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…..

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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.

The Immortalists: A Book Review

Let me start by saying thank you to my readers who voted for this book. I don’t think I could have picked a better title to launch my book review section of this blog. It’s not a long read at just shy of 350 pages, but the storytelling is rich and inviting. I think this will quickly become my favorite part of blogging because I love to talk about books almost as much as I love to talk about writing! But don’t worry, no spoilers will be uttered here.

The Immortalists begins with the four Gold siblings at various points along the bridge from childhood to adolescence. It’s the summer of ‘69 in New York City’s Lower East Side and in quiet understanding that the separation of age is threatening the closeness of their youth, Simon, Klara, David, and Varya embark on a quest to find the Woman on Hester Street who can tell you when you’ll die.

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Author Chloe Benjamin has managed to tell each sibling’s story, how they choose to accept or reject their prescribed fate, with such incredible honesty that to reach the end and remember that they are fiction is to accept a pang of grief. Each of the Gold siblings has an individualistic nature that seems to clatter and bang against their shared upbringing like rough seas against a levee wall. They each equally hold dear and at arm’s length their shared history and escape into their own versions of living, eventually leaving New York in search or in avoidance of their destinies.

I was most impressed with the underlying theme of communication. In small, easily overlooked ways Benjamin reveals the missed opportunities and understandings that are all too recognizable in our own lives. She quietly points to the differences in how we see ourselves and how others see us, gently prodding at the egocentric nature of us all. This book is filled with moments like this that invite reflection, without demanding it.

She spends time with each of the Golds, sharing their lives and the ghosts that haunted them in separate sections of the book. I’m not always a fan of this form of storytelling as it often feels disjointed and difficult to attach to the characters when only chunks of their stories are told, but this is not the case here. Benjamin skillfully allows small flashbacks to fill in the holes that feel more like the natural reflection of life than the storyteller trying to make it all connect. It almost feels like a series of novellas, each with their own arc. Writer and performer, Joselyn Hughes says, “Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.” Benjamin executes this perfectly, allowing the impression you have of one sibling based on the perception of another to be altered entirely in raw and organic ways once you’ve entered their consciousness in the next section.

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I will warn you, there are some very graphic sex scenes in parts of this book. At first, I was disappointed to find them because I felt it was gratuitous and angling for shock value, but as I continued to read, I realized how important those moments were to the development of this particular character. There was an urgency in them that I came to realize was all too important to the story. While quite explicit, there’s something I appreciate about just how raw and real Benjamin writes these scenes. No apologies. I have to admire that in a writer.

The only real complaint I have is that I wanted more time with Daniel. His storyline started with the same richness and revelation as the others but rushed to its climax. I’m not a fan of fluff and filler, but there was a leap made that I don’t know that I was quite ready for.

People who like the show This Is Us will love this book as it follows a similar slow reveal of the varying perspectives of family members, the stories we tell ourselves, and how they become our reality. The book jacket calls it a “family love story” and I can’t think of a better term to describe it. It’s beautifully somber and yet hopeful. I finished it with a sigh.

I look forward to reading more material from Chloe Benjamin for her sharp descriptions of benign things and her spatial awareness of how stories can best unfold. This is some soul-bearingly intimate writing, and I can’t wait for more.

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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.

A Story, Spoken: Chapter One

Today is the start of something special…I hope.

Each November, I participate in NaNoWriMo (more on that next time), and I attempt to draft a book before the end of the month. Yes, really. Last year, all my “good” ideas were super involved and would have required lots of research and time that I had wasted leading up to the start of the project. I had had an idea for a relationship, one you’ll be introduced to shortly, and thought, “Well, I’ll just start there and see what happens.”

I’ve never been one to outline whole stories or anything, but I approached this project as a writing exercise. I had a habit in previous manuscripts of rushing through to each designated plot point and missing out on the richness in between. That’s where this story began. I ended up with a bunch of little vignettes about these characters. It was choppy, the character building was erratic, so I saved one last time and didn’t open the file again until a month ago.

When I read what I’d written I was surprised by how much I really loved it. It needed a lot of work, and I still wasn’t sure where it would ultimately end up, but I wanted to do something with these snippets of a story. Of course, this was around the time I was first setting up this blog and planning what I wanted to do with it, and I had the idea to turn this story into a serial.

This post contains the first episode of what will be an ongoing story that I will add to each month. My goal is to bring this woebegone manuscript out of the shadows and have twelve volumes of a completed story by the end of the year. I hope you enjoy these people as much as I have. Truthfully, they’ve really stolen my heart.

Without further ado – A Story, Spoken: Chapter One

 

I was a child who believed. Magic, wishes, good luck, destiny – it was all real to me. Just as real as schoolwork, the friends that lived in the apartment two doors down, or the smell of bacon frying on Saturday mornings. I had such incredible faith in the power of belief that I had entirely convinced myself that fairies lived in the moderately landscaped scrap of grass behind the complex that we called the garden. Even if they didn’t at first, I thought that if I believed unwaveringly enough they would simply sparkle into existence. So I’d squint my eyes against sunlight and watch shadows flick in the trees as wind rattled their branches and I imagined with all my might a world of fairies.

My mother played the perfect audience to my lengthy retellings of the fairy adventures that took place just steps outside the back door. The queen and king’s arguments about what kind of flowers they should magic into blossoming first come springtime were quite the kitchen gossip for us. She would ask how the princess was managing with her willful dragonfly steed and I would tumble into a tale about how she had taken a horrendous fall. Her dragonfly had turned too quickly to avoid the back fence and she fell, breaking one of her delicate silver wings. I told how they had called for a special fairy healer from a distant garden across the street and how he had bound her with thread from the finest spider’s silk and spoke ancient magic words over her tattered wing. It had taken many weeks, but miraculously, the princess had a full recovery and soon married the healer who had traveled so far and worked so tirelessly to save her. And so it went for years, the neverending fairy saga of the Cedar Creek Apartment flowerbeds.

She was beautiful, my mother. Her smile was genuine even on her worst days and her eyes shimmered with a love of life. She found wonder in small things and cherished them for their fleeting weight. Her hair was a soft curl around my tired finger; her arms an elegant length just the right height to help me twirl. Secretly, I imagined the fairy princess with her face.

She indulged me, as her mother had indulged her. Where my mother was naive and shone with a delicate beauty of fairy tales, my nan was gregarious, loud, and handsome in a blunt way that mimicked her nature. Nan had showered her daughter with love, almost pushing it onto her, dropping her affection in my mother’s lap and then retreating before my mother had time to choose whether or not she would accept it. Love, for Nan, was abundant and all-encompassing. She had a way of making you feel like the center of the universe when she bestowed her love on you, but in a way, not unlike the Eye of Sauron, it was intense. You had no choice but to accept the love, the compliment, the gift she wanted you to have. For my mother, that kind of love had a much stronger hand in her development of character than either of them cared to admit. There’s was a symbiotic relationship. They fed off of each other in subtle ways that I wasn’t really aware of until I matured enough to see the nuance of how they interacted. Once I’d seen it, I couldn’t unsee it and I found it truly fascinating. I had a front-row seat to most of it because we were almost always all together. Nan lived in a small house a few blocks away from our apartment, but I could have sworn there was a divot in the sidewalk that marked the path we had worn between our homes.

Most days, I would come home from school, Nan would arrive within an hour to sit at the kitchen table leaning towards the small open window with cafe curtains my mom had sewn, blowing the smoke from her Capri Slims out into the garden. Even as an adult, I still pictured the garden fairies hiding in their homes every afternoon from the smog that drifted into their kingdom when Nan arrived. It used to upset her when I would try to explain why the fairies I spent so much time pointing out to my mother never appeared when she was there.

I would start to put dinner together, dicing vegetables, simmering sauces, until my mom stumbled in after her shift at the kitschy boutique a few blocks away. As much as I was sure her feet hurt, she would join me in the kitchen, helping me finish up the meal, swaying back and forth to the beat of whatever oldie had caught her ear on the radio. Nan would pipe up for a verse or two, but mostly she would just watch us like we were a play. She’d sip on her cigarette and smile at us with a secret kind of pride only mothers, and then grandmothers can achieve or even understand.

After a meal, either laughing around the table or silently in front of an old musical dancing across our small television, we would quietly clean up and retreat to our chairs and read. Nan favored a floral printed wingback with a crocheted doily draped over the back. Mom usually put her feet up on the chaise, a garage sale find that Nan had gifted her for Christmas one year. I would flop onto the couch with the kind of slouchy positioning that is only comfortable when you are young and your muscles are more forgiving. And there we would stay, completely engrossed in whatever invented land, adventure, or situation we were reading about in complete silence aside from the small gasp or chuckle brought forth by those special nuggets of story that hit your humanity. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wake up in the middle of the night with a blanket thrown over me, left behind to dream undisturbed.

Breakfast was like a book club meeting. We had diverse tastes, but honest respect and admiration for any book we encountered. Sure there were some genres we generally steered away from, but as true lovers of books and stories, we had such incredible regard for anyone who had successfully written and published a book. No matter how awful the content or quality might be, they had created something out of nothing. That was the magic we all saw and believed in long after my fairies went away to slumber in the hibernation of childhood memories. Our world was small, yet infinitely vast, only limited to the size of the library or the dusty boxes of paperbacks we collected from garage sales.

I graduated high school with honors, enrolled at the junior college and worked alongside my mother at the boutique until I was able to transfer to the four-year college where I earned my Bachelor’s in English. I split my time between the campus, home, and the random shifts I was able to pick up anywhere that would take me. I was grateful for the scholarships my writing and grades had earned me, but school wasn’t cheap. Mom and Nan chipped in as much as they could, so proud of me for pursuing my dream on a road paved with words. When I earned my degree, they coerced half the neighborhood into throwing me a massive block party to celebrate. As I waded through the faces that had made up my childhood, the question echoing from each of them was, “What’s next, Annie?”

And I would smile and not knowing what else to say would reply simply with, “Words.”

As the party was winding down, and the guests were trickling back to their houses, my matriarchs linked their arms with mine and walked me back to the apartment. They asked me if I’d enjoyed the party and if I’d said goodbye to so and so, but I could feel them glancing back and forth to each other with smiles of conspiracy. I knew there was one more surprise coming, but I wasn’t at all expecting what I found when I walked through our front door. A polished, black Underwood typewriter was sitting prettily on the Formica kitchen table. The glossy paint reflected the fluorescent light in a way that made it look like the whole thing was drenched in ink. And I felt like I would drown in it.

It was beautiful, and the most thoughtful and perfect gift I had ever received, but all I could do was pray that my smile was convincing these ladies that knew me better than the mirror in the bathroom. I had always known I would be a writer, but when suddenly faced with the gift of an empty vessel aching to be filled and no reason not to begin, the blank pages stacked beside the typewriter looked like a mountain I could never hope to summit. At some point along the way of infinite security and confidence in my abilities, not without validation either, a small seed of doubt had somehow found its way into my mind and confronted with the possibility of finally fulfilling my dream, I realized that this weed of a thought had somehow managed to worm it’s way around my soul, strangling and constricting me into a web of uncertainty that was debilitating.

And then my mother died.
I was twenty-two, newly graduated, the world at my feet, with a newly discovered fear of success. Nan and my beautiful mother were driving to the store to pick up some essentials for the week and coast by a few garage sales they had seen advertised. They had turned onto the main road after leaving the grocery store, and a kid with a newly minted driver’s license rammed into the driver’s side of my mom’s hatchback. Nan, never one to wear a seatbelt, had been tossed so violently that when she hit her head on the passenger door, she was knocked unconscious and her eyes went black forever. When she woke up in the hospital that evening, she had her first panic attack when she realized the world had disappeared. She had her second a few hours later when I gripped her hand and watched the horror contort her face as the doctor told her that her daughter, my angelic, vibrant mother, had been killed.

I don’t think she cared that she couldn’t see anymore – a small death had been dwarfed and swallowed in one swift and brutal wave. I watched my own agony mirrored in her and flinched with every sob. She clung to me like a lifeline, cracking the bones in my hand, reaching, dragging me into a hard embrace. I felt like she was trying to claw her way out of her own mind, out of a horror she couldn’t comprehend, to chase a dissolving thread of hope.

From the corner of my eye, I watched the doctor retreat from the room, heard the click of the door closing behind, and the rest of the world disappeared with him. Nan and I hovered, alone and drowning, in a sea of uncertainty about what life meant now. We didn’t speak. For the first time in either of our lives, words had failed us.

Bread Crumbs

It isn’t unheard of for me to write a little something, share it with my husband, and have him look up at me and ask, “Where did that come from?” I don’t always know, to be honest, but there are times that I can track an idea by following the breadcrumbs of my mind and the leaps it takes. The starting points are often the most simple and ignorable parts of life, but there they are.

I often find myself distracted from the largeness of life by the minutiae of it. I get caught up in trying to define the exact shade of yellow that is falling from my neighbor’s tree or wondering if the pebbles and rocks ground and mixed into the cement of my street is local or if it is broken bedrock from far away – a material once surrounded by the rugged beauty of earth, exposed and fractured by machines, packaged and shipped by machines, reincarnated by machines to serve as a smooth surface for machines. It’s part curiosity about how things work and part adoration for the stories behind why they do. These questions trigger memories which trigger new ideas which sometimes trigger stories.

For example, there’s a man that waits at a bus stop close to my house no matter the weather Texas happens to be blessing us with. He’s reasonably well-dressed, bearded, but neatly, and carries a leather briefcase. The image clings to my mind as I drive past and I find myself combing through my memory of what he looked like long after I have lost sight of him in my rearview mirror.

Perhaps, I wonder, he is a true, blue eco-warrior doing his part for the environment by using public transportation. Maybe he’s just down on his financial luck. Or maybe he has some intimately personal or psychological reason for not wanting to drive. And that’s where the story starts simmering. By the time I reach my destination I’ve created an entire narrative about this bearded man with a briefcase and a dad-bod.

His wife is fighting cancer. A vicious sort that is slowly leaching her youth. His live-in mother-in-law helps take care of her while he’s away at work. When his wife has an appointment with her life-saving poison the mother carries her in their junky car crammed with car seats, crushed crackers and prescription receipts littering the matted carpet on the floorboards. The pair of midsize SUVs, once housed neatly in their garage, had been traded in for the aging four-door sedan to help cover what the insurance didn’t. The Bearded Hero is quietly living an ongoing sacrifice, though he would loathe hearing it referred to that way. He spends extra hours at the office, underappreciated for all he does for his boss and co-workers. Even more of his valuable time is spent on that damn bus travel that extends his commute. And every day, as he stands at the stop, waiting for the cough and wheeze of the city bus to come over the hill and carry him away from his love and the life he’s sacrificing for, the little boy inside of him still carries a torch for everything he dreamt his life would be.

By this point, I’m brushing tears from my eyes, crying for a man I do not know and a wife I have invented. But it could be real. So a silent prayer is said for whatever that man’s life really looks like – whatever pains and difficulties have manifested. Because, regardless if I’m right or just a crazy writer pulling at a thread, we all could use a little extra grace.

The characters of the man at the bus stop and his family are easy to grieve and root for. It’s simple to slip into their shoes and trudge alongside them in the trenches of life. I can imagine the pain of setting aside dreams because you feel obligated to tend to other things. Can’t you? I’ve had cancer and mortality touch my life in ways that made it easy to slip away from my goals with a half-hearted promise to return and settle myself into “caretaker”. Just as easily, I can lay alongside the wife in her bed that is swiftly molding to the shape of her shrinking body. I cannot relate to the illness itself, though I have witnessed it in others, but I can relate to the thoughts that eat at your mind when all you can do is exist. I am horrendously harsh on myself on quite a frequent basis about my mothering and wifing, sistering, daughtering, friending…writering. How much more difficult and guilt-ridden it must be for someone truly incapable of performing on all cylinders when so much of life is calling for attention and care.

That’s where the tears come from. From that place of knowing just enough of what it feels like to empathize with the fiction come to life in my heart. That’s where the good stories are born. The books I’ve read where the author has delicately teased out emotion, allowing it to bloom quietly just as it would, had all of it been true — those are the ones that stick with me. Because no matter the setting, how fantastical or unimaginable the situation may be, the emotions are real. That’s the difference between a sentence wonderfully wrought, but not wonderfully put.

In case you were wondering, I’m shooting for the latter.