The importance of real pants

Social media memories are a blessing and a curse. I love looking back on times when my boys were cute and cuddly and my face had fewer wrinkles. But during a pandemic, it is heart wrenching to wake up, click memories, and be instantly reminded that we can’t do those things right now.

Three years ago today, the weather was beautiful, and we had a packed Saturday. I hung out with my family at our town’s annual Oktoberfest, where the boys participated (and ROCKED) a keg rolling contest, and then headed to our local library to celebrate the launch of my friend’s latest middle grade novel. We ate snacks from a communal table, sat next to each other, and hugged.

Hugged.

Now, I’m not much of a hugger to begin with, but I miss that human connection. I miss Wednesday night writing sessions at Wegmans and Friday afternoon gab sessions at Spot. I miss launch parties. My book releases next week, and I don’t have anything planned to help launch it into the world. Many of my writer friends continue to self-quarantine, and the thought of doing something virtual does not exactly thrill me. While I appreciate their ability to connect us safely, I am pretty burnt out on web-based social gatherings.

Our local writing group held its first meeting of the season (virtually of course) earlier this week. It was a craft session, which is always fun, 80’s themed – double bonus points, but I just couldn’t get into it. I missed the collective energy normally felt in a room full of writers. I stared at the blank page as it mocked me.

I had to finish a project in March/April due to a deadline, but since then? I’ve written once. And only because one of my Pennwriters friends organized a virtual write-in, and I felt like I had to write something in order to not be a complete fraud. I pulled out an old project, added about a page and a half, and that was it. The sum total of my writing output for the past six months.

There are projects. There are ideas. There is also a very tired mama who doesn’t wear real pants anymore. Who thinks, do my stories even matter? With so much hate and hurt in the world, what could I possibly add to the narrative? I keep waiting for the proverbial lightbulb to go off in my head. For the magical idea that will send my fingers tap-tapping again. Do you know how many blog posts I’ve drafted in my head these past several months? The sleepless nights I spent thinking, “This is what I have to say,” then instead of getting out of bed and writing it down, allowed my nay-saying brain to dismiss it all?

(A LOT.)

The world needs stories, especially now. Cheerful ones, sad ones, true ones, and fictional ones. We need to step away from social media, from the negative energy of everyone spewing their anger and ideals and also from the memories of all the things we can’t enjoy right now. I’m confident those days will return – the days of launch parties and writing/gab sessions. In the meantime, we need to keep doing the best we can, no matter how low the bar. This morning I put on real pants. They are uncomfortable. But I needed to send a message to my brain that this is serious. Life must move forward. Fingers must hit keys in order for words to get onto the page. They don’t do anyone any good swimming around in my brain like lost tourists.

So here we are. Doing that thing where the journey starts with a single step. Mask up and join me.

Alphabetic Exploration of a Virus

Last weekend a friend and colleague who teaches Creative Writing sent me a challenge:  write a poem where each line begins with the letters of the alphabet in succession. Back in my teen angst poetry writing days, I did something similar as a dedication to a good friend. It rhymed, was full of goofy inside jokes, and had the sappiest ending:

Y is for You at Cornell in “Vet style”
Z is for NaZ where I’m missing your smile

When I sat down to write the abc poem last weekend, I knew it had to address what’s been going on in the world — the dark, hopelessness we are all feeling. The uncertainty of each day, of what the future holds. Here is what I came up with:

Alphabetic Exploration of a Virus

Alone. The only way to
be safe, to stop the
contagion.

Don’t trust your neighbors.

Everyone is at risk
as we are all
forced inside.

Gone are feelings of
HOPE.

Instead we
journal our deepest fears,
keep our
loved ones distant, hold onto
memories like moments that may
never happen again.

Once upon a future,
when the danger has
passed, when the
quiet streets
return to their
steady pulse of life, only
then will we
understand how deeply the
virus changed us.

Humans full of
worry, a global community turned
xenophobic.

Can our
youth—the risk-taking Generation
Z—help us rebuild?

The New Normal

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2020.

Three weeks ago, I danced in a crowded club while a DJ spun songs from The Cure and The Smiths, two of my all-time favorite bands. I hung out with the mom who would be chaperoning my oldest son on his class trip to Washington DC, and we laughed about how crazy she was to spend the long weekend with 20 teenagers. We were all acutely aware of a virus that had been spreading through other parts of the world. I washed my hands several times during the night, as I always do. I drank from glasses that other people had touched, shook hands with strangers, breathed in communal air.

We had no idea what was coming.

Two weeks ago, my family went to two plays; Friday night at our local high school and Saturday afternoon at a community theater. People’s behavior had started to change. Restrictions against large gatherings. Hand sanitizer everywhere (but not a bottle to be found on store shelves). Ushers wearing gloves. When we went to the theater on Saturday, I washed my hands before and after the show, and then again before we ate poutine at a local restaurant across the street. I made sure my family followed suit. “This may be the last time we’re out in public for a while,” I said. And it was.

On Sunday of that week, the first case of COVID-19 hit our county, and a few hours later the schools were closed down for five weeks. My youngest was due to participate in his crossing over ceremony for scouts, an event we’d been planning for months. With a heavy heart, I sent out the cancellation notice.

“Crisis school” began Monday. (It is not homeschooling. Homeschooling is a choice.) Oldest had a meltdown the first day. Youngest on day two. Mom nearly every day. I went into work on Tuesday, where the air buzzed with fear, despite the industrial sized bottle of New York made hand sanitizer. I worried that I would be sent home without pay, or worse, lose my position entirely. I worried about our office plants and packed them into my van to bring home. I worried about my mother-in-law, who was recovering from pneumonia and refusing to stay home. I worried about my parents down in Florida, especially my mom, who has a heart condition and recently had her spleen removed after a terrible car accident.

I am an anxious person by nature, a worst-case scenario person, the sort of person who was already wiping down grocery carts and door handles, washing her hands frequently, and being leery of strangers. Who imagines her spouse in a ditch on the side of the road when he doesn’t return from work on time. Who can’t stop thinking about all the people in the world who are suffering and how we need to save the planet before it destroys us. That’s me on a normal day. Before I began to consume far too many news reports and articles on social media.

Late Tuesday night we got word that our jobs were deemed “non-essential”, which seems like it would be a disappointment but meant that we could work from home. I struggled the first few days to balance work with home/kids/school. School was slow to send over plans (understandably so seeing how quickly they were forced to improvise), and the boys balked at my attempts to teach them. There were fights and meltdowns as we adjusted to life together 24-7. My husband works for a plant that manufactures pumps for power generation, so he was deemed “essential”. Classifications became important as each day more and more businesses shut down. By the end of the week, the state declared only essential employees could go to work. (He is now working from home two days a week to minimize the number of employees on site.)

One week ago, oldest would have been on his DC trip, experiencing our nation’s capital for the first time. Instead we stayed home, played games, ate takeout, and watched movies. We tried to make the best of our new found family time, as weekends are typically spent running around to practices and other events. Now, the calendar is completely empty. It is a blessing and a curse, but it is a necessity for survival.

The only public place I have been in the past two weeks is a single trip to the grocery store on March 19. I wiped down the cart, as always, and washed my hands when I got home, as always, but in the store my behavior had changed. I avoided aisles with people in them, waited for the person before me at the register to clear before proceeding, and anything I picked up to examine went into the cart because I could be an unknowing carrier. I tried to be extra nice to the cashier, a high school senior who said she was bored because she was only allowed to go to work and nowhere else. My heart broke for her and all the other seniors missing out on their final year of high school.

Last week I consumed more and more media, the daily updates my safety net in these uncertain times. My anxiety continued to rise, and with it sleepless nights and a lack of desire to start each day. There were pockets of joy – virtual chats with my writing friends and my parents/siblings/nephews, laughing with my family as we invented new games to entertain ourselves, lots of extra cat snuggles. And I guess at the end of each day, I need to concentrate on the joyful moments and pray they will help me get through the anxious ones. Every time I reached out to a friend, they too expressed anxiety, worry, fear. We are all united in the unknown of what lies ahead. People have become more paranoid, yes, but also friendlier, at least from afar. We all want to get through this, to get to the other side and return to normal. We all want to survive.

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2020. It is raining outside. I am still wearing the same clothes I put on yesterday morning. It is almost noon. I am worrying about the doctors, the nurses, the patients who are dying. I am worrying about friends and family members who are struggling, emotionally and financially.

But my husband and children are here, and they are safe and healthy, and today we will play board games and make brownies. And maybe I’ll chat with a friend or two. And I will try to focus on those moments instead.

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