Second in Command’s BOOK BIRTHDAY!

Today is the day. Second in Command is officially in the world! I am excited — and slightly terrified — but mostly excited for friends and family to be able to read something I wrote, to be able to hold a book in their hands and say, hey, I know the chic who wrote this!

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The journey to this moment isn’t exactly as I’d planned, but whatever is, right? I was working on an blog interview earlier this week and reflecting on my wandering path as a writer. It’s definitely been in my blood since forever. I used to make up songs about the weird wallpaper in my parents’ bathroom, and there are an usually weird number of notebooks in our house that contain my random thoughts scrawled on the pages. I write. It’s what I do. Whether or not it’s any good has always remained a mystery. I never successfully wooed anyone with my poetry, but there was that time I wrote a haiku as a model for my seventh grade students entering into a local newspaper contest and ended up with the winning entry. I’ve accumulated my share of rejections from the industry, but as my husband is fond of saying, it only takes one yes in a pile of no’s.

The first novel I wrote wasn’t very good. I know that now. At the time I thought it was genius, having never been able to write an entire novel before that moment. I wanted EVERYONE to read it. I should have kept it to myself, neatly bound and stuffed into a dresser drawer. But I didn’t and had to endure a painful amount of criticism, most of which was rightly deserved. My second novel was better, but it just couldn’t deliver all that I’d hoped it would, and it too suffered criticism and rejection. (Note: I haven’t given up on her just yet, but she needs to age a bit, like a fine wine, until I figure out how to sort out the difficulties.) While I was in the painful throes of revisions with #2, an opportunity came my way. One of the members of my critique group is an editor and she was starting a new imprint aimed at reluctant readers. She wanted young adult books written in verse. Pitch your ideas to me, she said. Hmm, I thought. I could do that. She had a list of possible topics and one of them was a parent on deployment.

My mind went immediately to 2003. We lived in Silverdale, Washington, on an incredibly steep dead end street full of military families. My husband left in January for a three week underway and didn’t come home until late September. Our next door neighbors were a sweet family with three young kids. Mom served on a deployed hospital ship. Dad worked in Seattle, which from where we lived took over an hour to get to. I remember checking up on the kids once in a while and helping them with the yard work. (We each had about .08 acres of land. Seriously. You could have cut the front lawn with a pair of clippers.) Sometimes they had me over for dinner, and once I went to a school meeting for the middle son. There’s an unwritten agreement among military families: we look out for one another.

I wanted to tell a story about a family struggling through deployment, and I wanted it to be universal so that someone who has never experienced deployment could understand what the characters felt. Separation is hard. On everyone involved. And we all handle it differently. What if one character wanted to be strong on the surface even though he was hurting on the inside? What if another character was angry and needed to act out his feelings, even if it meant getting in trouble? I wrote a poem about two brothers who promise to look out for each other. Sketched it out in the back of one of my notebooks and then read it out loud to my writing group. They loved it, so I kept going. I asked my kids to help me with character names and worked on the pitch.

My idea was accepted, and from there I had deadlines, something I have discovered is very helpful in the writing world. Left to my own devices, I’ll write when the muse strikes, but give me a calendar with something due and I’ll sit at my laptop like it’s my job. Because it was, in a way. This was the first time I got paid to write.

So here we are, a year after turning in the initial draft, a copy of my book sitting next to me on the desk like no big deal. Only it is a big deal. My kids actually read it. A book I wrote. With my picture in the back. Youngest seemed most excited about that part and wanted to know if I realized all the stuff written in my bio. (I wish I had video taped him incredulously saying, “What? Featured in Adoptive Families magazine?!?”) Oldest, who disagrees with everything I say/do/recommend said it was, “Pretty good.” My parents haven’t read it yet, but they are flying from Florida into the icy winter grips of Buffalo to attend my launch party. And my late grandmother has been sending me signs all month. She’s proud, I think.

So yeah, I’m pretty excited about today. And I hope people like the book. But if they don’t, that’s okay. Poetry isn’t for everyone. But I hope it lands in the hands of a kid, or a spouse, or someone that feels the loneliness that comes when someone you love is far away — possibly in danger, and you are doing everything you can to keep it together for your siblings, or your kids, or maybe just yourself as I had been back in 2003. I hope that person reads my words and feels a little stronger. A little less alone.

If you’d like to read the book, or send a copy to someone who might need it, visit one of these links: Amazon * IndieBound * Barnes & Noble

Happy book birthday, Second in Command!!

The art of letting go

One of the great contradictions of my personality: I want to be a minimalist, but I have difficulty letting things go. I also struggle to follow through on the ever popular resolution of being more organized. Nevertheless, it’s a new year and once again I’ve committed to paring down and organizing the house. Inspired (as many of us have been based on the amount of trash I see at the curb each week) by the Marie Kondo Netflix series, Tidying Up, and a helpful guide to living with less by one of my favorite You Tubers and blogger, Pick Up Limes, I hit the ground running.

If you haven’t watched the show or read her book, Marie’s approach to taking your home from disaster area to peaceful organized bliss is to focus on one category at a time; examine each item one by one and decide if it sparks joy. Start with clothing. For some people, that is a struggle. Not me. I easily purged several bags of clothes and donated them to a local charity, and I plan to donate my formal dresses when it gets closer to prom season. I folded my t-shirts into the cute little packages as demonstrated by Marie, which I have to say does actually bring a smile to my face when I open the drawer. Even my socks got the treatment!

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I felt energized and quickly moved onto the next item: accessories. Makeup and toiletries, easy-peasy. Purses and shoes, no problem (I loathe buying them in the first place). Jewelry was a bit tougher, but I decided which pieces held special memories or that I enjoy wearing and organized them so I would actually wear them more often.

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Next stop: books. Now some of you may have seen the controversy on Twitter regarding how many books is too many books. I have always had a problem with book collecting/hoarding. My grandmother left me her collection of paperbacks and my frequent trips to used book stores/book sales, etc. have caused a bit of a build up at our house. Moving around a ton in our early years of marriage should have put a damper on my compulsion, but it didn’t. We moved far too many extremely heavy boxes full of books. Each new place I would unpack them, shelve them in alphabetical order, then stare at them and smile.

Books give me joy. There’s no doubt about it. But it is time to let some of them go because all they are doing now is collecting dust on the shelves. Most of what I currently read comes from our local library, and the majority of my purchases are to support author friends. It is time for the others to find new homes. Yesterday I started in the youngest boy’s room. His bookshelf was bursting at the seams and filthy with dust. I pulled everything off the shelves and got to work.

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Seneca supervises the sorting

I saved a few of our favorite board and picture books along with some holiday classics and everything by Roald Dahl (of course) and piled up the rest for donation. Gave the boy an opportunity to go through and re-shelve anything that had meaning to him. He pulled a handful of seemingly random books out of a pile (I promised no judgement as who are we to decide what brings joy to another person?) and returned them to the now half empty shelves. It looks wonderful. I then popped my head into oldest’s room and asked him to do the same. We’re organizing the house; I’m coming for your books, I said. Eye roll and heavy sigh.

Today, it was my turn. I looked at the built-ins in our den for a long time. Books are all over the house, but most of mine live in the den, a room that makes me anxious every time I walk into it. It’s a hot mess, a dumping ground for everyone’s junk, the place where I hide our crap when company comes over. Currently it’s home to several completed Lego sets, as hubby’s contribution to minimalism is to sell all his castle Legos. They’ve been hidden in the basement and attic since before we had kids — his hope was that they’d be worth money some day. I had no idea we had so many Lego sets. It’s slightly insane.

Back to the bookshelves. I pulled everything down and went through the books one by one. Some clearly sparked joy — for the lessons they taught me or the feelings they brought to the surface. They immediately went back on the shelf. Others have been read and re-read, annotated and loved, and I couldn’t bear to part with them. I made a special shelf for books I haven’t read but want to, and made another giant pile for donation. Our library holds book sales throughout the year, so I’m hopeful my book friends will find a good home.

I feel a little worn out today — not as energized as I’d been with clothing and accessories — and I know the hardest is still to come. This is about how far I usually get in the process before giving up. But I am desperate to be able to walk into the den and find what I’m looking for instead of having a panic attack. To go into our basement storage and not get overwhelmed with waves of nostalgia.

We can live with less. If we concentrate on what we truly need and what sparks joy as Marie says, it makes it easier to let go. But it’s truly an art form, one that I’m determined to perfect.

Mixtapes in the modern age

Back in the 90’s I was the queen of mixtapes*. If you were someone I cared about, you had a personalized mixtape, complete with decorated cover. I had have a notebook where I kept track of the songs on each tape. Yes, I still have the notebook. And a box full of mixes I made for myself. Just in case, ya know, tapes make a comeback. Or I figure out how to time travel.

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file under: stuff I should get rid of but can’t seem to bear the thought of never seeing again

Life is different now. You want to hear a particular song? No problem. Exercise while listening to a specific style of music? No problem. Make your own virtual playlist? No problem. Gone are the days of hours spent waiting to hit record when your favorite song plays on the radio and getting stuck with the DJ’s voice on the opening chords. Not that I don’t love my mixtape titled, ALTERNATIVE ’92, which contains authentic Toronto DJ intros from the era.

There are endless playlists out there and I can listen to any song I want whenever I want (except of course when I’m stuck at soccer practice with no signal and forced to play only what is downloaded onto my laptop or listen to whatever ear worm lodged itself in my brain during the car ride). BUT. There are also endless choices. And that makes me feel a bit like when you stand in the grocery store aisle and have to decide between eight different kinds of coconut oil.

Back in the day of my mixtape notebook, I had a limited collection of CDs. I knew all of the songs — knew their lyrics, knew roughly how long they were (as one was limited to 60, 90, or 100 minutes per tape). I knew artists names. My CD’s were alphabetized, and still are, because of course I also have two giant binders full of CD’s I never listen to. I’ll spare you the photo evidence.

Now? I google the lyric to a song that’s stuck in my head and think, that’s who sings it? Or I see band names on the library playlist site and have no idea who they are or what they sing, but then I click on them and oh yeah, I actually do recognize their songs. Normally, this is no big deal. Listen to what makes you happy, I say. Pick the playlist to fit your mood.

Except. The marketing team who will help promote my book asked the authors to create a playlist. Songs that inspired us while we wrote or that might fit the mood of the story/character. Cool, I think. I definitely use music to help me write. It keeps me focused. It drowns out the noise of hockey pucks slamming into the board mere feet from my head (no one said writing at a sports arena would be easy). It helps me write emotional scenes. When I wrote the climax of my first novel, I played “Say Something” on repeat. The Smith’s “Asleep” provided the perfect mood while delivering devastating news to one of my characters in book two. So what did I listen to when I wrote Second in Command? Would it be worthy of a publicized playlist?

Let’s search the downloads from my laptop, which looped continuously as I wrote during soccer practices last year. A few Calvin Harris songs and various other electronica faves. Some Lord Huron. A whole lot of Sia. (Her lyrics are highly motivating. I love “The Greatest”.) Random stuff. Music I knew I could play in the background that had enough beat and rhythm to keep my fingers moving. Did it fit the mood of my story? Not usually. Would it be the same thing my main character would listen to? Doubtful. I asked my 12-year-old son to help make the playlist, and his suggestions did not exactly align with my taste. Hubs said, No 80’s music. Sad face. I know, I know. Surprisingly, there isn’t much of that on my computer. That’s what time traveling mixtapes are for, people.

So I turn to the Internet of Endless Choices. And I’m overwhelmed. My list, started on a small scrap of paper, has scribbles and rewrites. I decide, then un-decide. I text my sister, the person responsible for first introducing me to music and the joy of collecting one’s favorite songs. I visit the library music page. Who are these artists? I feel old.

There are some blank pages at the end of my mixes notebook; perhaps I should try that. Maybe I can unlock the hidden playlist muse or something. Or I could stop procrastinating with this blog post, and as my husband said yesterday, “Just pick the songs and be done with it.”

Stay tuned. I’ll link the playlist on my website once it’s live.

*the blog keeps telling me I’ve spelled “mixtape” incorrectly, but I googled it, and its’ a legitimate word that originated in the 70’s.

Weekend retreat

The idea of coming together with other writers — some friends, some strangers — for an entire weekend away from the stressful realities of life felt both exhilarating and terrifying. It is something I need: space to think, to read, to write, without distractions and in a place that promised inspiring scenery. At home, I try to carve out time to write but there is always something else that pulls at my attention. The house, the cat, the never ending list of things I should be doing. At a retreat, there will be peer pressure. I will be forced to sit and write.

I will also be anxious. Anxious about the unknown, the societal expectations of such things, the way my brain doesn’t always filter what exits my mouth. The pressure to produce something wonderful, something that will make the trip worthwhile.

I drove down with a local friend, and hurray, we only had to turn around once. There were five other women there, three I know from the Pennwriters conference and two I met upon arrival. Everyone was nice. Our porch had a view of a beautiful lake, and we sat and enjoyed complimentary cottage wine.

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Sunset wine. Photo inspired by my Lake O cottage neighbor, Phil

We shared a wonderful meal together. Eventually, I heard the nag in my head asking for a break. People don’t always believe I’m an introvert. They see me stand in front of crowds, comfortable in theatrical performance. That’s the thing: it’s theater. It’s me putting on another persona, someone confident and in control of her speech and surroundings. It’s not small talk with others, deciding what to reveal about who I am and what I believe. I’d rather tell stories, sing repeat after me songs off-key, explain the way something works. Otherwise I’ll just listen if that’s okay.

And it usually is. For a while. Then I need to be alone and in the quiet. And the great thing about other writers is that they get that, they understand. Most of us are introverted or at least need to go into that space of stillness and quiet in order to tune into the stories in our heads.

I slept, more or less. As much as one can in a strange place with unusual noises (like a toilet grinder that sounded like an angry monster) and light coming in from under the doorway. I missed the sound of my husband’s breath and the feel of a cat at my feet. It was lonely. But in the morning we woke to coffee and pumpkin bread and the stillness of the lake. The air was cold and full of fall. I wrote, I read, I took a walk in the woods with my friend. We climbed into a tree stand and talked to chipmunks. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.

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Findley Lake

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Took a lovely hike just beyond this outhouse

We gathered in the common area and wrote, a collective of creative energy. I worried about my story but tried to let the words flow without judgement. When we weren’t writing, we talked and laughed and ate amazing food. A group of us went on a mini adventure and embraced the idea of taking the time to do what makes you happy. I am thankful for that time, for the beautiful place, for a family that supports my passion and gives me space to pursue it.

I am thankful for other writers who are not afraid to share in their vulnerability. We are all on our own journeys, yet we are all committed to words, and I love how that bonds us. Love that I can spend the weekend with people other than my family and feel safe and comfortable.

Bonus: amazing food

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Pasta with pumpkin sauce, sauted mushrooms and onions, ratatouille with vegan mozzarella, and homemade herb focaccia. YUM.