From Across the Parking Lot

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A little over a year ago, I was trying to buy a house. Not just a house, but a really cute house. One with a curved staircase and skylights and a lush yard of green. It was the first house that my husband and I really liked in a market where nice houses were scarce. So we put an offer on it. But someone else had put a better offer on it and suddenly we found ourselves in a bidding war, pitted against an invisible opponent, fighting for the key.

One hour before I expected to hear back from my real estate agent, I was volunteering at my kids’ school library and noticed another parent who was in the room helping her child. “Do you want to become a library volunteer?” I asked her after the class had left.

“Sure,” she said.

“Just fill this out and we’ll train you.” I handed her a form and a pen.

After writing down her name and phone number, she paused. “I don’t know what to put down for my address,” she said. “Right now we’re staying with friends, but we’re trying to buy a house. My mom is sick and we’re looking for a new house so she can live with us. I’m going to find out about the house today.”

“Where is it?” I asked.

She told me the address of the same house I was hoping to buy. “There’s one other bidder left,” she added.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling like a turd. “Me.”

For a few moments the only sound in the library was the computer beeping every time I scanned a book. “Whatever is in God’s plan,” she said, breaking the silence. “I just leave it to him.”

“Yes,” I said, relieved that she was still talking to me. “Whatever happens, we just go with it, right?” I finally looked at her and we smiled at one another, a silent agreement.

On my way home I called my real estate agent and immediately began sobbing into the phone. “I met the other buyer and her mom is sick. I don’t think I want the house anymore… Her sick mom is moving in with her. I think we should withdraw our offer. Should we withdraw our offer?”

My agent knew my history. He knew that my mother had died of cancer ten years before and I still wasn’t “over it.” So he said all the calming things agents must say to their crazy clients who call while sobbing. He said something to the effect of, “Don’t do anything rash; everything will turn out ok.”

A half hour later, my agent called me back.

We didn’t get the house. I was both disappointed and relieved.

After that, I’d sometimes see the other mom at school. I would smile at her, but she rarely made eye contact with me. I wanted to tell her that it was okay and that I didn’t harbor any bad feelings towards her. But we didn’t exactly know each other, so I just kept smiling, and sometimes I would wave at her from across the parking lot, hoping that she would understand.

Several months later, I learned that she had cancer.

But she fought it and later appeared at school again, her hair shorn short, revealing the beauty of her face that I’d never noticed before. And I was all the more glad that she got that house and not me, because at least she had a home where she could recover and heal in peace. Maybe that’s why, I thought, remembering what she had told me in the library about God’s plan.

This should be the end of my story. And I wish it were.

But life is not always fair. Everything doesn’t always turn out okay. And sometimes cancer reminds us of this.

Her cancer returned with its teeth bared. I heard about it through the school grapevine, so I can’t exactly ask her how bad it is, or if I can help.

She doesn’t talk about her cancer with strangers, and that is all I am.
A stranger.
A stranger who once tried to buy the same house she did.
A stranger who lost my mom to cancer and now shares the pain of her struggle from across the parking lot.
A stranger who wants to hug her children when I see them afterschool and tell them that no matter what happens, they will be okay. Eventually.
A stranger who loves, prays, and fears for her, even though I don’t know her, because in a way we are sisters.
Cancer does that. It breaks families. But it also makes them.

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Sifting Through The Ashes of Berkeley Family Camp

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I guess you could say I was a latecomer to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp (BTC) as the first time I went to camp I was already in my late 20’s. That year I tagged along with my husband for his family’s annual BTC getaway, a trip they’d been making since my husband was a child.

When I first arrived, I honestly didn’t know what to make of the place. Stepping into the loud chaos of the dining hall, I was immediately surrounded by energy and mayhem. This wasn’t the quiet, serene camping I was accustomed to. And over the din of laughter and clanking dishes, people would clap. They would even sing. Loudly.

My first day, wedged between strangers, I poked at the mysterious food on my plate called “turkey glop.” Then someone passed me a pitcher of bright orange “bug juice.”

This was going to be a loooong four days.

A garbled announcement sounded over the loudspeaker and everyone stood up on the benches. Even the older campers (the kind of people who stay seated during rock concerts) joined in. Everyone saluted, and then began clapping in unison while chanting, “Round the hall you must go…” That’s when three embarrassed, but giddy kids in matching caps skipped between our tables. With a mouthful of bug juice I washed down the turkey glop and pretended to sing along.

Little did I know, one day MY kid would be wearing that Ranger cap. And one day, I, dressed in the ugliest homemade tie-dye known to man, with dirt between my toes and a half-finished lanyard in my pocket, would be clapping and hooting along with everyone else.

Okay, so a camp burned down. It’s not the worst thing that could happen. It’s not like a person died. People lost their homes and their livelihoods to the voracious, unrelenting Rim fire. And I don’t want to downplay the severity of their losses. But I would like to take a moment to celebrate and remember a few things about our camp. Because even though it wasn’t a person, BTC did touch our lives. It touched many people’s lives.

I played in the staff versus camper volleyball tournament. Yeah, I know that doesn’t sound like a big feat. But you see, I don’t play volleyball. Never have. Yet, for whatever reason, I did in Tuolumne. And after umpteen years of coming to camp, I finally know (most) of the words to the camp song! Hey, I can even spell Tuolumne on the first try. Woohoo! *Awkward high-five*

You see, BTC was a place where you could step out of your comfort zone without even realizing you were doing it. It was a safe refuge from the city, a rare place for our children to experience the autonomy they so desperately crave. It was where our family reconnected, and where we had a chance to remind ourselves of what our life’s priorities really are.

Camp was not a person; it was a place to remember who we are, and to dream of who we want to become.

What about camp will I miss the most? Well, even though you didn’t ask, I’m going to tell you.

It’s the pure, clean smell of the river at dusk.

It’s sitting in a green Adirondack chair, deciding which book to read next. It’s my 23rd unfinished lanyard. It’s the cackling blue jays who scoff at the notion of anyone sleeping in past eight. It’s the gritty feel of wet clay between my fingers as I make yet another lopsided bowl decorated with leaves. It’s dust in my nose, my kid’s collection of lichen-dressed, googley-eyed Tuolumne trolls, and the dirt that takes a good week to scrub out of our heels when we get home.

It’s my kids darting between trees, savoring a level of freedom they experience nowhere else. It’s me not having to cook, or even think about cooking. It’s bathing our baby in a lasagna tray when she was too small for the bathtub. It’s my kid “falling” into the river every day like clockwork and me pretending to believe it was an accident. It’s children catching fish and making new friends to catch more fish with. It’s my husband teaching our five year old how to properly cook and assemble a s’more. It’s the contagiously positive staff attitude. It’s gathering with our friends every year to hang out, swap stories, and share a toast. It’s picking wild blackberries, and even better, eating them.

It’s seeing my shy eight-year old discover new levels of self-confidence.

It’s showing my kids the big dipper in an infinite sky.

It’s our family. Together.

And with the Tuolumne dust now behind us, I’m left sifting through our tie dye shirts, coffee filter creatures, leaf prints, and dusty sleeping bags in search of something to hold on to. All I find are memories. Luckily, they’re pure gold.

Reaching Through the Looking Glass

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Being a stay-at-home parent, I rarely experience moments with nothing to do. “Free time” usually involves running errands, cleaning, writing, and on the rare occasion, getting some exercise. But last week, for the first time in a long time, I found myself walking around downtown Berkeley with no kids and no obligations.

Ah, the sweet ambrosia of non-thought.

I walked toward the farmers’ market, my mind tuned to the voices around me, the smell of the concrete sidewalk, the peaceful solitude that is an unhurried afternoon alone. On the way, I passed by a girl- no, a young woman- putting on her white sneakers. She looked up at me, smiled, and said hello. That’s when I spotted the blankets behind her, the suitcase, the doorway that was her makeshift sidewalk home.

She was homeless.

How strange, I thought. She didn’t look homeless. Pretending not to feel the guilt I always feel when passing someone who lacks the basic comforts I usually take for granted, I kept walking. Just keep going and don’t think about it too much. There was still time to hit the farmers’ market before it closed. Maybe the season’s first strawberries had arrived.

As I circled street vendors selling kabobs, oranges and crepes, an imaginary voice entered my mind. It was the voice of a homeless girl. “You’re not really homeless unless you look homeless,” the voice said. “At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.”

Jeesh. Not this. Not a story about a homeless girl. This was my free time, my not-a-care-in-the world time. It wasn’t time to think about a homeless girl’s story. Too painful. Too hard.

Too late.

I passed right by the strawberries.

There is no such thing as downtime. Because it’s during downtime that your mind soaks everything in… and rearranges it. I don’t want to write about a girl on the street. I’d rather write about cats. Or about a boy who turns into a dragon whenever he eats broccoli. Or about pregnant fish, high school angst, fuzzy monsters, and uptight parents. Something simple. Something easy.

But you can’t always choose your stories. Stories sometimes choose you.

I turned around and began to retrace my steps, my feet leading me far far out of my comfort zone.

When I reached the doorway, the girl was no longer alone. Three homeless friends had joined her, so I turned back and returned to the farmers’ market to buy croissants- four of them.

I’m crazy. That’s what I am. Suburban housewife, mother of two, goes insane and hangs out with homeless people.

Standing over them, I mumbled some lame introduction and held out my bag of baked goods in offering. They thanked me, took the bag, and asked if I’d like a hit of weed- a return favor.

“No thanks,” I said. “But would you mind if I joined you for a bit… to talk?”

I spent my free afternoon in the shade of the doorway beside four young strangers who told me their stories. Well, only three of them did. The youngest, a fourteen-year old boy, silently smoked his joint until it disappeared, then immediately lit a hash pipe in attempt to burn away the pain of his past, and the uncertainty of his present. His future he blew into a smoky haze.

The rest of us talked about Lunchables pizza, the amazing mini pizza you can prepare without an oven, while people walked by us, averting their eyes, eeking out crooked, uncomfortable smiles. I saw myself in each of their middle-class faces, but this time I was on the other side of the glass.

No one asked me any questions. My secrets were mine to keep. But I told them a little, and when I mentioned that I was forty, they gasped. In their world, the world of the urban survivalist, I looked to be only around thirty, thirty-one max. I took the compliment.

The oldest of the group, Sam, was a friendly thirty-two year old man who looked older than me. He’d run away from home at fourteen, just like the boy sitting beside me. A father of three kids in three states, Sam told disjointed stories hinting of mental illness packed with kung fu fight scenes and gratuitous opinions about society’s ills. I found myself looking for opportunities to change topics and engage someone else.

It was really Marie, the 23 year-old girl wearing white sneakers, whose story I was most interested in. Maybe it was because she didn’t look homeless or sound mentally ill. Or maybe it was the way she first smiled at me and said hello, like she’d suddenly found herself on the wrong side of the glass. Clearly someone had made a mistake. She was a recent college graduate. She was sober. She was wearing nice glasses with a CS Lewis book tucked neatly between notebooks in her backpack. Her sneakers were clean.

Marie had been living on the streets for just a month. She told me her parents in Alabama forbade her from dating a Latino boy, so she moved to California with that boy, who then beat her. After two stints in ER, she escaped him and found herself suddenly homeless without a plan. I wondered how much of the story she told me was true. Maybe all of it. Maybe just parts of it.

I accompanied Marie to the Veteran’s building so we could keep talking. When the subject of her future came up, she shared her dilemma:

How do you grow in this environment without losing yourself?

I had no good answer.

She needed to get inside the building before the showers closed. Marie’s luxury was taking long hot showers. Once a week she’d go to Willet, the public pool- her spa, because she could take hour-long showers without anyone noticing.

Armed with a small white towel, Marie headed into the shower to continue her fight against looking homeless. I walked slowly back through the farmers’ market, giving a half-assed glance for strawberries. But I no longer wanted any.

I ordered a cappuccino in a nearby café and looked out the large glass window separating me from the outside. Inside, people wearing fancy sweaters ate arugula salad and talked about society’s ills. Outside, people wearing donation box clothes ate Lunchables pizza and talked about society’s ills.

I squeezed my key, the one that unlocks the door to my house, and took a deep breath. So much for relaxing free time. It felt like I had changed time zones and crossed international borders. Like I’d travelled into deep space and on my way back circled the moon. But I hadn’t really circled anything. I was just sitting in a Berkeley café three blocks from where I’d met Marie and her friends.

Three blocks, and one very thin piece of glass.

The Birds, the Bees, and why I lied about Santa

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Today I spotted one of my fish, Rainbow Sparkle Razzlesplazzle, or whatever impossible-to-remember-name my kids gave her, hiding behind a plant with a guilty look on her face. The moment she saw me, she hurried back to her regular hangout by the heater, leaving me to wonder what mischief she’d been up to.

The last time she acted so strangely it was because she had just given birth to a bunch of live baby fish. Two seconds after that, the only adult male fish in the tank, Taco, died. A month has passed, and as far as I know, Taco is still quite dead, his body flushed far far away. So Rainbow Sparkleplazzle couldn’t be having more babies. The only other adult fish in the tank is female.

Meanwhile, Taco’s fourteen children, the ones Rainbow didn’t manage to swallow whole, dart merrily between plants. They are a constant reminder that I now have way too many fish.

The next time I walk by the tank, something catches my eye. Something small, something that looks like a newborn fish. But that can’t be. It must be a leaf, a fish poop, or maybe my eyes telling me that I need to stop watching late night episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker.

Pressing my nose against the glass, I study the aquarium floor. One, two, three, four, five, six, eight, ten, twelve itty bitty brand new fish staring up at me.

The aquarium store’s fish-whispering misanthrope explains it over the phone. “Female Wag Platys can conserve sperm for up to a month, allowing them to birth two batches of babies from only one mating.”

Now she tells me.

Taco, you virile old dog, you. If you weren’t already flushed down the toilet, we’d be having a serious talk.

Of course I tell the kids. And for a few minutes they even feign interest in watching Rainbow Sparkplug chase her new babies. But my kids know better than ask questions about the fish. No more, “why do the mommy fish eat their babies?” Instead my four year old squeezes my hand and tells me she appreciates that I didn’t eat her when she was a baby.

My seven year old begins to ask how the mommy fish had more babies without a daddy fish. But she doesn’t finish her question. There’s a reason she doesn’t. It’s because she’s not ready for the full truth. It’s like when I mistakenly blurted out that Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was make-believe, causing her face to fall. For a moment she was silent. Then she frowned. “You don’t know that for sure, Mommy! How could you? You haven’t waited on the roof all night on Christmas eve looking for reindeer, so you couldn’t know for sure.”

In the meantime, the mommy fish keeps chasing her new babies around the tank. Watching this spectacle, I feel a renewed sense of gratitude: gratitude that I haven’t yet had to explain the birds, the bees, sperm conservation, and why I’ve been lying all these years about Santa to my children.

It’s been over a month since we first brought our three fish home and the novelty of having a pet (or in our case, 25+ of them) is long over. My kids have moved on. They are thinking about more important things, like summer vacation and how to dismantle the living room in less than 30 seconds. I am alone in caring for, or even remembering that we have fish. And as I open the aquarium lid to sprinkle some food into the water, Rainbow Frizzsplat corners a newborn and opens her mouth.

I should have bought a damn puppy.

The Zen of Querying with an Aquarium

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While waiting to hear back from literary agents, here are two things you can do to keep your sanity from running off with your empty inbox:

1)   Write something else.

I made the mistake of devoting all of my free time (and I mean all of it) to writing and rewriting my manuscript. So when I started to query it with agents, I had nothing else to fall back on. Associating too much of myself with my manuscript made each rejection feel more painful than it should have. What I needed was another project to broaden my own identity as a writer. And it didn’t have to be big, like a novel. It could be a short story, or a picture book. With multiple projects, there’s always another angle to explore, another possibility…

2)   Get an aquarium.

Yes, I’m talking about living fish, those silvery zen creatures who swim in silent circles to the soft burbling sound of the tank’s filter. Feeling freaked out that you might not be the writer you once thought you were and every agent will reject your work?

Go look at the fish.

Feed them a few pellets and see how happy they are. At least they look happy, don’t they? For argument’s sake, let’s just pretend they’re happy.*

*Keep pretending they’re happy until one of them floats. Then you can call yourself a fish killer/bad parent/generally inept person. I mean c’mon, who can’t keep a lousy fish alive?

Apparently me.

But look at it this way, now you can have a deep conversation with your sobbing kids about the circle of life while driving to the aquarium store to have your fish water tested, resulting in:

1) A stern scolding from a fish-whispering misanthrope

2) A bigger tank

3) A new filter

4) An $85 bill

Then when you get home, you discover that your dearly departed fish, Taco, left  something else to remember him by:

Babies.

Lots of them.

Wait. How many?

Father of fourteen, Taco died with a smile on his face. And now your kids can watch the beauty of new life unfold in their aquarium…

Until the mommy fish start swallowing their babies.

Kids are crying again. Time for another, more confusing conversation about the circle of life. But we’ll leave that one for Dad.

So after all this grisly fish death and cannibalism, why would I recommend you get an aquarium?

Because you’ll totally forget about that empty inbox.

Blogging and Laundry

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Blogging is like hanging your laundry to dry over the plaza so the whole town can see your knickers along with the holes in your socks. It can make you feel exposed. Naked.

The first time I pressed “Publish” to publicly post my blog, I felt the same way I’d felt in eighth grade giving a speech in front of my school about why they should vote for me as their treasurer. Nerves struck and my mind blanked mid-speech. At that moment, I just wanted to run off the stage, cry, and chew my hair. Not that I was into hair chewing, but it seemed like a good time to start a bad habit.

And I’m left wondering, why do I blog when it’s such an uncomfortable process for me? I should leave it to the other folks who love doing this stuff. I think back to a house I once saw in Switzerland with a whole wall made of glass. It was a life-sized dollhouse and as I walked by, I could see the living room, kitchen and dining room. There was a real family in the glass house and they were eating dinner. I could see the food on their plates and that the kid wasn’t eating his broccoli. And I wondered who on earth would want to live in a glass house?

Now I know. Bloggers.

Today, I happened across a quote from Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. It’s a speech I’d already read, but this time, I applied it to a new area of my life: writing.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

“…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. *

So maybe that’s why I keep blogging. Not because I want to live in a glass house, but because I need to overcome the fear of what other people might think of my words and my writing. Like querying a manuscript, blogging is another way to put your work out there in the world’s harsh lights. And Steve Jobs’ reminder that there’s nothing to loose, that fear of embarrassment and failure are unimportant, is timely. Because we are already naked. There is nothing left to lose.

*http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

How to keep yourself together while querying agents: duct tape

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I first discovered my writer’s muse in the shower. Seeking a humid, sheltered environment, it had been nesting in the drain. When it saw me, the muse didn’t shy away. In fact, it was friendly. “Write a novel,” it said. “I’ll help you.” So I did what any aspiring writer would do- I threw on a pair of sweats, ran to Petsmart, and bought 50 jerky strips and a chew toy. I needed that little critter to stick around. And it did, twittering all sorts of ideas into my ear as I wrote and wrote. The novel writing thing lasted for three years (or was it four?) But everything came to a screeching halt once I decided to find an agent.

Ah, querying agents… Let me start by saying that nothing prepares a writer better for this process than watching American Idol. See that skinny guy with the prominent adam’s apple? The guy who sounds like he should be doing anything but sing? Now look at his face. He has no idea how bad he is. Meanwhile the judges are having small seizures in their seats, eyes rolling back into their heads, hoping the noise will stop. “Do you have any other skills?” one judge asks, regaining his composure. The other judge is more blunt. “You were bad, man. Really bad.”

This is what the querying and publishing processes involve. Risk. The new writer must make a choice: whether to open her work to public criticism and rejection, or not. The singer on American Idol may have been tone deaf, frighteningly so, but he had courage. And as I begin the querying process, I more fully understand just how much courage he needed to get on that stage.

Deep down, the writer may believe her novel is the greatest story ever told, and maybe it is. I mean, it has to be, right? Her mother loved it. Her writing group loved it. And the dog… well, he howls whenever she reads the ending aloud. Clearly, he finds her writing to be deeply moving. He also howls whenever a fire truck drives by, or when the seven year-old plays the recorder. But we won’t focus on such coincidences.

I attended my first SCBWI writers’ conference in Oakland last October. There, a published author critiqued the beginning of my manuscript, giving it an enthusiastic thumbs up. “You’re ready to query,” she said to my dismay. Then she gave me a reassuring hug, like she knew what I was in for.

The initial part of querying is not so bad. Yes, writing a query letter feels arduous. But it’s cake next to writing the synopsis. Distilling 87,000 words and multiple subplots into a mere five-paragraph synopsis is quite the task. Like plucking nose hairs, it hurts. And you may need to cry a few tears to get it done.

Sending out my first query letter left me feeling a little hopeful, a little frightened, and a lot like I was going to puke. I did everything I read I was supposed to do. I researched agents to find the right ones for my story, and started to follow some of them on Twitter. Now that’s a surreal experience in itself. Suddenly I’m reading a bunch of random facts about complete strangers I’ll likely never meet. One agent tweets regularly about her aardvark obsession, while three other people tweet about their favorite TV shows. But I have learned some important things from Twitter, like how many lattes a caffeine-addicted literary agent can consume in a day. (Four. After that, things get dicey.)

What do aardvarks and lattes have to do with writing and publishing? I have no idea.

It’s time to switch gears. I need to write something for my blog, but my mind is blank. Actually, it’s not completely blank. It’s filled with aardvarks drinking lattes. Then I remember my muse, my secret weapon. It’s never let me down before, and boy, do I need it now. So I start searching for it in all its old hiding places. But the dishwasher soap dispenser is empty. So is the Laundry hamper. Hmm… Something darts across the living room. It’s my muse. The phone rings, but I can’t answer. I’m busy hiding behind the couch holding a shoebox, waiting to catch the wily varmint.

My computer dings with the arrival of a new email so I put the box down and the muse runs to the other side of the room. I click open the email. It’s a rejection letter from Agent X, the aardvark lover. I sit down and stare at the screen. My muse tinkles on the rug and hides. Then with a boom something crashes beside me. It’s my ego, which has just fallen to pieces. Damn it. I go into the garage and grab a roll of duct tape.

They say you need to develop thick skin for this business. My skin is thin. That’s why I cry while watching dumb TV shows and why I had to hide in the bathroom late at night to finish reading THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE, so my sobs wouldn’t wake the whole house.

Instead I use duct tape. You can fix anything with duct tape, you know, even your ego. And ever since I mummified my ego, it’s been feeling pretty darn solid. Now for that next query letter…

A mother’s whisper

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A mother’s whisper

In 2009 two women, Donna McNamee and Abigail Sicolo, lifted a 1,400kg car off of a little boy who was trapped underneath. Afterwards the women were shocked that they’d managed such a feat. But this is an old story, a story reenacted countless time through the centuries. Upon seeing a child’s life in jeopardy, mothers tap their inner Hercules and, in Donna and Abigail’s case, start throwing cars around.

With two young children of my own, I will long remember the Newtown Elementary school shooting. And as I sit in my living room, whispering to myself that this must never happen again, I know I’m not alone. I can hear the same whisper from every state, every town, every living room. And the whisper grows louder.

A woman pulls up to her child’s elementary school, feels her chest tighten, and for a moment does not want to open the car door releasing her child into the world and its looming uncertainty. Across the country, the mother feeding her baby puts down the spoon to wipe her eyes after having watched tiny coffins on TV with the sound turned off.

It’s not just mothers who feel this. It’s fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, caretakers, and more. The feeling lingers with us all, sitting between our ribs, simmering.

Another week will pass, and then three. Those of us who didn’t know the victims of this crime will continue on with our lives. Gun sales will spike, and the NRA will come up with some carefully devised tactic for self-preservation.

In the silence following last week’s shootings we could feel the howl of mothers and fathers who had lost their babies. This howl resonates in each of us, transforming us, reminding us of our communal responsibility to protect every child from becoming a victim of violence. And to our children we say, “We won’t let this happen again. We promise you.”

There are over 85 million mothers in America, a group typically too occupied with taking care of everyone else to make their own noise. We are the quiet lioness scanning the horizon for strangers while our children dance like butterflies in the tall grass.

For now, we pace and wait, knowing the call will come for meaningful change in gun control. And when it does, we will answer with a deafening roar.

shower

Three years ago I was hiding from the kids in the shower when I had the idea to write a book. The problem was I had no writing background, at least not really. One intro to creative writing class in college didn’t count for much, and since then, I’d written barely a word. At least, not until my mother got sick.

It was when my mother was dying from cancer that I not only found the inspiration to write, but the necessity to. Sitting in her shoebox apartment, windows open to Zurich’s church bells singing their seven o’clock chorus, I wrote while Mom slept off her latest chemo treatment. Typing the pain, loneliness, and unexpected humor of my experience into emails, I sent them one by one to family and friends on the other side of the world. And with each email, I shared a small part of what it was like to be losing someone I loved. That’s when I learned what writing could really be: an outlet, a connection, and on a few occasions, the safety bar that kept me off the floor.

After my mother died, I joined a grieving daughter’s support group. At the ripe age of 32, I was the youngest one there. I was also the only one who was pregnant. No one’s story was the same, but brought together by our loss, we understood each other. Before the group ended, one member asked me if I wanted to join her writing group, Bellas.

“What makes you think I can write?” I asked her.

“I just do.”

Bellas was composed of real writers – middle-aged women in sandals who sipped hibiscus tea from thick ceramic mugs. Most of them had been writing for years and some of them even got paid for it. I was in awe.

And I was totally out of my league.

I couldn’t do what they did. I couldn’t write vibrant prose on the fly. Hell, I couldn’t even write dialogue. It was clear I didn’t belong in this group. Secretly I waited to be asked to leave. One by one, the Bellas would come to their senses, realizing they had made the grave mistake of inviting a bumbling imposter with bits of dried baby food in her hair to share in their peaceful writing haven. But whenever it was my turn to read to the group, tucked inside the mess of my writing, they would always find something nice to comment on.

Bellas eventually dissolved. That was right after I’d proudly announced to them my grand aspiration to write a YA paranormal romance novel. Sometimes I wonder if they secretly changed the group’s name and continued meeting – without me- in someone’s basement.

With no idea how to write a novel, I applied to join two different writing groups who had posted for new members. But no one bothered getting back to me. Branded a pariah by my book’s genre, I decided to write it on my own. Well, not exactly on my own. I discovered a writing partner- a precious, patient, slightly obsessive friend who was willing to critique my manuscript as it formed, chapter-by-agonizing chapter. (Thanks, Therese.)

Somewhere I’d heard that a writer should read as many books in their genre as possible. So I tried. But some of the paranormal romance books were tough to get through. One of them I’d picked up at Target because it had a picture of a shirtless guy on it and it was on sale. Not the best reasons to buy a book, I learned.

But the problem remained: I needed to better my craft and I wasn’t learning fast enough.

New plan: Don’t read books in my genre. Instead, search out the shiny round awards decorating the best YA novels on the shelves and read as many of those as I can get my hands on.

Now that was a good plan.

These are the first three YA novels that completely blew my mind in order of my discovering them:

1) FEED, by MT Anderson

2) SPEAK, by Laurie Halse Anderson

3) THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN, by Sherman Alexie

While reading these books and others, a strange thing began to happen. My good little  manuscript gradually stopped behaving. Something new had begun to unfold inside of it, something that at first didn’t seem to belong. Sprouting inside my novel was the real story, my small version of the shared human experience. So I nurtured it.

There’s a happy 40th birthday card on my nightstand written in crayon. Now I am officially middle-aged. Most people would consider this to be a bad thing, but I don’t. Pushing aside my laptop, I slip on my sandals, and pour another cup of tea. Maybe for Christmas I’ll get that nice thick ceramic mug.