment. Closing a bookmark into the novel I’d been reading, I glanced up at Nan’s old mantle clock. It was balanced somewhat precariously on the two by fours Mom had nailed together and mounted on the wall years before so we had a place to hang our Christmas stockings. A shelf would have worked fine, but I guess that hadn’t occurred to her at the time. If she had an explanation, I didn’t recall ever hearing it. Just another mystery quirk of hers I’d never be able to ask about.

I crossed the room, tapping the last two beats back to Cheney before opening the door.

“You’re early.” I smiled. It was getting easier, but guilt always tagged along quietly behind and I honestly couldn’t sort out which was right: being able to smile again, or keeping myself from it.

“Yeah, sorry,” Cheney huffed a bit as she lifted a box from the ground, “I wanted to go over putting the mailers together before we left if that’s cool?” She set the box of paper and envelopes down on the kitchen table with a loud thump that made the occupants of the lazy susan centerpiece rattle.

“Oh, yeah. I forgot you were dropping those off.”

Cheney looked up with concern, “You’re still okay with helping out with this, right?”

“Yeah! No, I just forgot. That’s all. I’m happy to help.” Another potentially disloyal smile.

“Oh, good,” Cheney sighed and opened the box to reveal the neatly stacked fliers for her mother’s boutique. “I’m already mad at myself for not just ordering the glossy postcard mailers. They were a little more expensive, but stuffing envelopes is such a pain in the ass. Thrifty is not always a good thing.”

“It’s not a big deal. I’m not sleeping much anyway. If I’m going to binge on TV late into the night, I might as well be productive while I’m doing it.”

“Have you seen that new true crime thing about the family in Minnesota that just vanished? Trent and I watched it the other night and it gave me nightmares!”

“I don’t know why you do that to yourself,” I couldn’t help but laugh at the obvious residual distress on her face. “Take a break from the murders and missing person crap before you really freak yourself out.”

“You’re probably right,” Cheney sighed, “We’re just lucky to agree on anything at all, much less what to watch on Netflix.”

I helped Cheney empty the box, neatly stacking the fliers, envelopes, and stamps in an assembly line across the table.

“You guys still having a rough time?” While I knew they weighed heavily on her mind, Cheney’s problems were mundane enough to be a break from my own. It was easier to help her sort through dating problems than it was to cope with my grief and the ever-expanding effort of taking care of Nan.

“A rough time?” Cheney scoffed, “Yeah, you could say that. I don’t think he sees it that way, but I’m about through.”

“Really?” I couldn’t hide my surprise. Two months before, Cheney was talking about rings and babies, ready to brave the meticulous and overbearing force that was her mother and plan a wedding.

“I just…,” she paused, visibly searching for the right words, “He’s a nice guy, Annie, he really, really is. I just don’t think I love him. I know I thought I did, but the longer we’ve been at this thing, the more I’m realizing that I might’ve gotten ahead of myself. He’s a solid guy, but not always the most compassionate, and I don’t really feel like hand-holding him through kindness my whole life. I want someone who cares if they hurt my feelings and cares if I hurt his.”

“He doesn’t care if you hurt his feelings?”

“Well, he cares, I guess. I shouldn’t have put it that way. He’s just so mellow that I can’t tell how he’s feeling most of the time. That’s harder than I thought. I don’t know where I stand with him and even when I’ve tried to talk to him about it, it’s more of the same! No reaction that shows me he even understands what I’m worried about.”

“That sucks, hon. I’m sorry.” I was quiet, letting her talk through what was bouncing around her head, knowing that she just needed the ear and not the advice.

Cheney trailed off, finishing her story and went through the steps of how they wanted the flyers mailed out. Cheney’s mom, Ruth, owned a small shop downtown and they sold everything from ruffled mommy-daughter outfits to embroidered tea towels. The Hummingbird Boutique was also known for having the best consignment furniture around and Ruth and Cheney were helping to sell the excess furniture we had after moving Nan in with me full-time. Most everything we’d given them had sold, but there was a small secretary table that was pretty beat up and hadn’t moved yet. Cheney had asked if I wanted to keep it on the floor for another week, but I wanted to take another look at it to see if it would fit in my room to use as a writing desk.

“Ready to go?” Cheney picked her purse up and started heading for the door, “Oh, crap it’s raining. Do you have an umbrella? I had to park pretty far down.”

“Uh, yeah there should be one hanging by the mail basket. I’m gonna let Nan know I’m leaving real quick.”

I knocked quietly on Nan’s door, pushing my arms through the worn denim sleeves of my favorite jacket while I waited for an answer. I poked my head in when I heard her call. She was lying on her bed, an old crocheted blanket loud with burnt seventies orange draped across her lap. She had pulled her headphones off one ear to hear me better.

“I’m headed out with Cheney. We’re going to run up to The Hummingbird and probably grab some lunch on the way back. Do you want anything?”

“No, that’s okay, honey. I can warm up some soup from last night.”

“Are you sure?” Nan tended to be overconfident with her ability to feed herself without at least some assistance, “I don’t mind bringing you something. That way you won’t have to mess with the microwave.”

I’d put raised stickers on certain buttons for her to feel her way around if I wasn’t home. She just needed to count how many thirty-second increments she needed for whatever needed heating up and then press start. Still too scared to leave her alone for too long so soon after the accident, I’d been making ends meet with the checks from renting Nan’s house out and odd jobs like stuffing envelopes for Cheney. I knew I’d have to find a steady job soon, but Nan wasn’t ready yet.

“I’m fine. Don’t fuss over me,” Nan grumbled. She didn’t wait for my answer. She replaced the headphones and pressed play on her audiobook.

Somehow knowing I hadn’t left yet, she waved her hand, shooing me away, “Go on, now. Have fun. Bye!”

I stepped into the room and pressed a quick kiss on her cheek. She smiled, patted the hand I’d rested on her knee as I leaned over her, and gently pushed me away.

“Bye, Nan.”

When I returned to the living room, Cheney was sitting on the edge of the couch reading something. She looked up, and, upon seeing her expression, I knew what she’d found.

“What the hell, Annie?” Cheney lifted the letter with an angry shrug, “When were you going to tell me about this?”

“There’s nothing to tell. I can’t go,” I lifted my purse off the hook by the door, sweeping the strap over my head in one fluid, practiced motion of a woman who didn’t have a lot of free time, “Come on. I want to get back by one.”

Cheney wasn’t buying it, “Nice try,” She shut the door again when I started to open it.

“Shhh!” I glanced back toward Nan’s room, “Let’s talk about it in the car.”

Cheney’s face flushed and her frown deepened, “You haven’t even told Nan?” she yelled the whisper in a huff, pursing her lips, but she followed me as I drug her through the front door and down the stairs to the parking lot.

“Annie!”

“No!” I turned to her as I walked through the rain, my shoulders lifted to my ears as the chilly raindrops dripped down my neck. Cheney had the letter in one hand and my umbrella in the other, but, in her frustration, she’d forgotten to open it.

“No, I haven’t told her. And why would I? She’ll want me to go, and when I explain why I can’t she’ll just get pissed. It won’t help anything. We’ll both just end up feeling guilty and shitty when it’s said and done,” I shrugged, turning away from her again, “I didn’t see the point.”

We’d reached Cheney’s hand-me-down truck she’d bought from her dad when we graduated from high school, but even when I rested my hand on the handle, waiting for her to unlock the door, she just stared at me, raindrops dripping from the tip of her nose.

“Cheney, get in the truck. It’s pouring out here!” She snapped out of it long enough to get us from the parking lot to the main road, windshield wipers screeching with each swipe, before she started in on me again.

“I can’t believe you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Annie, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve wanted to be a writer. You wanted to get out of this town, head to a big city somewhere and write! Now you finally have a chance and you just aren’t going to go?”

“It’s just an internship,” I gazed out the window, switching my focus from the raindrops to the traffic beyond them.

“At a New York City publishing house!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s bullshit, and you know it.”

“Hey!” I turned to face her then, anger getting the better of me, “You think I don’t know that it’s an amazing opportunity? I agonized over sending my application for that internship for months!”

“I know! That’s why I don’t…”

“Cheney! My mom died! She’s gone. Nan is blind and not getting any younger. Someone has to take care of her, and I’m the only one left. It fucking sucks. I know that, but there is no way that I can just pack up and leave after everything that’s happened. It’s just not in the stars anymore.”

“But…,”

“Stop! Please, Cheney. There’s nothing else to talk about.”

She wasn’t looking at me, eyes still focused on the road, but she clapped her mouth shut. We rode the rest of the way to the boutique in silence, but when she pulled into a parking spot and threw the truck into park, she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face me.

“Look, I’m sorry. I know that this has been horrible for you. Losing your mom, taking care of Nan. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through,” she looked down at the now crumpled letter in her hand, and lifted it up to my face, “but this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you, and I can’t stand to see you give it up.”

I took the letter and looked at it, ignoring the burning threat of tears.

“It says you have until September 1st to formally accept. You still have a few weeks. Please, will you please just think about it some more? At least don’t make up your mind until you have to.”

I knew there wasn’t anything else to think about. I couldn’t imagine how I could afford to put Nan into a home even if she agreed to go, which she never would. I couldn’t abandon her. She was all I had left of Mom, and I know she felt the same about me. We’d lost her. We couldn’t lose each other, too.

“I’ll think about it.”

Cheney sighed with relief and beamed at me, satisfied that she had achieved what she’d set out to, and I would now magically come around somehow.

“But, please,” I stopped her when she turned to get out of the truck, “don’t tell Nan.”

She nodded and we ran to the door, squished together under my umbrella, as I shoved the letter deep into my pocket and away from my mind.

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.

Being a Mom

Being a mom is existing within an undulating definition of self.

Being a mom is long hours of hard work that you hardly ever feel was done well enough.

Being a mom is early mornings when the sun has yet to rise, but your three-year-old has.

Being a mom is balancing firm with soft, strong with gentle, freedom with boundaries.

Being a mom is being challenged on ideals, instructions, and with fierce independence.

Being a mom is gasping with excitement at the new chapter opening up before your child only to have the breath catch with a sob of grief for the one they’ve just left.

Being a mom is letting go and holding fast.

Being a mom is trust, questioning, and surrender to what will be.

Being a mom is a close examination of everything you believe in and recognizing that beliefs grow and change just as much as your children do.

Being a mom is accepting bodily fluids as a part of life.

Being a mom is an extra cup of coffee that you won’t finish before it’s cold.

Being a mom is laughing until you cry and crying until you choke.

Being a mom is wiping butts, noses, and tears.

Being a mom is not being sure what the stain is.

Being a mom is forgetting the last time you showered.

Being a mom is deeply appreciating a shower.

Being a mom is holding your tongue.

Being a mom is reading the Riot Act.

Being a mom is slammed doors, eye rolls, and whining.

Being a mom is the sweetest laughter, warm hugs, and heavy heads relaxing into your shoulder.

Being a mom is dancing through days that you wish were over, knowing you’ll wish to remember them when your bones start to creak and your house is no longer full.

Being a mom is hoping you end up with more laugh lines than frown.

Being a mom is the thrill of watching your child display perfect manners and compassion.

Being a mom is embarrassment when they don’t.

Being a mom is deep, whole-hearted forgiveness and a love so overwhelming that to reflect on it feels like drowning in equal parts joy, worry, and gratitude.

Being a mom is feeling unworthy and underappreciated.

Being a mom is knowing the answer to the question, “Why?”

Being a mom is learning as you teach and teaching as you learn.

Being a mom is to appreciate your own mom in every way you didn’t growing up.

Being a mom is wanting to be a good example, and being honest when you fail.

Being a mom is whispers and tiptoes and sneak attack tickles.

Being a mom is stroking hair and fluffing pillows.

Being a mom is grinning at their grins, challenging their scowls, and empathizing with their tears.

Being a mom is everything and nothing like you thought.

Being a mom is wanting a moment, but not for too long.

Being a mom is selfless and selfish, eager and wary, rational and paradoxical.

Being a mom is life lived with purpose that you truly understand only in the periphery of your mind and in the depth of your soul.

Being a mom is…

Favorite Books: A Journey

Do you ever travel back through memories to see if you can pinpoint which things or moments altered your course in life? Not necessarily a big shift, but just recognizing that once that thing, whatever it was, was said or done or experienced you were different. Sometimes it’s special because it’s a first. The first time you jumped off the diving board. The first time you skated all around the roller rink without falling. The first time you finished a book that did something more than entertain you. As I’ve been practicing my craft and building my writer muscles, I started asking myself which books I think really made a difference. I wanted to examine which stories stayed with me over the years and what I feel they gave me.

This blog is supposed to be about my writing life and my reading life is a big part that. As you know, I’ll be sharing my reviews of newly published books this year, but I couldn’t neglect the books I’ve already read that helped lead me to this point. I want to use my love of books and writing to reach others who share that love. Maybe I’ll introduce you to a new book, or remind you of an old one you haven’t thought about in a while, but I don’t want to just talk about them…I want you to read them.

Once a month I’m going to share a book with you from my past. One that is meaningful to me in some way. If you share my blog and send a screenshot to me on Facebook or email it to me here, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of the beloved book I share that day. I’ll leave the pool open for one week and then draw a winner! This won’t make me a dime, you won’t be entered into some weird database or anything, I just want to put more books in people’s hands and I thought this would be a fun way to do it!

What book is first on deck? Let’s see, shall we…

I believe I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this book. We read some of it aloud in class, but mostly had chapter assignments to read at home. While other students groaned at the reminder, “Make sure you finish Chapter Three over the weekend so we can talk about it on Monday!” I was thrilled and grateful for every spare moment I could read.

I always read ahead, even when we were asked not to. Reading books in class felt painfully slow to me. The flow of the story was broken horrendously when only a chapter a week was assigned. And reading aloud in class? Torture. As an adult, I appreciate the importance of having children practice this, but, at the time, I could hardly sit still listening to classmates stumble over words and read an emotion-filled scene with all the passion of a dust mote. I would watch their lips move, and their finger trail along under the words and wonder if they were even aware of what they were reading or just making the sounds required.

I’d trudged through weeks of trying to pace myself, only allowing a chapter or two ahead of the class before going back to read along again and wait, but I reached my limit and decided one weekend to just finish the dang book already.

I sobbed. The book made me sob. I cried so hard, my emotions swaying in a synchronized dance of heartbreaking sadness and honest surprise at the heartbreaking sadness that my mom came running into my room to see what was wrong with me. I think I just pointed at the blasted book. That! That’s what did this to me!

I’m sure she smiled, I’m positive she hugged me. She knew. She knew how books could grab hold of you and make you care. This was my first real experience with it. I had been reading since two, had gotten teary-eyed a few times before, but this visceral reaction to the written word was entirely new. That day a door opened for me. The magic of books had just jumped from card tricks to vanishing acts. The magic of books that was growing alongside me suddenly shot over my head and through the sky. Simple words. Simple story. Deeply complicated feelings. Who knew?

The book was Where the Red Fern Grows.

If you’ve never read it, don’t let my sob story keep you from it. It’s an exceptional book. I have a copy on my bookshelf waiting for the day my son is ready for it. It wasn’t originally written for children, but Rawls truly captures the spirit of childhood. The energy, the thoughts, the dreaming.

If you’ve had the unfortunate chore of growing up without having read Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s a story about a boy living in the foothills of the Ozarks. He saves up his money to buy his heart’s greatest desire, a pair of coonhounds. The journey of their friendship and training winds through the forest of his childhood so closely you can smell the leaves crunching underfoot.

Read it as an adult to reflect on days of running around barefoot and the unconditional love of a dog. Have your kids read it to discover a different time, a different way of life, and perhaps some deeper emotion stored up somewhere just waiting for a good book to draw it out. Read it for nostalgia. Read it for heart. Read it for soul. It’s worth every salt-spiked tear.

…and bleed.

Several years ago I had this amazing professor who, beyond all other things he taught me, helped me accept my path to being a writer. I’ve always been the person to get distracted by ideas and the excitement of something new, and while that feeds the creative in me, and makes for some great fun, it really generated a map of winding roads of potential that made me dizzy.

I loved books and writing, but there’s that societal judgment I’ve referred to before about how useful or worthwhile people perceive writing as a career to be. I also love photography, showed a flair for marketing in a few jobs over the years, cooking held my eye, stomach, and attention all the way up to meeting with an advisor for a culinary arts degree before deciding the hours weren’t what I wanted. Teaching had held a residency in the possibilities section of my brain since I was in first grade, and after years of bouncing ideas about the future off myself, I finally thought I’d settled on a winner.

I had a plan, I had mapped out all the courses I’d need, and settled on a practical (gag) History Degree/Teaching Certificate. I love History, don’t get me wrong. Intricate stories, exotic settings, heroes and villains that switch roles depending on perspective? Hello! It was certainly up my alley. But the idea of settling for something “practical” irked me and made me fidget in my seat with discontent. Luckily, one of the required courses, when I started off, was Creative Writing. It was not lost on me that I was more excited about that class than any of my History courses.

Enter Professor Harmon, who confirmed every hope I had about writing to be true. I had never had a teacher so passionate about writing. His love for the craft poured out of him into his lectures, leaving my fellow classmates and me to wade through the water of creativity. We had no choice but to bathe in it. He expected no less than our best. He expected growth. He expected respect for writing and its power. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t animated, but he spoke with such deliberate care and consideration for every word. I was giddy with joy. I went into every class with butterflies of anticipation and left every class riding a high of adrenaline.

Not long into my semester, I realized there was a voice in my head that was getting louder with each day. I could feel my journey down the path I had chosen starting to list to the left. My heartstrings were pulling and I could hear the call. THE call. You know, the one people talk about but seems too cliche to be real.

Along with this indisputable realization that I was going down the wrong road came this sickening feeling of shame and absolute dread at telling people that, yet again, I had changed my mind and was going to shift my trajectory. How, I asked myself, could anyone possibly take me seriously when I’d danced all over the map of life goals like a nomad of dreams, but no, no…THIS is the real one. This time I’ll put down roots. This time is for real.

When I did start talking, man, could I feel the invisible pat on the head and the subliminal, “That’s nice, dear.” I resented it and felt I utterly deserved it all at the same time. But let me tell you a little something about me. I know how to rise to a fucking challenge. Every patronizing smile, every word of masked exhaustion with my pattern of flitting from aspiration to aspiration, every infuriating dismissal drove me harder. Yeah, I had some setbacks, but, to my credit, this time they were valid ones. I moved across the planet, I got divorced, I worked hard to create a stable life for myself and my son, all the while, taking notes and holding tight to the “one day” on the horizon where I could pick my dream back up again in earnest.

When I made new friends, my writing was one of the first things they learned about me. The more I talked about it, the more my tribe gathered around me in support. I was gifted journals, books about writing, a beautiful vintage typewriter, and unwavering belief. All that time of not being taken seriously, it was the bed I’d made. But I tore the sheets off and traded the Bed of Maybe for a Writing Desk of Definitely.

There’s a quote from Hemingway that says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That intimacy of writing is everything to me. Good writing requires you to be authentic, to show up, and this quote follows and haunts me with every word I type. See, when faced with the truth of my future, I fell so deeply in love with it that I realized that I could never let it go. Not for anyone, any fear, any bit of doubt. The best relationships are built on a layered trust that holds us up during times of trouble, and I trust in writing. I trust myself when I’m with writing. And I know that no matter what happens in my life, writing will be there for me. Asking nothing of me, but myself.

So here’s to professors that don’t know they are changing a life, to friends who see the spark of true calling and won’t let you ignore it, to quotes that resonate in your soul at just the right time, and the guts to throw caution to the wind and chase a dream…a truth…with everything you’ve got.