2020 Hindsight

Ah, the first day of a new year and a new decade. I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media recently about what people have accomplished/gained/lost over the last ten years and what they hope to accomplish in the future. Cute side by side pictures of what they looked like in 2009/2019. I chose not to participate.

Instead I’ve reflected on how things have changed over the past ten years. In the final months of 2009, we received the referral for our youngest son and were in the throes of bureaucratic preparations. Oldest was three years old and so damn cute and precocious. I had no idea what sort of roller coaster ride I was in for.

Parenting has been amazing and heartbreaking, and I know there are many more heartbreaking moments to come. When I look back on the past ten years, I wish I had held their hands a little longer. Snuggled them harder. Taken more pictures before they started making ridiculous faces for the camera and had to be bribed with toilet humor. They are on their way to becoming independent beings, and it is really freaking scary. I can only hope the next ten years fare well and we survive teenage-dom.

Sometimes you need to let go and have faith.

My career has ended up in a completely different place from what I expected in 2010. Back then I was substitute teaching in the district I had attended as a kid, with dreams of landing a full time position. Life had other plans. After four years of subbing, I failed to get a renewed position and spent nearly a year unemployed and trying to figure out a plan B. During that time I started to write a book and volunteered at the elementary school. Those two things led me to my friend Dee, an amazing human being and writer, who led me to other writers and a whole new set of opportunities.

Some days I really miss teaching. But if I hadn’t been passed over, I never would have met Dee and written my first novel. I never would have joined BNCWI and met my editor, never would have published SECOND IN COMMAND. An entire network of friends who I love with all my heart would have remained strangers.

Sometimes you have to trade one dream for another.

While I was unemployed, I attended a networking class for out of work teachers and cast my net wider in hopes of finding something to help cover our bills. (I didn’t make any money from writing until this past year.) In May 2014, I received an invitation to interview for a local community college. Part time, barely above minimum wage, and totally out of my comfort zone, but I went for it.

Sometimes you have to take chances.

I got the job, which led to a promotion, and then another, and even though I’m still not back to full time and I’ll never have summers off or long holiday breaks, I love what I do, and I get to make a difference in the lives of others. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most to me.

These past ten years have been full of ups and downs, as everyone’s lives have I’m sure. People and animals have left my life and others have arrived, I’ve seen more of the world, gotten a bit wiser and a bit wrinklier, learned to not give a crap about what others think and revel in joy when I find it.

As for the next ten, who knows. I’ve learned to stop fighting with the universe. My boys will become adults, hubs and I will start planning the next phase of our lives, and my books will grace the shelves of libraries around the country. I will have lost friends and family members, endured physical and emotional pain. But I vow to take more pleasure in the little things and be the best human I can during my short time here.

My wish for everyone: may you find health and happiness in the new year, and when you face heartache and setbacks, may they lead to growth and new opportunities. Be grateful. Be present. Love when you can and ask for help when things get difficult.

Most importantly: take care of each other and the planet. Happy New Year!

Summer camp is not punishment

I want my kiddos to try new things, to eagerly embrace the unexpected, the unknown, the new. I want them to venture forth without fear because I spend so much of my life buried under it. Fear keeps me from all sort of things — new opportunities, relationships, adventures, and frankly it sucks. I will openly admit to having social anxiety and laugh off my misfires in public, but the reality is I miss out on things all the time because I’m afraid to leave my comfort zone. And I don’t want the same thing to be true for my boys.

Youngest fears nothing. He waltzes into new situations full of confidence and spunk. People think he’s charming and funny and he makes friends everywhere we go. With him, I’m more worried he’s going to be lured into a dangerous situation and have to constantly remind him that no, he should not help a stranger find his lost dog, and no, it’s not okay to take treats from someone you don’t know (or pick up candy off the ground and eat it. True story.) Oldest is a mixed bag. He’s friendly and outgoing some of the time, and other times he builds an invisible wall around himself and refuses to let anyone in.

This morning I dropped them off at a camp they’d never attended before. Held at a local college, I thought it would be a fun opportunity for them try something new. Youngest was apprehensive at first and asked a million questions (as per his MO), but quickly joined a group of kids his age and began passing around a beach ball. Oldest stood, hunch-shouldered, earbuds in place, and alternated his gaze from his watch to a scowl directed at yours truly.

Actual conversations from this morning:

Him: This is stupid.
Me: Keep an open mind. Isn’t that [boy from school]?
Him: (eye roll). Great. And [two other boys from school he apparently hates]. Just great.

Him: I’m bored. Why did you make me wake up at 8 am and come here?
Me: I want you to try new things. Because I love you.
Him: (scoffs) That’s doubtful.

I drove away, and as I passed the group of campers waiting to get started, there was my boy, standing alone on the edge of the sidewalk like he hoped it would swallow him whole. And I started to worry that I’d forced him into something in order to satisfy my own fears — the fear of my children not fitting in, or being liked, or finding success in life. I used to think he was an extrovert. He loved being around other kids when he was little and enjoyed the attention from my large, loud family. Naturally I assumed he’d be fine in new situations, but it often backfired. He’d clung to me during library story hour and screamed the first time I took him to soccer practice.

And now? He loves going to the library and soccer fills up a huge part of his daily life. So how far do we push our kids, or ourselves, into the unknown? If we don’t take that first step we may never stumble upon something we come to love. If we don’t say, yes, I am anxious about this new situation but I am going to try it anyway, we may never meet the person who becomes a lifelong friend. We may never discover who we truly are.

I don’t expect this camp to be a life changing event for my boys, but I hope they at least come home today not completely mad at me for making them go.

Fingers crossed.

Happy birthday, Caravan of Composition!

Today has been a full day. Youngest graduated from elementary school, and both boys enjoyed the bell-ringing satisfaction indicating the start of summer break. Following the graduation ceremony/last exam, we celebrated at their favorite restaurant, then came home and brainstormed a summer chore chart and screen time limits. I shifted my focus toward Camp NaNoWriMo, which starts on Monday, and checked off a handful of items on my to-do list. I nearly let the milestone pass me by.

Caravan of Composition is officially two years old today. My blogging habits seem to go in waves, but I am pleased to say I’ve kept up with this blog and my previous one for over eleven years. That’s like a million in procrastinator years. It’s challenging sometimes to come up with things to write about as life isn’t always “blog-worthy”, and I struggle with insecurities regarding the merit of what I have to say. A good friend sent me a recent copy of Josh Radnor’s Museletter in which he mentions nearly the exact feeling. We might not always feel that what we have to say is worth saying. Are my words of value to my readers? Does what I say matter?

Let’s get one thing straight: I like to listen to myself talk. My family can attest to this. I love to tell stories, often the same ones over and over (more vigorous nods from the van clan), and the level of exaggeration often increases with each retelling. For dramatic effect, of course. A small stretching of the truth makes things more interesting. There is always a fair amount of accompanying hand gestures, because my heritage demands it and they, too, add to the drama of a good story.

Blogging is different. First of all, I can’t use my hands or facial expressions to drive a point home. Second, the delete button allows me to rethink things that may sound stupid or cause a foot in mouth moment. (I have a lot of those in real life.) But it also sometimes restricts the flow of words. I have several unpublished blog posts that sit in the drafts folder because either I got distracted by life or decided what I had to say wasn’t of any value.

We are our own worst critics, aren’t we? Some of us don’t care and live an unfiltered life – taking the good and the bad as they come. Some of us let our inner critic keep us from pursuing our dreams. Some, like me, fall in the middle. Moments of feeling brilliant coupled with moments of crippling self-doubt. And I can’t write this post telling you how to quiet your inner critic, because if I did, mine would be muzzled in the corner. But I can say this: we rarely give ourselves the credit we deserve. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small they seem.

Today, I celebrate my eleventh year of shouting into the void, and the second birthday of my current blog. I celebrate getting my kiddos through another school year. I celebrate the sun, and summer, and the start of another month of Camp NaNo.

And I celebrate you, dear reader, for allowing me to keep doing what I love.

 

Launch party love

I feel incredibly blessed. Last night was the launch party for Second in Command. Friends, family, and coworkers came out to help celebrate and many others shared their well wishes throughout the day. I even met a few new people who heard about the event and wanted to check out my book.

I wanted to share my speech here for anyone who missed it because I think so much of writing is about the journeys we take and the people who help us along the way.

Thank you, Gina for that perfect introduction, and a huge thank you to Mary and the Burchfield Penney Art Center for hosting this event. Mary runs a book club here on the first Thursday of every month – it celebrates local Buffalo authors and it’s a wonderful way to learn about the history and culture of Buffalo and be exposed to some of our amazing talent. *(Note: the next book club is March 7)

At the risk of sounding like I’m at the Oscars (if I go too long feel free to cue the obnoxious music), there are a bunch of people I need to thank for getting me up here. My parents, for believing in me and traveling back from Florida into the icy grips of Buffalo to help celebrate and bake cookies. My mother in law, and my sister and her family for their support and encouragement, my kiddos for inspiration – this is the first thing I’ve written they could actually read (usually there’s a tiny bit of swearing in my books). And that handsome man in uniform who endures endless rounds of brainstorming, as well as my fits of jealously and self-doubt and all the other demons we writers face. He’s always there with practical advice like, “Just sit down and write.” As many of you know, he was active duty Navy for five years and now serves as a Reservist. We were apart for most of 2003 and I pulled on some of those memories when writing the book. But more about that in a bit.

I want to thank my friends and family – coworkers, both past and present, scout friends and writer friends – especially my Wednesday night and sometimes Sunday afternoon clan, members of our local children’s writers and illustrators (we’re known as BNCWI), Kristy my cheerleader, Jenn for our writing slash counseling sessions, Dee for introducing me to this crazy world of children’s books, my beta readers – CJ, Claudia, Carla, Gina, and Lilly. Sam, who designed this beautiful cover. Caitie, and everyone at West 44 who took a chance on my idea and helped make a lifelong dream come true. Everyone here today for coming out and supporting me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Okay, cue the music. Onto the juicy part. How did I get here? No wait, that’s a Talking Heads song. Here’s the condensed version. When I was 16, I wrote a lot of angsty poetry. Like Leo, the main character in Second in Command, I was trying to figure out who I was and where I fit in the world. That’s the great thing about young adult literature. We can all relate to those feelings of identity and fitting in – they’re universal. And writing, for me, as a far from 16-year-old who still carries a few wounds on her heart, is a form of therapy. You present readers with a character who has a goal, give him/her obstacles, and then here’s the fun part – you help them figure out how to solve their problems. And unlike real life, there are revisions – you can change the course of events and your characters’ reactions, you get to be in control of their fate.

I get the YA part, you say, but what is a verse novel? A verse novel is a story told entirely through poetry. Poetry is beautiful because it strips everything down to raw emotion – much like the teenage experience. When Caitie told our critique group about her new imprint that would feature verse novels for struggling readers I thought, YES! Brilliant! I used to teach high school students with learning disabilities, and I remember how some of them struggled to find accessible literature that spoke to their experiences in a way that didn’t feel dumbed down. Poetry can be intimidating to some, yes, but it can also be freeing in a way because there’s all this white space on the page and the sentences are bare, the emotion is right there for the reader to see and feel.

I was excited to be part of something like that – and to be able to write poetry again. While that might frighten some writers, I immediately started to think about the different types of poems I could use and how I’d be able to play with language and structure. The clincher? One of the possible topics was deployed parents. Poetry, young adult book for struggling readers, about a military family. Around our house we call that the Trifecta.

So I created Leo, and I gave him a goal – he wants to earn Eagle Scout and become a police officer, and I gave him conflicts – Mom, who he admires and depends on to a degree, gets deployed and younger brother Jack quickly takes advantage of the situation by getting into trouble. It’s clear the brothers are close, but they fight – in the way brothers do. Not that I have any experience with that or anything. And Leo feels this strong sense of responsibility, especially when it comes to his siblings, but he’s also freaking out a little. And when I sat down to write I had to dredge up some difficult memories of my husband’s deployment. I wanted the story to be real for my readers. I had to tap into those feelings and remember the other families from that time. It was 2003 and everyone in our little military town knew someone who was deployed. Leo’s family was inspired by our next door neighbors. Mom left with the hospital ship. Dad commuted over an hour to work each day. The kids looked out for each other. It was sweet and heartbreaking, and they stayed with me for a long time.

I pitched my idea, and they liked it. Then came drafting, deadlines, revisions – all that good stuff.

Writing isn’t easy. It’s lonely. Sometimes it feels like I cut up my heart and put it onto the page. And when you’ve got a world of other things on your plate – work, family, volunteering – you squeeze it in whenever and wherever you can. I wrote most of the book on a picnic table inside Epic Sports Center while my kids were at soccer practice. But then there was a book. With my name on it. And that was pretty awesome. The most rewarding thing for me is the opportunity to tell a story people connect to. When someone reads a poem and thinks, yes, this speaks to how I’m feeling. That is really powerful.

There are moments in my life when I felt so, so lonely and I would turn to my journal, or I’d turn to a book and get lost in the story. Words have a weird way of healing. My hope is that you pick up this book and whether you’re part of a military family or you had someone in your life that you depended on and now they’re gone and you’ve gotta figure it out on your own – of if you’ve ever had to decide where your loyalty lies, you’ll pick up this book and you’ll feel a connection to the characters, you’ll feel understood, you’ll feel a little less alone.

author

me, being authorly