The caprice of December

You think to yourself, “I’ll just get some stuff done,” and then find yourself alphabetizing the dvd collection. You need to wrap presents or mail stuff from the post office (which is a mile away, but really hard to get in and out of), but end up scouring the internet for the best prices on anything from Hiwa Kai Hawaiian black salt to books or chia pets, I don’t even know anymore. You might even be 12 windows deep into looking at all the videos on Upworthy.com

The weather is fickle, 50 degrees one day, 13 the next. Germs are running rampant because we’ve all finally had to close up, crank the heat, and sit stewing together in our crockpot living spaces. My friends talk on facebook about the latest plague to descend on their families, and I find myself wanting to wear a germ mask, gloves, and wipe down the computer. I think one might actually be able to trendspot and track illnesses just by paying attention to those things…not that I have…yet.

My kids and I have started Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin. The 8 year-old wants to read out loud too, so I have to keep reminding him to speak clearly, or his brother won’t understand what he’s saying. And they only seem to want to be indoors right now (can’t blame them too much), unless snow is falling…and then they want to be out there long enough to get completely soaked, possibly filthy, and come storming back inside, while I’m yelling, “Stop!!! Stay right there, stay in the kitchen and take everything off!”

Then they want hot chocolate or cider that usually ends up not getting drunk. Then movies. Or video games. Can friends come over? Not unless the house gets tidied, which is boooooring. But I can’t deal with someone else’s kids coming in, only to go home and casually inform on us that the sink is full, or there’s evidence that none of the males in our house have very good aim (AHEM), or possibly that the sheets don’t seem to be different from the last visit. I know, I know, I’m being paranoid and (probably) giving 8 year-old boys too much credit.

Above all else, the capacity to write is just not there, when there’s far too much else to be done this time of year. Lacking focus for that, I’ll just satisfy myself with reading and keeping up with this, I suppose. Shopping is pretty well done, we’re skipping some of the previous years’ falderal to keep things calmer and simpler – I just need to get soy-free things for my sister’s stocking, gluten free for me, and salmon jerky for my husband 🙂 Except….

I’ve got to print a load of scanned letters to make my mother’s gift – going to put them into portfolio books, rather than get a book printed – they’re her dad’s letters to his parents during WWII, and her mom’s letters to her dad…mysteriously, all his to her didn’t survive the passing of the years…though one of the ones she wrote perhaps illuminated why…I rather think he was very bold in the things he said to her. Ahem. The wording was different, and it’s one of the few letters I will omit, as I’m sure nobody wants to think of their parents that way, but as they were my grandparents, and they’ve both passed…I found it both shocking and amusing.

We need to think of some family traditions to have every year. More and more, holidays and occasions sneak up, and I feel no inspiration or creativity to do fun, or figure out how to make memories. It’s the only frustration hanging around this year. We let Halloween slip by with no pumpkin carving…hopefully we’ll do better this year.

My husband’s company party is this weekend, and while I have a dress, there’s nothing else…nothing but a snowstorm headed our way. No, really. It’s supposed to start around the same time as the party…at least the thing will be at a hotel this year. And, in that light, maybe I don’t need shoes? Hmmm?

This weekend will also mark the year anniversary of a pretty dark day in our state. Sandy Hook. The families just did a memorial project – and they’re asking everyone to stay away (that they had to ask is indicative of our far too intrusive and judgey society). I think it won’t be a problem for most of us not to have a ton of rehash over it. I’m glad there will be a storm and a party to distract, because the whole thing was just…awful.

My dad is an Episcopal priest – his assistant is a state police chaplain, who went down to do family notifications, and then found himself counseling first responders. Things like Sandy Hook send out ripples and keep extending far beyond those who survived, witnessed, responded, counseled…I saw him right after he got back from Newtown. He looked like he’d been through a storm, and had no words to express what he’d just experienced. My dad and he sat and talked through it, though. They do that; counsel one another, through loss and grief and…I know it’s a little strange, but that’s what they do.

And I remember, how a week after, the following Friday, it was raining. I’d just read that one of the children was a little girl named Joey, and she’d been autistic, like my son. I was overwhelmed with emotion, thinking about how a child like that would have felt with the screaming and chaos, praying that she hadn’t been frightened or suffered (that none of them had) – and went out to run five miles in the rain, yelling and crying the whole way.

And when my then 7 year-old told me that he’d heard the gunman was still alive and might come get them – a normal kid fear – I had to be honest and tell him that the shooter was dead. He wanted to know more, like whether this person, still practically a child himself, was in heaven or not (because everyone we know who has died is In Heaven) – I decided to say something different than Hell, which is where many people have probably put that troubled youth – I told him that God had put this boy in a quiet place, to be there for a long time where God would talk to him about the Really Bad Thing he’d done.

You may disagree with that notion, but it had a desired effect – my worry-wart of a kid stopped worrying about a boy with a gun, didn’t worry about where he was, and merely moved on to say that he thought his great-grandfather (soon to be joined by the other one two weeks later) had become a boy again in heaven and was playing with all the children who had died, to make them happy again, and keep them company until their families joined them someday.

And that’s what I still know about things, a year later. As I read the posts from the few families who have chosen to consistently share their children with us – like Daniel Barden’s family – I’m still sure that I made the right call for talking to my kid, that grief may ease…but it still feels strange to know that my grandparents all lived (only one left now) into their late 80’s or early 90’s, lost their memories and enjoyment of life (which is to say, modern medicine keeps them alive), and were ready to welcome death as a friend. Not everybody gets that. So, yes, I do hope that my grandfathers and grandma are keeping kids like those company. Any kids who have been lost in violence, really.

Light up your hopes and prayers along with your trees, people, it’s a crazy, dark world out there.

 

The days gather speed

This is what we all probably wake up to once we hit a certain point of adulthood – that we can no longer remember our childhood days, except as a snowball of moments – that if we make the mistake of putting our heads down to “just get by”…all of a sudden you make wake up to a long period of time gone by, like Rip Van Winkle.

It’s a means of getting through the tough times, of course. Ignore the bad, cling to the good. Or bury oneself in distraction. That last one, I’ve been particularly guilty of. A distinct memory does hang with me, of telling my AP English teacher that I just couldn’t deal with Richard Wright’s Native Son and WHY was she making us read it? It was so awful, so painful…yeah, duh. She told me that it was the precise reason for reading it, because it was an example of abject awfulness.

Well, without going into a dissertation on Wright’s work, and why I still wouldn’t revisit it…I’ll just say this: I’ve read a lot of difficult stuff, and have come to be okay with it – but that particular work…I cannot deal with the idea of someone accidentally murdering another human being and then concealing it as Bigger Thomas did. He chose poorly….

On the other side of the coin, I’m now reading 12 Years A Slave and reflecting on a few hundred years of ignominy. It too is a difficult thing to read and at the same time really commit to the notion that you’re seeing accounts of real events. I notice that there is a tendency in the narrative to employ genteel language of the day, which does detract from really being able to let the book gut punch you like it should. I can only imagine that the film by the same name must make up for that small thing.

But take for a moment the idea that this man, Solomon Northup, a “free man of color” was kidnapped, enslaved, sent to Louisiana, and then determined on his own that he couldn’t reveal his status. He lived for twelve years trying to puzzle out either how to escape, or how to find someone who could communicate his predicament to those who could assert that he was a free man. So, he put his head down and plunged into the life of slavery in order to get by and survive long enough to finally see an end to it.

As far as I can see, however, the worst part of any of it is not only that he was compelled to become a slave, but that when he was set free, and able to return to his home…he went knowing that he was powerless to help any of the enslaved men and women he had come to know and care for. That there were hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands in the same condition, and he was going home, while they were doomed to stay.

I’m pretty sure that, were Mr. Northup able to look around our modern age, he’d be gratified to know that we’ve come so far as we have…though I’m equally certain that he would be baffled by the push to forget…the urging that we must snowball the past and leave it behind. I have to say I disagree with that idea. To me, it’s promoted by those who would rather not be reminded of the things we’ve done so very, horribly wrong.

The scourging of the African continent is pretty well one of the worst of these, though not unequalled.

I’ve not worked on sites that included Native American burials, and the oldest of those would be unmarked by now anyway – but I did work down in northern Virginia on a few 19th century cemetery sites that included African American servants or slaves, and I’ll never forget, no matter how hard anyone might wish me to, the poignancy of seeing those graves, set apart from those with stone markers, and turned perpendicular or askew from those “Christian” burials that oriented east-west. They are nameless, forgotten to the modern memory…only once did they walk the earth, were kept suborned, serving those who rarely even thought of them as fellow human beings.

Once, I was privileged enough to have gone through a training class in the military with some extraordinary women, one of whom was the first African American female fighter pilot (think of that – in the year 2000, she was breaking new ground), another of whom is well on her way to a Lieutenant Colonel’s rank, having come up from the enlisted side. I’m in awe of both of them on a daily basis (not to mention some of the other kickass women who came through at that time with us).

But it was ONLY some 150 years ago that saw the Gettysburg Address, and the approach of the end of a war that was partly predicated on the grounds of slavery being an unjust institution. How many times did this nation have a chance to put an end to it?

And now that we are in a different time, how well will we continue to curate and handle the legacy of those days? Better than up until now, I hope.

The grudge

You’ve seen that movie, right? Either the original Japanese version, or the remake? Personally, I really dislike horror movies, but this one plays right into human psychodrama. The wronged person, who comes back from the Great Beyond, to wreak vengeance. Who hasn’t thought such things at one time or another? “I’d like to haunt them,” or “I’d love for that person to know MY suffering!”

It applies everywhere, and I’d even venture to say that it has to do with jealousy more than anything. Someone hurts you, and they keep on living their life, never seeming to have “karma” visit their doorstep. We’ve had that in our lives, we all have. Just yesterday, someone I know “outed” her bullies from years ago, when we were in high school. She said that they had “no souls”, that she “wouldn’t accept” apologies from them now….

I immediately contacted her privately to express my concern over naming people on social media like that, especially in light of the face that it’s been over 20 years since we were in school. We were ALL self-centered jerks back in our teens, don’t try to tell me we weren’t. And one of the people she’d named was someone who, in my opinion, was just an ordinary mean girl who had outgrown it.

“How do you know,” you ask? Well…she was one of the first people I came across when I delved into Facebook, and discovered to my horror that she had just lost her child to cancer. A child who was only a few months older than my own child. In spite of the pain, somehow she and her husband had managed to shake off the haze and start a foundation to help other families coping with the same thing.

So no, I do not believe she is the same person, any more than I am who I was. But what of that moment of public naming, and claiming that this woman has “no soul”?

Look, I was bullied too, I told my friend, though I didn’t share the extent of it – who wants to have their pain compared to someone else’s? By the time I graduated, nobody intimidated me anymore (helped that I was taller, and that the football team knew I could bench and lat pull better than half of them, lol) – and made sure to stick up for kids who needed it (not that I was perfect, either) – I wish she’d told me that this was happening, I said to her, because I didn’t actually see anything.

We were lucky, by the way. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have to worry about our bullies following us into our homes, via the internet. But I don’t see the point in staying angry…just in talking about what happened, so that it has less power over us.

Let’s face it…we’re forever works in progress. Pointing a finger straight at myself, here. Work in progress! Screws up a lot! Heart on my sleeve! BUT – has compassion for those who have lashed out. Truth. Won’t stop – and teach my kids that as often as possible – as well as to look for the kids who need some kind words, and give it to them. We can only try. We won’t be perfect at it, but at least the effort will be felt.

 

A teeny snippet

I might only be posting this for a short time, and for my few fans – but here is the moment that I have been planning in my head for a month or so (and it’s obv more than 140c for twitter):

“Quite, yes.” He cleared his throat, trying to formulate a strategy to rescue his dignity. “Colonel Jonathan Drake, at your service. I say, I’d been led to believe that there was a Scots major who was supposed to be second in command of this place.” He lent a heavy dose of displeasure to the final two words, casting a scathing look around the grounds.

 

“And so he is. The general sent him on some personal business, which we hope has been concluded by this time. His return will be a great relief to us, I assure you.”

 

“I doubt that.” Drake smiled in a manner that caused Emily to automatically recoil.

 

“And why might that be?” Arpan was on his guard. Emily wondered whether he might be wondering the same as she; whether this was yet another trick or torment set upon them from below.

 

“Why,” Colonel Drake had not ceased to smile at Arpan, “Abington’s appointment of the major to the posting has been rejected. I am to be his new executive officer, effective immediately. The request came, you see, from on high. Higher than high.”

 

“The Guards?” Arpan looked ill. Emily exchanged a worried glance with Sir Robert.

 

“Oh, dear me, no. They had approved it, I gather, but when the Duke of Wellington sends down word, why nobody has the temerity to ignore him.”

-Copyright, Kate Gray, book 4 Chronicles of the RSI – 2013

Lighting the fire

I’ve made mention in the past about having to adjust expectations – mine for what I hope and do – but also as regards my kids.

There are two of them, both boys, both smart, wild, mercurial…nothing like the fantasy children I might have envisioned at one point in my stupid youth. I know you did it too – even if you didn’t daydream about changing diapers, sleep deprivation, or maddening conversations with a legalist of an adolescent – you had in your head what you figured having a kid would be about.

Right, like sleepy Saturday mornings, lazing about with brioche french toast and edu-tainment: gentle cartoons with a message. Reality, more like…being woken at 5am by the television that you forgot to adjust before going to bed the night before…hearing cupboards creak open stealthily while your progeny hunt(s) for gummies…the inevitable whining, disagreements over what to watch, someone is hogging something….

No, back to fantasy land, you say to yourself as you unsuccessfully try to doze off, back to the twins Maria and Marcus, who prefer to study Mensa flash cards, walk the dog unasked, and bring you breakfast in bed.

Reality is that I grudgingly admit that I prefer the madness to Maria and Marcus, who are probably Children of the Corn anyway.

When our older son was diagnosed with autism back in 2004, we already knew that something was up. Nonetheless, I had been living in this fantasy of turning my brilliant child into a lover of books. I would read to him, I could see it so clearly, for hours we would read until he was spouting Newtonian theory and Yeatsian prose. Wrong!

That doesn’t happen under typical circumstances, much less his – I was a rookie parent in uncharted territory. But I’ll say t his until the day I die – the ONLY thing I was bummed about was that he wasn’t interested in books, aside from eating them. I did not grieve, or freak out about the diagnosis – and now I really try not to use the “D” where most people might in “ASD” – to me, it isn’t a “disorder” – it’s only a difference – and as a parent, I’m only trying to help build the bridge between us.

It’s been a while since that visit to UConn, with its assessment – it’s also been a while since I stopped buying books like a crazed seagull eyeing a beach full of coolers. We’re moving more thoughtfully, he and I. True, I have to keep reminding myself not to talk to him in certain ways…there are moments of frustration for all of us. We don’t have his assistive communication set up yet (his school is working on getting a device traveling back and forth), and so it’s a lot of guesswork about what is meaningful.

When it boiled down, though, and I really look at what he can do with schoolwork, he’s no different than his peers. There are subjects that bore the crap out of him. And he would rather throw a fit than have to deal with some of it. Hell, I was a kid who couldn’t stay focused long enough to ever do my homework, not until I started running. He has math down, loves the periodic table, outer space, cars, music…could not care less about English or Art, really.

But I started hearing that he would likely be able to take in anything I read to him, even if he couldn’t spit out answers to questions about it. And so I’ve changed expectations again. It didn’t take long to realize that he really, really, really dislikes fantasy and science fiction – in short, stuff that cannot be defined by the laws of the apparent – the realities and truths of the world we live in. Me, I love that stuff, and it’s hard, oh so hard that I can’t get him into Neil Gaiman, Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, Roald Dahl, to name but a few.

Maybe someday he’ll give all that a try, though.

I had read A Wrinkle In Time to him, and noted his impatience during the sojourn with the Mrs. W’s, other worlds, but it was inescapable when I tried the Lightning Thief. The rationale was that Charles Wallace and Percy Jackson were both boys who did not “fit” – and that he might find it cool to see them turn into heroes. He put his foot down about a chapter or two into Percy Jackson, though. “NO!”

Well, we’d read Blood on the River for school, about the Jamestown settlement. He’d gotten off on that. So I hunted for more like that. I found The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick, about a boy who tried to save his brother from fighting in the Civil War. Perhaps a little more wacky than he wanted, but it was piercing into the correct vein.

After that, it was Dangerous Waters – Gregory Mone’s Titanic adventure, and then Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. Chains, by the way, is really affecting – my kiddo got really upset when Isabel found herself being punished in a public square. I knew what he was thinking; so totally not fair. But here’s the thing – I think kids have to hear the unpleasantness of history, see the damage, the wages of war, the body counts – if we ever want better for the human race, we can’t whitewash the past.

We’re almost done with Number the Stars now, Lois Lowry’s masterpiece of Danish Resistance during WWII. Normally, we can get through about half an hour at a go, but last night, with Annemarie’s mother leading the Rosens to the boat, and then Annemarie needing to spirit the handkerchief to her uncle…we were going right along, and I could see him hanging onto every word, especially as the Nazi soldiers are rifling through her basket.

The sequel to Chains is waiting for the Christmas stocking, so after Number the Stars…I don’t know what we’ll read next yet. We have The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare), Sing Down the Moon (Scott O’Dell), and Attack of the Turtle (Drew Carlson), but I’ve noted a bunch in the bookstores that looked interesting as well….

See how easily it can happen? Idealism creeps back in…it’s exciting to figure out what he might find compelling and interesting. And I realize that it’s only my own limitations that held us back – I’m not going to cry over wasted time – but I’m not going to let more of it slip through our fingers.

Road to nowhere

Had meant to say in the last post that I’ve been struggling for a week or two with the dilemma of *which book to work on*. For a while, the motivation to write has been the urgency of wanting to get a decent body of Stuff out there. In the course of that, there are now three books in one series, and one in the other. The other series is the first book I’d ever written to completion, though it very little resembles the original “finished product” that I thought was done.

It’s been gutted, redone, and given an angle that finally made sense. And yet, I’m having a heck of a time getting rolling with its sequel. Maybe it’s just the distraction of online shopping, of looking for a telescope for the older kiddo, shiny lights to jokingly outdo the neighbors’ outdoor lights, and I would get myself completely sidetracked here just thinking about all the things to think about. No! Stop it…::slaps hands::

ANYway…the other option is to work on book 4 of the primary series. This is the series that could go on forever, I suppose. The other, I’ve concluded, ought only to be a trilogy. That’s what I put on the cover, anyway, so I guess it’s true.

It makes sense, right? If one thing isn’t working, try another line of approach? Zen writing? Find the plot of least resistance?

Holiday time

dumbledore

This is the time of year during which we all have to make ourselves adhere to timeframes, goals, lists. My ADD brain doesn’t like it very much if I don’t make actual, written lists.

On the other hand, in this time of shopping and stress, it’s easy to forget what matters most. I recently proposed to a certain portion of family that we take a year off of gifting (some of that family had had a particularly bad year anyway, and it would have been a strain on them to do it) – and magically, a load of stress was lifted off. We all commented that it was more desirable to see one another, for kids to play together, that we could bring a favorite dish, or a game to play….

I wonder what would happen if we all took that and ran with it, even if it was for just a year? If everyone took a year to skip on spending money (we may or may not have) and focused instead on one another? I think that buying gifts for our loved ones can turn into a proxy for our guilt, or to mask/demonstrate how we truly feel. And the older I get, the more uncomfortable that is.

Family is hard enough to juggle the rest of the year, but the holidays are the essential act of placing a microscope lens over them and ourselves. For some of us, maybe it’s more like gathering beneath the magnifying glass with direct sunlight burning through. We ought not only think of how challenging that can be, though. We ought to be staring straight at our kids, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren…and think: how can we teach them that life and love is what really matters?

Now, I know that sounds idealistic, but think of this. What gets you through the dark times? What helps you remember that misery, grief, and anger don’t last? The sun sets, plunging us into darkness, especially at this time of year. But it always rises. Never fails. Days, weeks, months, perhaps even years, can be difficult. But then someone will smile at you. Offer a hug. Sit with you and hold your hand. Or make you laugh, in spite of the bitter pill you swallow.

In the worst of times, we usually share whatever we have with one another. That is life. And when we stumble, falter on the path, there is someone who may happen along and offer succor. That is love. It’s not imaginary, illusory, or false. We either see it and take the chance of accepting it, or we do not. If we do not, we continue on in the darkness.

That is the truth.

There are always angels (if you will) of whom we are unaware, and it can be difficult to take them for what they are. It’s very hard to let someone help you – I recently saw a quote about taking aid, that it’s humility, not weakness, and I agree with that. Another that I like is that bravery is the act of doing something in the face of fear. We might also add that it is doing that which is difficult even when we dislike the people we aid, or cannot understand the reasons for doing it, or disagree with decisions that others have made.

I won’t lie – I’m struggling with that, and I do also believe in tough love.

But I think that the “midwinter” season of lights, hope, and faith can be a very sturdy life preserver in the midst of that. Even on Sunday night, when we had lost power for some time, didn’t know when it would be back, and the wind was blowing temperatures down into single digits, all we did was light all our candles and have faith that thousands of people would be spared having to sit in frigid homes. And so it was. The outage lasted for 6 hours, but men and women worked hard, knowing that it was human lives that were in consideration.

My list for this year, I think, will be simpler than usual. Breathe. Love. Smile.

That is what I want my kids to remember. That is what I want for them to hold onto and pass down to their following generations.