Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Write when you can, and feel lucky you're able

I was frustrated.

I couldn't figure out some aspects of the newest Word program, and the piece of fiction I was trying to write wasn't turning out the way I planned. The computer was annoying; my words sounded stupid and trite. I was about to give up; maybe try again later.

 And then I remembered Susan Spencer-Wendel.

Have you heard of her? She's a former journalist and author of the bestselling book, "Until I Say Goodbye: My Year of Living with Joy," the heartbreaking yet inspiring account of how she spent a year - the only healthy one she had left - after being diagnosed with ALS, a neuromuscular disorder often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Wendel's book details how she spent a year embracing life with her family and friends and doing her best to live in the moment.

ALS is particularly cruel - it robs your body of its mobility bit by bit while your mind stays sharp and aware. Susan wrote her book, all 89,000 words of it, with her right thumb, using an iPhone when her fingers began dragging over the touchscreen of her iPad.

She finished it in four months, knowing her deadline was non-negotiable.

"Such is the power of desire," she said.

I fired up my computer and started over, feeling incredibly lucky to have the opportunity.

Friday, May 9, 2014

What are we waiting for, then?

From the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, a little Friday food for thought: "For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.' "

It reminded me of this:

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Who am I? Well, I'm a writer, of course

When my children were small, I talked about them constantly. If you know me at all, you've likely heard a story about bathtime, bedtime, naptime or the lack of such.

In fact, if I had any inkling of how much I loved being a mom, I might have had even more kids. (I would have hoped against hope, of course, that doctors would have introduced a new, less painful way of birthing them.)

I lamented that I had no time to write - my kids took up every spare moment of the day.

But it pains me to say it ... my kids are growing up. They're increasingly independent. They need me, sure, but not quite as much. So I put together a tiny writing nook at  home, outfitted it with a perfectly adequate computer, and worked out a little evening writing schedule in my head.

But I haven't written a story in months.

Oh, sure, I've written for work, and I've written freelance, but I haven't written for me. My blogs have sat empty. My stories, some half-finished, have just been waiting patiently in their folders.

I've likened my imagination to the Tin Man when Dorothy first found him that field. Slow. Rusty. Wanting to move forward, but stuck.

Maybe I'm just not good at transitions. Or maybe,  for awhile, I simply misplaced my identity. After all, for years, I was a journalist. Now I'm not. Then I was "Mommy," and I was always, desperately in demand. Now I'm just "Mom," and while I'm still  loved and needed, I see more independence on the horizon.

But I'm still a writer. Always have been, always will be.

That last part is easy to forget. But I think I'm starting to remember.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What's the true worth of an achievement medal ... really?

The room was freezing, but we didn't care. After all, it was our daughter's middle school graduation. Yes, middle school - not high school, not college - but she'd worked hard to get here and she was very excited, so we were, too.

After all, she'd made straight As all year, worked her butt off, and frankly, we were happy that her efforts would be recognized and the relaxing days of summer could begin.

The principal cleared his throat and began announcing the students who had maintained a 4.0 GPA all year. Seated in the back, we couldn't see our daughter,  but we could hear the names, see the students as they climbed on stage and smiled as they bowed their heads and received their achievement medals.

J, K, L ...N, O, P ... no M. No Majeske. Where was Katie Majeske? Our daughter's name wasn't called. My husband and I looked at each other, confused. We were certain our girl had earned the ranking. In fact, I was absolutely positive. A bit of a hoverer, I had checked the online grading site available to parents earlier that week and seen she'd earned all As.

The ceremony went on. Diplomas were distributed. At the end, we met Katie in the gym for cake, ice cream and photos. She was excited and giggly, posing with her friends. She mentioned the medal briefly.

"I was supposed to get one," she said, rolling her eyes. "I don't know why I didn't." She opened up her diploma folder and pulled out a second sheet. "Honored for Academic Achievement," it said.

She didn't seem particularly upset. But for some reason, I was. I found the principal and politely mentioned the omission. He looked dutifully disturbed, then clicked a message to  himself on his phone. "I'll see if that's correct," he said. "I'll talk to the teachers who compiled the names ...and I'll be in touch with you."

No one contacted me that week. Or the next. My frustration faded. Then report cards arrived, and it flared again. I sent emails to the school, to the teachers involved, to the principal.

I received a reply from a teacher: The documents they'd reviewed indicated my daughter had a lower GPA. That was incorrect, I wrote back. They had been misinformed - and I would like her medal, simply as a keepsake.

I got it. It was left for me in the main office. It had a sticky note on it with her name attached - spelled incorrectly.  I brought it home and hefted it in triumph in my quiet house. My daughter, lying on her bed with her laptop, just shook her head.

"Oh, yay," she said with a small smile. "You beat the system, mom. Way to go."  And we laughed. I don't know why I cared so much about that medal. Having Katie is my real award - and  that's what I need to remember.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In the lazy days of summer, I dream of my brand-new fence

As summer kicks into high gear and my friends talk of warm days and new bathing suits, I dream about fences.

In fact, I obsess over them. As I drive to work, I note their styles from the corner of my eye. Solid wood, chain-link, split-rail, vinyl. I look to see if each board is notched or placed straight across. I can tell the do-it-yourselfers, the professionals, the old-timers, and the brand-new additions.

And I wait and wait for mine.

I'm putting a fence in my back yard. Not a full fence, mind you - just two sides and a gate. A back fence already exists. I just wanted a simple privacy fence. You know, room for the dog to run around. A little place to relax.

The project has been far more complicated amd expensive than I ever imagined, and I tell the kids this is their trip to Disneyland, their summer vacation.

They seem strangely unappreciative.

My co-workers get unusually busy when I talk about my fence project - it's almost like they're not interested. It's so odd.

See, I thought this would be so simple - it's half a fence, after all. But after the installer came out, he shook his head. Nope, he told me. Our township has a new rule - no more simple privacy fences allowed. All fences have to be "mirror-image," or shadow-boxed.

That involves more lumber, for you fence novices out there. It's more expensive. "But I live on a cul-de-sac," I whined. "Who cares?"  Then the installer squinted over at my neighbor's house. He shook his head again.

"That house is set really far back - it's actually in your back yard," he said. "I can only put a six-foot fence to the edge of that house ... then the height has to drop down - I think. We'll have to see."

One survey and two permits later, we found he was correct.

Just recently, my neighbors inexplicably began digging around their back fence - apparently to reinforce the bottom with chicken wire to discourage their dogs from digging. They also unearthed a giant cable that snakes into my yard. I'm hoping it won't impede my installers. So far, so good.

Yesterday, the posts went in. And my excitement grew. If the rain holds off, the fence might go up soon. The kids don't seeem that interested.

But the dog is very excited.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Seeing woman's cane raps a little sense into my head

My home repairs were many and costly - the brand-new faucet was cracked, the roof needed replacement, and a back-yard fence would apparently cost more than a trip to Europe.

I was expanding on my litany of woes to a friend while drinking overpriced coffee at a local mall.

"It's so overwhelming," I told her. "It's like everything is breaking at once. We work and work, and we never seem to get ahead!" I was disgruntled - feeling cranky, stressed and poor.

My friend sympathized, but then I noticed her eyes looking over my shoulder. They brightened with delight, and she starting waving someone over.

She introduced her friend to me. The woman was petite and very pretty, in a casually fashionable outfit, cute, spiky hair and fun chandelier earrings so long they brushed her shoulders. She was so put together, in fact, you barely noticed the cane she leaned upon heavily as she walked.

"We were just talking home repairs!" my friend said, introducing me to the new arrival. It seemed her friend and husband had just purchased a foreclosed home and were spending much of their time at home improvement stores trying to put together what the last, irate homeowners had torn apart.

Her friend stood with us for a few minutes, showing us photos on her iPhone and laughing over recent repair mishaps. Then the phone buzzed and she was called back to work. Saying her goodbyes, she limped away, taking each step carefully.

My friend watched her leave somewhat wistfully. "Her MS is back," she told me quietly. "It was in remission, but now it's getting worse. She's taking medication ... but she's having more trouble standing."

She turned her attention back to me and smiled. "Now, what were you saying?"

But I was tongue-tied. In fact, I felt like a shallow jerk. My complaints, I suddenly realized, were ridiculous. I remembered a phrase from a book I'd read by Philip Gulley, titled "Front Porch Tales:"

"One thing I've never understood is why I'm so blessed - good parents, good spouse, good kids, good job - and others aren't. I used to think it was because I was nice to God, until I met some battered saints. Now I just think there's a randomness in this world beyond my understanding. The apostle Paul said that on this side of things, we see in a mirror dimly.

If you woke up this morning and your kids were healthy and your parents loved you, then you don't have any problems. You might think you do, but you don't. And if at night, when you steal into your child's room and watch her little body rise and fall with the breathing, and your heart aches with love, consider your life sublime."

Let the faucet run and the roof crumble. That's what I need to remember.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sometimes, even seeing a small good deed can help lift your spirits

The hour was early, and the grocery store was very quiet. I'd only run in for a moment, hoping to grab a few items before work and be on my way.

Then I  heard it. The wailing of a child. It wasn't a big deal, really - grocery stores are often filled with children crying. But this had been a week so filled with sadness that I actually almost left - I simply didn't want to see anybody else in tears.

But I needed one more thing - a box of cereal. And I was so close, I figured I'd just get it and go.

As I rounded the corner, though, I saw the reason for the tears. A pink balloon, starting to float toward the ceiling.

A chubby little toddler was jumping up and down, trying in vain to catch the balloon's pink ribbon, and crying like she'd lost her best friend.  Her mother, apparently used to such calamities, was staying calm.

"It's OK," she reassured the little girl. "Don't worry. We'll find a tall man."

The little girl kept jumping, the balloon kept floating, and the mother quickly walked around the corner. The balloon was pretty high by now - too high for me to reach - and the little girl was starting to look a little frantic.

The mom reappeared. Sure enough, she had found a tall man.

He looked a little confused, and more than a little rough around the edges. He had on work boots, torn jeans, and an old jacket, and he looked a little sleepy.

But once the mother pointed to the balloon and explained her predicament, the man grinned. He jumped - he was indeed pretty tall - and grabbed the tail of the ribbon.

The little girl stopped crying at once, the tears still staining her cheeks.

"Maybe the tall man will tie the balloon a little better to your wrist," the mother said to her daughter and their new friend in that motherly way that makes it impossible to say no.

The tall man did just that.  He walked away, smiling.

So did I.