What I Learned from a Chatty Iraqi Woman at the Park

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Yesterday I met a woman from Iraq at an area playground. A teacher, she was there with a number of young girls and two other teachers. She has lived in the US for 6 years, coming here with her two young daughters after her husband was killed in the war. She was much more talkative than any other Muslim woman I’ve ever encountered, and I probably see Muslim women every other day in the Greater Lansing Area. It may be because she had been living in the US for so long and spoke such good English that there was no language barrier. We talked for perhaps twenty minutes, and in that short time frame she shared a number of interesting things with me.

First, she was compelled by one of her charges to go down a slide. Afterward, she came back to our bench and said, “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I may hurt my baby.” She shared that she was two months pregnant and that in Iraq, when a woman is pregnant, she basically does nothing but sit around all day. “We are afraid that the glue that holds the baby in will come loose. But American women do everything–they work, they run.” I told her that it was my understanding that as long as you had a normal healthy pregnancy, nothing much was forbidden by American doctors except flying in the last month of your term. She said her husband, who has lived in America for 18 years, told her the same thing. “He says, ‘Get out of the house. American women do not just sit around when they are pregnant.'”

Second, she said that her daughters, now both in high school, live with their grandmother rather than her and her new husband. He had proposed to her not long after she arrived in the US and she refused him because her daughters were “still missing their father.” But a few years later, when he proposed again, she accepted and the girls from her first marriage moved in with their grandmother. “I can tell my girls are sad without me, but it is hard for a new husband and wife to live with older children from another marriage.” I found this very interesting. At first, her focus was on her daughters who were grieving, but then they are sent out of her house, as high schoolers, so that she and her new husband can focus on their new relationship. I’m still not sure what I think of this method of not blending families. But apparently, that’s how it’s done back in Iraq.

Lastly, when I asked her if she liked living here she said yes. She mentioned that her neighborhood was very safe, but that she used to live in the area where two men were shot back in May (you may remember me blogging on that incident). Coming from a war-torn country, she was very concerned that she be somewhere safe. But even in her East Lansing neighborhood, she said, there had been a recent break-in and robbery. I told her that there really is nowhere that is safe from all crime and she seemed surprised by this. This seemed so odd to me since she has come out of a situation in which the worst of human nature is on display.

Soon my son retrieved me and I had to leave. I was reluctant to stop talking with this woman and we never even exchanged names. I don’t know that I will ever run into her again. But I wanted to share our conversation with you. She and I are of different origins and different faiths, but we came together on a bench, connecting first through the common subject of children. We chatted, told each other “it was nice talking to you,” and went our separate ways.

I see those “Coexist” bumper stickers all over town. I’m not a particularly big fan of them because they seem to imply to me that we should ignore all of our difference and leave each other alone. But I don’t want to ignore our differences. I want to discuss them, learn from them, and struggle with them–in a civil manner. And I don’t want to leave other people alone. I want to have conversations and strike up friendships.

My short time with this kind, thoughtful, and sweet-spirited Iraqi woman on a bench in an East Lansing park is what coexisting really looks like, and I’m so grateful that she struck up this conversation with me. I will (hopefully) never know the horrors she had to live through, but regardless of that, we had a lot in common. We both love our families. We worry a little about safety. And frankly, we think that perhaps the new equipment at this playground is a little on the dangerous side for small children.

Thinking of how often Muslims in the US probably encounter hostility from others, I hope that my friendly demeanor reinforced a positive view of this woman’s adopted country. After all, one of the foundational principles upon which this country was built was religious toleration (brought to you by the Baptists via Roger Williams…You’re welcome, America). Toleration doesn’t mean that you accept that the religious beliefs of others are correct or that you never debate about them. It means that you don’t let those differences cause you to persecute those not of your own faith. You live side by side in peace.

So who have you encountered lately that broadened your horizons?

Poison Ivy? Poison Ivy.

Tags

, , , ,

Somewhere about July 14th I was trying to finish spreading my crazy enormous pile of mulch (like we’re talking 12-15 cubic yards). I had covered every square inch of the gardens and there was some leftover, so I decided to tackle the south side of my neighbor’s garage, which they ignore completely but which I must look at through the largest window in my house. Weed trees and belladonna and plantain (the weed, not the banana) and other weeds had run rampant. There was an elm that was already two stories high, which I decided to keep as a replacement for the giant sugar maple we had to cut down last year. There was a black walnut sapling that had to go. And the English Ivy was stretching and reaching across our driveway, intent on eating it on the way to our house.

ENOUGH!

If they won’t care for it, I will. So I starting to trim and pull and dig and lop and edge and mulch. And all was looking very nice. I got about halfway done when the manuscript I was listening to came to the end and I needed to get back to work inside.

The next day, I saw them. Angry red bumps that swiftly bloated to taut, bulbous blisters. I puzzled over this. There was no juniper in there (I’m allergic to juniper). There was the elm that I trimmed. Perhaps I was allergic to that? I’d seen elm on the list of things my son had recently been tested for allergies. Since we were off to camp later that week, I went to the urgent care.

“Were you in contact with poison ivy?”

“No. I haven’t been in the woods and my yard is all cultivated and I know exactly what’s in there and I don’t have poison ivy. There was my neighbor’s weedy area, but there’s no poison ivy in there.”

Steroids. Calamine lotion. And home to look up poison ivy.

Oh.

Yep. I was in contact with poison ivy. I’d never, in 34 years of romping through forests, encountered it. I thought the leaves were much smaller. But there it was.

So…three weeks later, I’m still itching and pretty miserable.

Do yourself a favor and avoid this:

Also, it feels like maybe there’s a lesson in here about minding my own business and not meddling and not needing everything outside to be perfect…

But there’s also a lesson for neglectful property owners in here about taking care of your yard and not exasperating and infecting your neighbor with poisonous weeds.

No place like it on earth…

Tags

, , ,

The photos I posted a couple days ago of some of the quieter moments of my time at Lake Louise are not entirely representative of my time there. THIS is what the week is all about:

Summer camp was not an experience I had as a child, but since my late teens I’ve had a connection to this amazing place, one of my top five favorite places on earth. At eighteen, I worked as resident staff for an entire summer, I’ve been a counselor a number of times, and I’ve had the privilege of accompanying my husband/camp pastor in a do-whatever-happens-to-need-to-be-done role since our son was born. I got engaged there, I was baptized as a believer there, my son first laughed there at six weeks old, he took his first steps there the next year. My Lake Louise friends are some of the most satisfying and helpful friendships I enjoy.

To me and so many others for more than seventy-five years, there’s no place like it on earth.

It’s Time to Admit I Have a Problem…

Tags

, ,

It’s always humbling to realize you have a problem, a weakness, perhaps even a pathology. When it’s brought to your attention, you might deny it or rail against it. But there it is. Your problem. Not going away.

In cleaning out the attics in our house this week to find stuff to donate to our church rummage sale, I made a remarkable and disconcerting discovery.

I’m a pillow hoarder.

There, I said it.

It’s hard to admit, but I think I have a pillow problem. I found, stuffed into bags and stashed in the attics, no fewer than a dozen throw pillows of various shapes and sizes (most on the large side) that I was saving in case I ever wanted to recover them. You know, because throw pillows can be so prohibitively expensive that once you have them, you really need to hang onto them. Perhaps they will appreciate in value sitting there in your 100 degree attic.

Though I was tempted to keep some of them, I pushed them all into the car and now they are sitting atop long tables awaiting new homes with new owners who will use them (I hope).

Phew! It feels so good to get that off my chest.

Here’s What Has Been on My Nightstand

Tags

, , ,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So this is what I’ve been reading for the past few months. Except for My Antonia by Willa Cather, I’ve read all of these in the past–most in high school. They’re all books I already had on my shelves at home. And I hope to more than double this stack by the end of the year.

Any guesses as to how they all relate to one another? Or which has been my favorite thus far? What have you read so far this year?

First Short Story Collection: Cover Art Reveal!

Tags

, , , , ,

Over a year ago, I secured the services of Heather Brewer, a talented graphic designer I’m lucky to call a colleague and friend, to design a book cover for me. At the time, I thought it would be a novel. At some point I realized that what I really wanted her to design was the cover for my collected short stories.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a year or more, you probably know that in 2013 I challenged myself to write one short story each month. During that year, I made each story available for Kindle users. Now I’m gathering those stories together, adding more material, and preparing to publish the collection as both a printed book and an ebook.

And this, I’m ecstatic to say, is the cover…

CoverFlat

When I saw it, I literally said in a loud and astonished voice (to no one in particular), “Oh my GOSH!” 

It’s breathtaking. And it’s more than just a pretty picture. Not only is it eye-catching, it evokes the kind of emotion that I hope the stories evoke in the reader–a little mystery, a little ache in the soul, an appreciation of beauty alongside an acknowledgement of the broken things. And, importantly, it’s non-gendered. In this collection, there are just as many male protagonists as female, and the themes are more universal than gender-specific, so having a cover that would appeal to both men and women was important to me. What do you think? Have we succeeded?

I’m currently editing the collection and getting the interior ready to go. I don’t have a firm release date just yet, but my hope is that it will hit the “shelves” by late summer or early fall. I’ll keep you posted!

Revising Your Manuscript: Sifting through All That Good Advice

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Back in March after I finished the first draft of my WIP, I talked about getting the most out of your beta readers. But what do you do with all their comments and advice? Most especially, what do you do when one person’s feedback conflicts with another?

So far, I’ve had ten lovely people give me feedback on my manuscript. Three more are reading now. With that much feedback, you’re bound to get some comments more than once (and that’s when you should perk up your ears and seriously consider their advice) and you’re bound to get a few things that don’t mesh.

My WIP is really three stories in one. Three protagonists. Three time periods. Lots of connections between the three. Inevitably when you have an ensemble cast, readers will likely gravitate to one character over another. So I’ve had champions for each of these three characters as well as critics for each of them. One reader thinks the book is really about Character A and rushes through the chapters that don’t include her. Another reader can’t stand Character A and knows that the book is really about Character B. Another adores Character C but can’t connect with Character B. And so on. And most readers have ideas about how you could improve the parts of the book they didn’t like as much.

On a smaller scale, you may have different readers mark the same little bit of prose with an underline and a smiley face, or a double strikethrough and a skull and crossbones. A member of one of my writing groups recently had that very experience with a descriptive dialogue tag and was at a loss about how to edit or if she should change it at all.

So what do you do with this conflicting advice?

First and foremost, consider your true audience. What’s your genre? Who is going to gravitate toward this book and snatch it off the shelves? Is the reader who gave you feedback someone who generally reads in your genre? If not, pause a moment to consider whether their advice on this particular problem is coming from a place of ignorance.

That doesn’t mean there’s no point in having them read and comment. After all, my book is geared toward the women’s book club crowd, but male readers (I’ve had four of them) are essential because there as many male characters as there are female. But if one of my male readers advises me to change a female character’s reaction to a situation because he doesn’t think women act that way or doesn’t understand why women act that way, I’m going to give it some serious thought, pat him on the hand, and say, “Nope, a woman really would do that, even if you don’t understand it. Women readers will understand that completely.”

But if the same male reader advises me to change something a male character says or does because he thinks that no man would act that way, then you had better bet I’m listening close and following his advice. In fact, that often makes for better conflict because the male characters aren’t behaving the way I as a female writer would like them to, and so now my characters have to deal with it.

Sometimes advice doesn’t hinge on audience. Sometimes it’s a matter of clarity versus obscurity. I tend to not like to explain things too much in my writing because I resent being talked down to in any area of life (which is why I hate getting my oil changed). I’m intelligent enough; let me figure it out. And if I can’t, let me struggle with it and discuss it with others. I’m sure this has something to do with being an English major.

But not all of my readers will have been English majors. Not everyone is on the lookout for obscure symbolism–or even overt symbolism! So when a beta reader completely misses an important plot point because I was worried about making it too obvious, it’s time to reread from the point of view of someone who hasn’t been thinking about the plot of this book for over a year. Come at it with fresh eyes. The best way to accomplish this is temporal distance–spend time away from your manuscript. Put it away for a month, then reread the notes from your beta readers, then reread your manuscript through the lens of a first-timer.

The side benefit of spending that time away is that any anger or anxiety you felt when reading over the notes that your beta readers sent to you will have dissipated. Items that seemed like a crisis at the time will suddenly seem very doable. Things you bristled at when you first read them will now seem quite sensible. And the task of revision will be at least partially divorced from the task of creation. You’ll accept that this novel you wrote is, in fact, not perfect. And that that’s okay. That it’s all part of a longer process by which you will slowly, slowly chip away the things that are not your story so that you can uncover the thing that is your story.

Above all, when you are considering conflicting advice–or any advice at all for that matter–there is a balance to be struck between being true to yourself and your vision and being faithful to your potential readers. If you’re writing to be published and read, you do need to consider your audience. But remember that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, please everyone. When you change Character A so that Reader A will like them more, Reader B will be furious.

So how do you like Character A? Does she serve the story? Does she evoke some kind of emotion in the reader? Does she struggle and change and mess up? If you’re uncomfortable with Character A, change her. If not, don’t.

Stories that get passed around and talked about are not necessarily the ones where everyone has the same opinion on every element. After all, if everyone thinks the same way on something, there’s really nothing to talk about, is there? So leave us a little complexity, a little controversy, a little mystery. We might be frustrated sometimes as readers, but it’s a sweet frustration indeed.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,294 other followers