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Let the Writing Begin

You have to start somewhere …

Today I am stuck. I am in the early stages of writing the next Leah Nash mystery, and I know what the two main threads of the story are. I know how they will come together. I know who died and why.

I’ve done all the research, I’ve written all the backstories, figured out where and how the various suspects connect, and yet I’m hesitating. My ability to generate excuses for not actually writing is boundless. I need more research. I need a more detailed outline. I need more colored markers. I have to clean my closet. (That last one shows the level of my urge to procrastinate).

It’s the same thing each time I start a book. I’m excited to move into a world that is familiar, but different from mine. I’m eager to once again inhabit the mind of a character who is not me, but part of me. But like a skydiver before she leaps out of the plane, I am paused on the precipice of unknown outcomes. Will I land safely in the drop zone, or will I get caught in the metaphorical branches of a miscalculated plotline, or even worse will I crash to the ground in a tangle of poorly conceived characters and improbable clues?

The journey into the unknown is always daunting for me, as I am not an adventurous type by nature. In fact, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being Marco Polo and 1 being Emily Dickinson, I’m probably hovering at about 2.5. I always have to fight the urge to stay in a perceived safe place, in life, and in writing. The Mock Turtle’s advice in Alice in Wonderland has a certain resonance for me

There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England, the nearer is to France—
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

Regardless of how this next work comes out, it’s time to join the dance in earnest, leap from the plane with abandon, push off from the shore, and trust that all will unfold as it should. I’ll keep you posted on how the adventure is going.

This post (with minor edits) appeared on the website several years ago. As I force myself to move from planning and prewriting to actual writing of the fifth Leah Nash mystery, unfortunately, it still rings true. 😉

Those Who Can, Teach

The other day I had a chance conversation with one of my oldest daughter’s favorite teachers. After I updated her on Sara’s life, she reminded me of the time in high school when Sara decided to take a stand against what she felt was an unfair application of school dress code rules. She had written a protest letter about the issue and planned to post it anonymously in a prominent place in school. I had told her that if she couldn’t stand behind her opinion, she shouldn’t post it. If she could, then she should sign it. She did.

Shortly after, she was called to the office to answer for it. Sara was about to learn the cost of standing on principle, and she was pretty nervous. Without being asked, and without hesitation, her teacher insisted on going with her to stand in as a responsible adult.

When I mentioned the conversation to Sara later in the week, she immediately recalled the high-anxiety of being summoned to the office and the sweet relief of facing discipline with a supportive teacher by her side. I felt a fresh wave of gratitude for that teacher, (and yes, Leslie Thomas, I’m looking at you) and for all the teachers who every day stand up for, beside, and with their students.

That led me to ask a few of the teachers I know about what motivates them as teachers.

They all responded with some variation on the following themes:

  • Seeing a student experience that “aha!” moment when a difficult concept finally makes sense
  • Tracking students’ progress and watching them grow from grade to grade
  • Collaborating with and learning from colleagues who care as much about kids as you do
  • Helping students see that it’s OK to make mistakes, and to understand that they’re part of learning
  • Feeling energized by the idealism and enthusiasm of students
  • Working with parents committed to the best learning experience for their kids
  • Having students return to tell you that you made a difference, not just in their learning but in their lives.

Those seem like really good reasons to be a teacher.

But, why then, I wondered is there a shortage of teachers in Michigan? Why are so many retiring early, or leaving the profession after only a few years?

I asked my teacher friends those questions, too. And sadly, there was a uniformity to their answers.

  • Lack of respect for the profession
  • Feeling scapegoated for political purposes
  • Ever increasing class sizes
  • Disparity of funding for schools
  • Lack of support from administrators and parents
  • Unfunded mandates and “revolutionary” programs that ignore front-line teacher experience
  • The shift in priorities from educating students to churning out paperwork that has little impact on student learning
  • So much testing–post-testing, benchmarking, unit testing, proficiency testing, mid-year exams, end of year exams–that test-taking seems to be an end in itself

And then there’s the salary. None of the teachers I talked to cited money as a primary frustration. Nonetheless, it’s a factor. Just like everyone else, teachers can’t live—or raise a family—on love alone. In Michigan average starting salary for a teacher is about $36,000. Mind you that’s also at a time when most teachers are heavily burdened with school loan payments and the additional costs of the ongoing education that’s required to keep their jobs.

In many districts, teachers haven’t had a raise in years, some have had salary rollbacks, and all have seen higher insurance costs. It’s not uncommon for teachers to work second jobs on the weekends and in the evenings to make ends meet. Which is extra hard to do, because most teachers spend many hours on the weekends and in the evenings grading papers, writing lesson plans and participating in after-school activities.

Tuesday, May 8th is National Teacher Day. It’s an occasion when politicians and others will trot out platitudes, make meaningless declarations of support and respect, and then continue to underfund, overburden and disrespect the profession of teaching.

Thank teachers, by all means. But don’t stop there. Support, respect, and fund public education. Let your legislators know how important it is to you. And vote like you mean it.

I’ve had many teachers who made a difference in my life. Mrs. Hurry, Mrs. Hawkins, Mr. Tobin, Mr. McMacken, Mr. Stuckey, Miss Adams, Mrs. Snellenberger are just a few of them. Who’s on your list?



And Another Thing …

I can’t even …

There are times when I breathe deeply, center myself and send silent blessings to the people and things that are impinging on my attempts to find inner peace. There are other times when I freely and fully focus on the breadth and depth of stupidity in this world.

This is one of those moments. I don’t feel like looking at the big picture, realizing how insignificant daily irritations are in the big scheme of things, or comparing my situation to people who have it much worse. No. I feel like unleashing my inner two-year-old for a minute or two. So, here we go. Following is an incomplete list of things that cause me to wish for the power to make people spontaneously combust with my mind.

However, if you’re in a rainbows and kittens frame of mind, it’s probably best to skip this post. I don’t want to drag you into the darkness with me.

It makes me crazy when:

  • People in meetings repeatedly ask questions that were already answered. Bonus irritation points if they were checking their email when the aforementioned queries were addressed.
  • People appear to be surprised that they’ve called a meeting and have no agenda prepared and no apparent idea why they’ve gathered us all together. Double bonus irritation points if they then, in a bit of loaves and fishes magic, expand one inconsequential item that could be dispatched in five minutes into an hour-long debate.
  • People wait until they get to the cash register in a long store checkout line to dig through their giant purses or into every pocket on their cargo pants to find their checkbook, wallet, or coupons. Extra irritation points if their coupons are expired.
  • People promise to do something and don’t.
  • People think saying “Oh, well, you know how I am,” excuses every sort of irresponsible and/or self-centered behavior.
  • People apologize by telling you that it was really your fault they treated you badly.
  • People read a text or take a phone call that is not of serious import in the middle of a real-time conversation with you.
  • People think it’s comforting to tell survivors of a tragedy that God was looking out for them, implicitly indicating that anyone who did not escape was beneath God’s notice. A corollary irritation: people who attribute their success in life to being blessed, while apparently others who aren’t similarly situated are either cursed or at best worthy only of some divine form of benign neglect.
  • People wait to merge until the last minute even though lane closure signs are posted well in advance, then expect you to let them in.
  • People who make lists of petty annoyances that reveal their lack of inner resources for dealing with the minor frustrations of life.

Yes, it’s true, I am in such a crabby mood that I’m even annoying the bejesus out of myself. But now, having cataloged my current list, I feel strangely lighter. I’m ready to interact with my fellow humans with a greater measure of equanimity and tolerance.

Unless, of course, my next encounter is with a store clerk talking on his mobile phone while ringing up my purchases.




The writer’s kitchen

Adventures in cooking

This will be a short post, because I’ve been dealing with some technical issues this week. They’ve been almost frustrating enough to drive me to the kitchen to cook, which is rarely a good idea.

I know that some people cook for enjoyment, because the act of producing a delicious meal satisfies their creative impulses. For the most part, I cook because I, and those around me, eat. I can turn out an edible meal, but it is never about the presentation, and it is always about the chaos.

That no doubt has something to do with my propensity for plunging headlong into preventable moments—making those quick choices that result in long-lasting regret. In my desire to finish the cooking and commence the eating, I hustle around my very small kitchen, leaving cupboard doors open upon which I will later bump my head, and failing to close drawers into which I will ram my shin.  I don’t replace the caps on liquid ingredients, the better to knock them over and spill the contents. Quite often I grab a dish towel instead of a potholder to pick up a pan on the stove. Occasionally, the tail of the towel will float across the open flame, because I haven’t turned the burner off. Then make a mad dash to reach the faucet to put out the fire before I engulf the entire kitchen in flames. I do not seek chaos, but I consistently make micro decisions that result in mega turmoil.

I feel, dear readers, that it is time we take our relationship to the next level of trust. If you view the video below, you will see the raw, unvarnished truth of a rather shameful part of my life: the kitchen behind the writer. It was filmed almost four years ago, but, sadly, little has changed.




Let thy heart be merry …

Waking to the sound of laughter

Looking through some old family photos for a project I’m working on, I came across one that made me laugh out loud. It’s of my Dad, and it’s at the bottom of this post and you’ll understand why it’s there and why I laughed if you finish reading this.

My father had many wonderful qualities, among them genuine kindness, keen intelligence and a deep well of tolerance for diverse ideas and people. He also had a unique sense of humor that some would call off-beat, while harsher critics might deem it just plain weird.

For example, when the four of us older kids were 4, 2, and 1, Dad taught us to line up at the door, hold our chubby arms up in salute and shout “Heil the Father!” when he arrived home from work. Occasionally, he would give the signal when guests were present, and we would immediately go into formation and perform. We had no idea what we were saying or why, but it made him laugh and that made us do it even more enthusiastically. The custom faded fairly quickly, however, because my mother did not find it as amusing as he did. It wasn’t until years later that we realized we’d been mocking a Nazi salute and why Mom had felt that his ironic humor in this instance was, at best, ill-considered.

Although she had a more conventional sense of the funny than Dad, she was always pretty tolerant of his. She didn’t object beyond a roll of her eyes and an “Oh, Fred!”  when he put a life-size poster of a horse looking out from a stable stall, on a door that was the first thing startled visitors saw after they entered our house. Dad named the horse “Old Trotter,” and had a number of photos taken of himself and various grandchildren standing in front of the “stable.” He then sent them out randomly to old friends, who were perplexed about why Fred had bought a horse.

When my sister Barb was in college and in need of some quick cash, Dad answered her call for $20 by mailing her a bucket of pennies. Only after she had rolled all the coins did she discover the $20 bill at the bottom, along with a picture of a cow. No note, no explanation, just the cow.

During a year when the vacation resort Club Med was heavily promoted with the tagline  “Welcome to Paradise,” we decided to give Dad a special gift for his birthday. We had a bright blue sweatshirt custom-printed for him. On the front, it read Welcome to Paradise. On the back was the headline Club Fred, and underneath were the names of all the local and the famous Freds we could think of: Fred Hunter, Fred Hunt, Fred Ewing, Fred McDonald, Fred MacMurray, Fred Dryer, Fred Flintstone. We expected that he would laugh, and then use the shirt to wear for working around the house. We should have known better. He wore it all around town for years, without explanation or embarrassment, a 60-something bald, bespectacled and not very trim guy presenting himself to the world with the introduction, Welcome to Paradise.

He followed the beat of his own humor drummer all through his life. When he was well into his 70s, he snuck into my sister Tricia’s apartment while she was at work. His mission: plant a motorcycle alarm clock, complete with a wake-up signal of bright flashing lights and roaring engine sounds, under her bed, timed to go off at 3 a.m. Even though he was far removed from the scene of a sleep-dazed daughter jolted from slumber by the sound of a motorcycle racing through her bedroom with lights flashing, just knowing it was going to happen provided him with endless hours of amusement. Long after the actual event, he could still crack himself up recounting the story.

Dad always laughed at his own jokes, and we did, too, because it was impossible not to be amused by his amusement. When something that he said or did was more groan than laugh-worthy, someone would invariably say, “You’re such a Fred!” and then we’d all end up laughing anyway. We still do, when we reminisce about Dad.

So, maybe the best gift he gave us, in addition to each other, is the gift of laughter.

Such a Fred!

To Seek … and Not to Yield

“Come my friends, ’tis not too late”

On my tenth birthday, my mother lit the candles on my cake and said, “Now you’re in double numbers. Now the years will go by fast.” It seemed such an odd thing to say. At that stage of life, when I longed to be a teenager like my cousin Mary Ellen, it felt as though each year was an eternity. It had taken me so long to get to ten, how could time possibly begin to go faster? And yet it did.

It was quite a rude awakening in my twenties when I discovered that the phrase I often used to signify an event that had occurred in my childhood no longer worked. “Ten years or so ago” was once a measure of time that covered half my life. It was a shock to realize that now it only reached back as far as high school graduation, not all the way to Sister Cyprian’s fifth-grade classroom.

That’s when I began to get an inkling of what my mother had meant. Time had moved on and unawares I had moved with it. I could no longer use ten years to give me a point of reference in my childhood. I had to opt for fifteen, and then twenty, and then twenty-five, until one day, I found that even going back thirty years didn’t put me in my grade school days.

That awareness has been accompanied by the loss of that sense of limitless options for my life that youth confers. Now, I have to accept that I am never going to be a heart surgeon. I am never going to be an astronaut. I am never going to understand the theory of relativity, or write a symphony, or win a gold medal in figure skating at the Winter Olympics.

Of course, there are a number of practical and logistical reasons, beyond the passage of time, for those vague possibilities not coming true: an aversion to blood, a fear of heights, a serious problem with math, an absence of any musical talent whatsoever, a distressing lack of physical coordination, among them. Still, my mother’s prediction has proven true—as so many of hers have—time is rushing by.

The awareness that runaway time has put restrictions on even my idle daydreams can sometimes be quite depressing. That’s when I re-read a poem by Tennyson that I first encountered, and only dimly understood, in high school.

Ulysses describes the hero of the Trojan War, returned home after long years of adventure. He rebels at the quiet sameness of life to which his age has relegated him. He determines that he will not surrender to a life of quiet desperation. He urges his long-time friends to join him in pushing forward with whatever measure of courage and strength they still command, for as long as they are able.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Now, all who know me will quickly agree that heroic temperament is not the first phrase that leaps to mind when describing me. I shall not soon be setting sail with or without brave companions to confront a Cyclops or battle wits with the witch-goddess Circe. I won’t even be driving forth in a Winnebago for parts unknown.

However, I will feel free to indulge my random musings about future possibilities, regardless of the rapidly passing years. There’s my idea for STAB, Susan’s Twitter Advice Bureau, wherein, in 140 characters or less, I will give you clear instructions on how to live your life. It’s time I make my skill at clearly seeing what other people should do available to a wider audience than friends and family.

Also, there’s my great concept for a podcast: Susan and KK Talk Through A Movie, a weekly live stream of my sister and me talking over the unfolding Netflix action and then asking each other “Who’s that guy that just died?” or “I thought they were in Indiana. How did they get to Mt. Everest?”  And then there’s … well, I shouldn’t say more, or someone might beat me to the punch on that idea.

Time does move quickly after you hit double numbers. And as Yogi Berra (less lyrical than Tennyson, but strong on succinct) said, “It ain’t over, ’til it’s over.”




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