Saying Goodbye to Sweet Sasha

Sasha in the Snow

Earlier this week we had to say goodbye to our beautiful, sweet-natured Sasha. This picture was taken three winters ago, when she was already 13 (and when we actually had snow on the ground). Even then I thought she must be living on borrowed time as the breeds that make her up (German Shepherd and Samoyed) had average lifespans around 10 and 12 years. Had she made it to February, she would have been 16.

Sasha came to live with us when she was six, less than five months after we moved into our house in a new city where I didn’t know anyone and I was now working from home with a cat who didn’t seem to care if I was there unless her bowl was getting empty. Sasha has been a constant fixture in my life since then, always parking herself right behind my rolling desk chair (and freaking out when I moved it back to stand up).

However, for the past year, she had rarely moved from the dining room rug and slept most of the day. She had developed a deep and persistent cough that only went away when I could get the vet to give me prednisone for her. Her back legs had grown weak and she struggled to get in and out of the house (each trip to go to the bathroom meant several stairs both ways). She fell more and more, developed a wound by her ear that would not heal, and her belly and side were covered in little tumors, one of which had grown considerably in the past year. Hardly four days could go by without her getting sick.

Last year we had to re-home our longtime cat due to our son’s allergies. And now without our dog the house is very quiet and empty when everyone is gone but me. Zach and I talked before about trying to be pet-free for a while (except for my son’s fish). But we’ve already begun talking about potentially getting a parrot. We’ll have to do a lot of research before making that kind of commitment. But it’s hard to envision a future with no pets.

In the meantime, we miss our sweet old dog.

Suddenly, Snow

Winter's Arrival, Highway 52

The power of poetry. Two days after my lament, we’ve finally had a bit of snow. And lots of sudden ice on the roads. You take the good with the bad. This morning there are flurries and the ground is still powdered with white. I believe it’s all supposed to melt tomorrow. But for a moment yesterday afternoon, it was glorious.

I drove into it going west on I-69, coming back from Pontiac where my sister was graduating from the corrections academy of Oakland County. The sole representative in her class of Grand Traverse County where she will be working, she took the top academic honors.

I was in proud attendance, as were our parents. Alison spent the last fifteen years in child protective services and then adult protective services, hard jobs that wear you down, especially as resources continue to be stripped. The road to the moment in the photo above started somewhere back in the late spring with application, then a battery of tests and background checks and interviews, then five weeks away from her family at the academy.

As we run out 2015 and think about the year to come, I pray it’s a year of renewal, growth, satisfaction, and joy for all of you, but especially for her.


When Your Child Loves What You Love

I’m not really a baby person. When my husband and I decided to have a child, I’m sure he was looking forward to having a baby. He loves babies. Babies smile when they see him make a goofy face. When I make a face at babies, their reaction often ranges from suspicion to terror. Maybe just as animals can smell fear, babies can tell when you’re feigning interest.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t dislike babies. I just don’t usually give them a second look when I encounter them in restaurants or stores. And it always surprised me when others seemed interested in my baby. Being fairly introverted, I was always a little put off when I went out in public with my own baby boy and found that, for most people, babies are like a magnet. Toting a baby around already makes every task take longer, and when you add nice little old ladies who miss their grandchildren to the mix, that quick run to the store to buy milk can turn into an excursion for which you should have brought snacks. Most of those strangers mean well, though occasionally you get someone who makes some thoughtless, slightly insulting comment.

Beyond just not quite getting it when people fawned over someone else’s baby, I found that having a baby is just plain hard work, physically and emotionally. You don’t quite understand the depth of the physical exhaustion of never sleeping the night through for years at a time until you’ve done it, nor do you realize just how terrible of a person you are without sleep until you’ve gone without for too many nights in a row. Plus, like many new mothers, I experienced some level of post-partum depression which, again, you can’t quite understand until you’ve been there. I felt bad about myself for at least a year, which was an entirely new experience for someone who was self-confident to a fault up until then.

Anyway, all this to say that I didn’t grieve as my baby grew into a toddler who grew into a little boy. Each new skill he learned was a relief: Excellent! Now he can walk without me worrying about him falling over and cracking his head on the coffee table! Great! Now I can eat my own meal because he can eat his! Fabulous! Now he can let the dog out and go get me that pen from across the room!

I like having a kid more than I liked having a baby. Every year gets more fun as my husband and I get to watch our boy grow into a smart, silly little guy who makes jokes that actually make sense and informs me as I’m coming downstairs to make his lunch that he already did it.

And one of the very best things about having a kid is introducing him to all the stuff we liked as kids. Books, movies, TV shows, restaurants, toys, museums, beaches, and even entire cities. When everything you love is new to your child, you get to experience it like the first time again. You get to rediscover the emotional weight of your own childhood over again. And lucky for the both of us, that means good memories because we were blessed with good childhoods.

Zach has been excited to play old video games on the Apple 2C computer he still has (with all the big 5 1/2 inch floppy disks that still work after more than 30 years!) and read his favorite series of books, The Great Brain, with our son. He’s introduced him to Gordon Korman books, Voltron, model rockets, model trains, and Pac Man. Together they’ve built things out of wood and repaired things around the house. I’ve been excited to take the boy out to collect rocks, work in the garden, examine insects, and walk in the woods. We watch nature documentaries together and pick up feathers and press autumn leaves. Recently the boy helped paint a bathroom and decorate for Christmas. He loves to cook with both mom and dad. He thinks the movies his parents watched as kids are just as hilarious as they think they are.

One of the things I’ve been waiting to share with my son is my love for the book Watership Down by Richard Adams. I first saw the animated adaptation when I was about his age. I read the book for the first time soon thereafter and read it at least once a year for the entirety of my childhood and a few times as a college student and an adult. I also listened to an audio book of it many times and watched the film again and again, despite the fact that it leaves so much out. Simply put, I was big fan. But the animated movie is really bloody and the book is quite long, so I’ve been holding off introducing my nightmare-prone seven-year-old to it.

Until this week. I had a hankering to read it again myself. I glanced through and saw that the chapters themselves, while there are many, are fairly short. I knew I’d have lots of terms, both in English and in the rabbits’ own language, to explain. I knew the very British style and sentence structure might take some getting used to for him (I’m sure I learned more about language and expanded my own vocabulary immensely just from my repeated readings of this one book). But ready or not, I wanted to get him as hooked as I was.

I gave him a general idea of the content — an adventure story of a group of rabbits that must leave their warren to find a new home, encountering many dangers along the way — and explained that the story could be violent at times.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m okay with violence.”

[Pause for mother to be slightly concerned and mentally review all the shows he watches that might be considered violent…Realize it’s all comic-book violence with no blood and no death shown on screen…Feel a little better…Realize that Watership Down may be the most real violence he’s encountered thus far in his life…Remember that he and his father are reading through Judges right now and feel much better about it because this is just rabbits, not people, and it didn’t actually happen…]

See, these are the kinds of taxing want-to-do-things-right-and-not-mess-up-my-kid-for-life thoughts one has as the parent of a seven-year-old.

At any rate, we read the first three chapters last night. And just as I had been as a child who loved to imagine I was various animals, the boy was hooked and has already identified with one of the rabbits: Blackberry. At this point in the story, the reader knows almost nothing about him beyond the fact that he has black-tipped ears. We find out later that he is the most clever rabbit in the group. But it only took one or two sentences featuring him for my son to declare, “I’m Blackberry.”

“You know,” I said, “when I was a kid, Blackberry was my favorite too.”

I put down the book and left the room to get my guitar for his bedtime songs (three every night). When I returned, he was a rabbit. Just as I had once been. And I can remember how it felt to be a rabbit. Timid and nervous and wiggly. Then powerful and swift.

And always a little magical.

On the Beauty of Stepping Back

A Rose Blooms on Veteran's DayLike it or not, twenty-four hours is all you get. Subtract sleep (eight hours if you’re lucky) and work (another eight hours if you work full time) and you have eight left. Personal hygiene, prepping and eating meals, doing dishes and laundry and picking up after yourself, gassing up the car, driving to and from work, getting the kids off to school and activities, church and volunteering, hopefully getting in some reading time or an episode of Brooklyn 99 or The Man in the High Castle

Friend, your day is slipping away fast. And that means your week is slipping away. In aggregate, your life is slipping away and you probably don’t have the time to properly lament that fact.

I have been asked on more than one occasion how I “do it all.” Work, kid, writing, gardening, canning, sewing, teaching, etc.

Well, here’s the dirty little secret: I don’t. Not all at once, at least. I haven’t sewed a piece of clothing for myself in well over a year. I didn’t manage to can cherries, raspberries, pears, or apples this year. I did the absolute bare minimum in the garden this summer. I also barely manage to keep my house in working order. I often go to bed with dishes in the sink (and on the counter), with laundry getting wrinkled in the dryer, and with toys strewn all over the house.

And every once in a while I have to step back, look at where I’m spending my time, and reevaluate. I did this back in 2007; the result was quitting grad school. I did it again in 2012 and decided I needed to quit being a docent at the zoo. Suddenly during this crazy fall, I felt the need to reevaluate once more.

I realized that I was overcommitted in general, but specifically in two places: in my local writing group and at church.

As a board member and the marketing/communications chair of CCWA, I was committed to monthly meetings, but also to developing and keeping up the website, helping to plan events that required extra meetings, attending as many organizational events as possible, blogging and asking others to blog, trying to remember to tweet, developing and giving talks, etc. It wasn’t an everyday commitment, but over the year it amounted to a lot of time away from family and, ironically, from writing.

At church I have been prepping and teaching an adult Sunday school class, serving as a deacon, practicing and singing in the choir, attending two worship services, doing building renovations, and often leading singing, lay leading, prepping and serving communion, and trying to be a semi-decent pastor’s wife type person on top of that. On Sunday mornings especially I was rushing from activity to activity with not a moment to stop and chat with church members or visitors on the way. On some weeks, I might find myself at church three or even four days out of the week.

At an especially busy time, I realized that my entire week was spoken for by these two very worthy, fun, and rewarding aspects of my life, plus my son’s one extracurricular activity:

  • Monday night: deacon meeting during which my son had to entertain himself at church (family grabs fast food on way home, son gets to bed too late)
  • Tuesday night: take the boy to karate (family eats whatever I can scrounge up and make into a meal at home)
  • Wednesday night: choir practice and midweek service (husband takes the boy to karate; family either scarfs down early dinner at home or eats separately)
  • Thursday night: CCWA board meeting (family eats out again, again separately)
  • Friday night: take the boy to karate (family would eat at home but no one has had time to plan meals or cook, plus the kitchen, somehow, is still a disaster even though we’ve eaten out nearly every night)
  • Saturday: spend 9 hours at church sanding floor, prep for Sunday school at night
  • Sunday: teach Sunday school, practice choir number, sing choir number in service, come home to crazy-messy house and try to reacquaint myself with my husband and son

It was easy to see that this was just too much, despite the fact that, taken individually, I valued each of these things. I had no margin, no white space, no mental rest or physical rest, no time to let my mind breathe, no time to take care of myself or my family or my home.

So I looked at all of the things I was doing and found the ones that could be done by others. No one can be my husband’s wife but me. No one can be my son’s mom but me. No one can write my books but me.

But could someone else be a deacon? Absolutely. Could someone else serve on the CCWA board? Absolutely. Could someone else sing soprano? Absolutely. And probably there is someone out there dying for the chance to do those things, looking for an open spot, for a need to fill. Me stepping down could create that open spot.

So that’s what I did. I contacted the leaders and supervisors and directors of those groups and let them know that, come 2016, I was stepping back. Not one of them was upset with me. All of them understood. And once they had all been told, a weight lifted off my shoulders I hadn’t realized was there, even though I hadn’t really gotten anything off my plate just yet. There are still Christmas baskets to distribute as a deacon. There’s still the Christmas cantata and all the extra practices that entails for choir. There’s still the annual writer’s conference (Write on the Red Cedar) to advertise and execute for CCWA in January. But just knowing that within a matter of months those commitments would be over put my mind at ease.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation — overcommitted and exhausted and wondering where each day is going, unable to find the time or mental energy to serve your family, take care of yourself, or pursue your passion. Why not take some time as this year draws to a close to reevaluate where you’re spending your time and energy. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I doing this out of a sense of obligation?
  • Does this bring me joy?
  • Is this good for my family?
  • Could someone else do this?
  • Is this how I want to spend my time?
  • What do I really want to do — both now and in the future — and how do each of my current activities feed that dream or drain time and energy and imagination from that dream?

I think you’ll find that the answers you give will tell you what you can step back from and what you really want (and need) to do with your precious twenty-four hours.

Upon Finding Old Pages Ripped Out of a Journal

Last month I cleaned out one of our attics (bizarrely, our small house comes equipped with two of them) in an attempt to rid our home of stuff we really didn’t want, organize the stuff we wanted to keep, and make room for a number of items I’ve been steadily packing away in anticipation of listing our house for sale in the coming year. While going through boxes, I found, among other things, lots of old photographs, sketches and paintings, trophies and plaques, letters and notes passed and mailed between my husband and I when we were dating in high school and college, and all the cards and notes of advice from my bridal showers.

I kept out a few things to scan and share when time allows (apparently I was the most prolific and derivative fourteen-year-old artist to have ever lived). The rest I tucked away to await eventual moving trucks.

Then when Zach was in the other attic getting all the Christmas decorations down, he found twelve pages, written on both the front and back, I had removed from one of my many early attempts at journaling. Because I know myself, I am positive that at one point I found a journal that I’d started, but most of it was blank, so I tore out the written pages, kept them aside, and then used the rest of the journal, either making a new attempt to start an actual journal about my boring life or else, if it was found more recently, making notes in it for future writing projects (which is the only way I have ever filled up a journal).

The pages start in June 1998, the summer after my senior year of high school, when I moved up to Camp Lake Louise (then Lake Louise Baptist Camp) to work as resident staff for the summer. They are certainly not daily. They say nothing of camp life at all. They do record Zach’s proposal to me (in epic poem form, no less) and me settling into college at Grand Valley State University. Over half the pages are me dramatically recounting an incident and a misunderstanding with Zach, waiting at Afterwards, the GVSU coffee shop, and lamenting that he wasn’t showing up (remember, kids, that texting didn’t exist and most of us didn’t have cell phones anyway) and I had brought nothing to read beyond John Donne (can you tell what sort of a person I was in college?). This extended, maudlin discourse goes on for pages and pages and is postscripted with one line I penned the next day; turns out he had to work that night and that’s why he never met me at the coffee shop (disaster averted). The last page is my first and only attempt (thus far) at writing song lyrics.

Of all of these things, the only one I remember writing was the song. I have no memory of any of the rest of it, and I would never have remembered how emotional or lonely I felt waiting in that coffee shop after having that misunderstanding with Zach. After I read the pages I had him read them. He didn’t remember any of it either, but we had a good laugh about it and enjoyed all of my overly poetic turns of phrase (college freshmen can be sophomoric too).

Now, you may be thinking that the right thing to do would be to share some specifics of the embarrassing and dramatic content of these pages with you. Maybe post the lyrics or the poem here for you to chuckle at. To be self-deprecating and transparent.



This is why in the past people burned their papers before they died — to avoid others finding such personal stuff once they’re gone. Now every dumb thing anyone ever said is archived forever on some server somewhere and future generations will have a too-real view of all of us. Hoping people will remember you as someone endowed with dignity and mystique? Don’t count on it.

There are competing views about offering a backstage glimpse into the life of a writer. Recently I’ve read calls for writers to be open about how they learned, where they failed, and how they found success. It’s better for aspiring writers, is the argument. It demystifies writing, removes the idea of “talent,” and is more honest about all the sweat and hard work. But then you’ve got someone like Ernest Hemingway who says, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Myself? I’m not sure where I fall on the transparency spectrum just yet. When you look at an entire body of work from one writer you should see growth (the alternatives — plateauing or declining — certainly don’t seem desirable). But what I know for sure is that anything I wrote in high school or college should probably be burned or buried with me.

In Which the Year Hurtles to Its End and I Try to Hang On

Life of late has been a blur of copywriting, baking, eating, decorating, laundry, and editing, with some DIY church renovations thrown in for good measure. And here I find myself on the first day in December with no food in the house, nearly every room in some state of disarray, one car in the shop, and one gorgeous refinished chapel floor.

The walls and the curtained panels on either side of the cross are next on my list in our attempts to bring the room out of the 1970s-1980s, but not for a couple weeks at least. I’m taking much of the week off to focus on finishing up an edit on The Bone Garden so I can send it back to my agent. We’ll soon be prepping to go out on submission in early 2016. I’d be excited and nervous, but I haven’t the time. Christmas calls and I’ve hardly bought a thing…