Drilling down to the 3rd thing

Last week I complained that I couldn’t go to a writer’s conference I really wanted to go to. And then my husband insisted that I go. So I went. This is my attempt to articulate how monumental a gift the Writer Unboxed UnConference was.

The Don, Donald Maass, would not let us take the easy way. He insisted, over and over, that we not use the first metaphor, the first emotion. He would say, “Write down the dominant emotion your character is feeling in a particular moment. Now write down another feeling. And now another. Use this third thing.”

So I’m going to apply this technique to what was, without exaggerating, one of the best weeks of my life.

Yes, it was like summer camp, with its intense emotional connections, its sessions, its bonfires (aka Bedtime Stories). But without the mean girls, the peer pressure (although I *did* have my once-in-a-decade after-dinner cigarette), or the inflexibility of scheduling (nobody got in trouble for skipping a session).

Was it a mountain top experience? That gets at the transcendent feel of the week, but we spent time in the valley, too, grieving for writer friends who’d died and getting real about the struggles of being a writer.

It was a quest.

A heroic one, even.

It was not a quest to be published, or to find the right agent, or meet the right editor, or to practice our elevator pitch, or to learn about marketing and social media (although those were active concerns for many).

There was one overarching purpose: to learn how to become the best damn storytellers we can be. So even the well-published authors leaned towards the same goal as the unpublished. For this week, we were all learners and supporters of other learners. We focused on our path as writers. The presenters came to Bedtime Stories (when anyone could read from their work). They went to sessions. They didn’t stick to their own vaulted company, but sat at the bar with anyone, played poker with anyone who wanted to sit at the table. The published went to lunch with the unpublished and were genuinely interested in what the unpublished were writing — I know this because they asked follow-up questions and made comments that showed that they had listened to the answers. I’ve been to enough writer’s conferences to know that this was truly an UnConference.

There were trials, of course.

There were 5 sessions slots every day from Tuesday through Thursday (from 9 a.m. – 10ish p.m.), with 30 possible sessions (oh, the choices we were forced to make!) with one long workshop all day Friday. I took 51 pages of notes. And I have teeny writing.

21st Century Fiction epiphanies

Every day, I learned at least a dozen things to apply to my works in progress or to my life. I pretended to be one of my characters while I chatted with other writers who were pretending to be one of their characters, and I had to order garlicky hummus because that’s the only menu item my character would be comfortable with (and then I had garlic breath all day). This method acting/eating/writing session gave me some insights into my character that I would never have gotten otherwise. I thought about beginnings and middles and character arcs and secondary characters and emotional impact and throughness and metaphor and woundedness and voice and a thousand other things, getting all wound up. And then a session reminded me to set appropriate goals, to reframe, to tell myself useful fictions, to not externalize my validation, and to practice patience and impatience simultaneously. And to “write fucking more.” I needed all of it.

Right before lunch on Friday, I was on the verge of tears, just because I was so exhausted. But then The Don asked a question about me and what I learned at the conference that launched something in my brain and one of my works in progress became clear to me in a way that would never otherwise had happened. It will be a deeper and tighter book because of that one moment of almost losing it.

 And then there’s the making of a symbol.

Since entering the chaos of parenting, I’ve become a very neat person (clean is another story). After being perfectly happy to live in a tornado of books and clothes spread so thickly on my teenage bedroom floor that mice would take up residence every autumn, I now need a peaceful environment — my home must combat the tumult of my life. Even my kitchen cabinets are visions of order. Like is always with like, lined up or stacked in the same positions. Heck, I even arrange the plastic kid snack plates into rainbow color order. As a result, I do not like one-offs in the kitchen. They mess up the organization and the visual calm. I do not like dishes with logos and words. If I receive one as a gift, it goes to Goodwill pretty quickly.

But the first morning I was in my own home since the conference, I cradled in my palms the generous curves of my one-off mug with the conference logo, and cried.

Cried, not because I was happy, or missing people, or tired (although I was all those things), but because I was full. Am full.

Because I loved the people, because I liked how I was while I was with them, because my brain was a puddle on the floor from all the work it was doing, because we listened to each other’s stories (both the fictional and the personal), because we grieved and we laughed, because we quested together — because of all these things, this one-off logo mug is now a symbol of all the deep and silly things that happened. I will use it every day and it will be full of glorious meaning.

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Sometimes being an adult stinks



I’m being all grown-up about something. And it stinks.

My husband and I are less than $1,000 away from being at credit card 0 for the first time in several years. We’ve both worked really hard to make this happen and we’re grateful and proud … and not quite there yet. I’m bound and determined to not let it creep up again.

So I can’t do this thing that I want to do more than anything else. For several years, I’ve been part of an online writing community centered around the amazing blog, Writer Unboxed. I’ve commented on blog posts, joined the Facebook community, and become Facebook friends with writers from all over the world. This community has made me a better, more courageous, and more generous writer. They’ve introduced me to novels that I’ve devoured and to writing craft advice that I’ve taken to heart. It’s not exaggerating to say that I love these people.

And they’re throwing a conference.

I can’t go.***

There are only two days left to sign up, so unless someone steps forward with $1,500 (conference + airfare + lodging + food), saying, “Natalie, I want to invest in your dream of being a novelist. Use this for however you need it,” we can’t afford it.

So many of my favorite people from this community are going to be there, including writing craft instructors who command even bigger bucks than that will be leading sessions. But I’ve lived under the burden of bad, stupid debt for too long. I can’t put myself back there, even for something I want to do so badly. I’m trying to be mature about it, and mostly succeeding, except for this little nubbin in my soul that is consumed with jealousy.

So there’s my whine.

How about you? Is there something you want to do, but you’ve decided to be a grown up about it and are saying no? If so, please share. I’d love to commiserate.

***Edited to add: My husband scolded me and told me it was worth it, so I’m driving not flying, and I’m staying at an airbnb place instead of a hotel, but I’m going to the conference. For my husband to believe in my dream even more than I do … is a priceless gift. Thank you, Michael.

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May I have the courage to…

ribbons with prayers

This fall, I participated in an Art Prize installation by writing prayers on red ribbons for girls and women, both in general, and for those who have survived sexual abuse and exploitation (more about that later in this post). I wrote names of girls and women I knew were survivors. I wrote prayers that a girl would be rescued that day. I wrote prayers that assured the reader that she was worthy of being rescued.  Several times, I wrote, “May you have the courage to tell your story.”

And then: “May I have the courage to tell my story.”

I paused.

That was not what I’d intended to write. This was supposed to be about them. But in this area, there is no them. There is us.

I added my name to the next ribbon, because I am a survivor of sexual abuse.

When I was in grade 1,when I’d go to a neighborhood friend’s house to play, her father would take me in another room and touch me. It happened multiple times, although I don’t remember how many. I didn’t remember telling my mother, but credited our moving to Australia with stopping the abuse. It wasn’t until I was a parent, myself, and grieving that I never gave my parents the opportunity to protect me, that I found out that I had. I’d come home upset after a party at this friend’s house. My mother couldn’t get out of me what had happened, but she’d assured me that I never had to go back to that house. Ever. Later that year, when we were safely in Australia, she got it out of me, and she’d written to warn other families in the neighborhood with daughters who would go to this girl’s house to play.

Compared to the abuse suffered by other people I know, and how adults in their lives compounded the abuse by being angry at and blaming the victim, mine is a mild story. But it is mine.

It has been fuel to the fire of my anger against men. I used it to justify my poor treatment of men in my late teens/early 20s. But God did a mighty work in my life by convincing me that men are His children, too, and worthy of being treated as such — this paradigm shift made healthy relationships (both sexual and otherwise) with men possible.

The organization that used those ribbons is the Red Cord Community, helmed by my good friend Lorilyn Wiering. Here’s a photo of the Art Prize exhibit.

Photo by Red Cord Community of its Art Prize exhibit

Handling so many prayers while I helped tie the ribbons to the wires was moving. Seeing all those prayers fluttering in the breeze, bathing the heads of tall people who walked through the installation, was beautiful and powerful. Telling the story of the organization and the purpose of the ribbons, and watching people — children and adults — add their prayers and their stories was profound and lovely, and sometimes sad. But always a privilege.

Lorilyn’s tagline on her email, and her vision for the Red Cord Community is this: “Together we will become a community where all are givers and all are receivers.”


As part of a community like that, sometimes I will be the receiver of stories and the giver of love and understanding, and other times I will give my story and receive love and understanding — thereby enabling me to give deeper and richer (and even holier) love and understanding.

I pray for you to have courage to do whatever it is that you feel God (or the universe) nudging you to do. And, frankly, I pray that I do not get a massive vulnerability hangover for writing this.

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Ghost Breath

 [This is a flash fiction piece I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. I was given the assignment of writing a ghost story that took place at a university cafeteria that included oven mitts.]

 ice fog photo

It was a good thing the roads were empty. Henry’s mind was not on his driving.

I won’t go into the dining hall until the sub buns are in the oven.

That’s too late.

I’ll go when I’m through #5 on the checklist.

That’s too soon.

He’d gone in too soon yesterday and it was the only day … it … didn’t happen.

The university glowed white in the valley, shrouded in ice fog. He blasted the defogger and crawled along by memory. Soon he stood in the kitchen threshold, watching the path he’d opened through the ice droplets drift shut. Within seconds he was as closed-in as the door would make him in a moment. He sighed.

I’ll go in at 3:30.

He walked in and flipped the light switches. The fluorescents above his worktable were still broken. He could climb up and loosen the bulbs, himself, but the flickering couldn’t make him feel any more unsettled than he was. Besides, the funeral director told him not to take any physical risks for a while.

Instead, he worked the list, wheeling the sheet pan racks of sub buns out of the freezer and parking them near the ovens to thaw and proof, dumping the foccacia ingredients into the 40 quart mixer and putting the dough hook to work, and getting the 20 quart mixer going on the muffins.

Which left his mind free to circle back to the same issue.

His nose could tell when bread was done and when chocolate chip cookies were the perfect amount of un-doneness. But it couldn’t tell what that floral scent in the dining hall was.

Was it lily of valley?

Right after Emma was born, and then every birthday since, he’d gathered her a fist-thick bouquet of them.

Or was it rose? From her hand lotion?

What had made him step away from the ovens and into the gloom of the dining hall on Monday? It was pure pain to imagine what should have been: Emma, laughing and eating his good food, baked with extra love because his daughter was a freshman.

He’d explained the scent away at first. The cleaning crew was probably using a new product. Tuesday, he couldn’t stay away and he smelled it again, but it didn’t have that sharp disinfectant edge and it wasn’t spread throughout the room. He asked around, but there’d been no change in the cleaners’ routines.

Could a student have spilled perfume?

When he caught a gentle wisp of … something in the air on Wednesday, he dropped and almost buried his nose in the industrial carpet. It smelled like rubber. He scrambled up, closed his eyes, and chased the scent around the room until the 4 a.m. crew arrived.

Could it be?

His sister had seen their mother after she died.

Two of his nieces had seen his father after he died.

One of his nephews had seen and heard his own mother after she died.

There was family precedent.

That was why he’d rushed it on Thursday and why he was going to be smarter today.

When the mixers were quiet, the tchick of the minute hand echoed in his head. No matter how many times he checked, the digital clock on the microwave agreed with the analog clock on the wall. Three-thirty wasn’t coming fast enough.

Until there it was. Too soon.

Henry’s heart felt like it was both stopped and racing, although that was impossible. Instead of filling the remaining muffin papers, he wheeled the batter and the waiting trays into the fridge. He put on his long oven mitts and took the first batch out, sliding each sheet pan as methodically as he could manage into the slots of the waiting cart. Only eight muffins hit the floor. And then he pushed through the doors to the dining hall.

Normally at this time, the world outside the windows was thick black, with campus security lights illuminating the paths and highlighting a few trees. But now the ice fog diffused that light, making the unlit room oddly bright. There was no world beyond that white glow, nothing to see, no shapes to make out. Nothing.

Ghost breath.

His breath stuttered in his throat.

That was what Emma used to call ice fog. Regular fog was God’s breath, but ice fog was ghost’s breath.

Was it a sign?

He breathed in for several long counts and out as briefly as he could and not pass out. He scanned the room through his peripheral vision. He was making himself light headed.

“Are you there?”

The desperation and hope in his voice made him cringe.

“I love you. I miss you so much.” His voice cracked like a teenager’s, but he kept talking. “I don’t know what to do now. I’ve been asking all those ‘why’ questions I was too strong to ask when you were still with me. Not getting anywhere with them. Which you warned me about.”

And then the floral aroma coiled around him. This time it came with a chill.

“Is that my lily of the valley?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shimmer.

It thickened into a woman in an ugly hair net and the kind of uniform the cafeteria workers wore fifty years ago.

It started out as a whimper, but ended in a rough scream. “How dare you get my hopes up!”

He shucked his oven mitts and tried to grab the ghost. His hands swept over the nearest table, but it was empty, so he picked up the gloves and threw them at her.

“How could you be so cruel?”

He hoisted three chairs over his head and hurled them in her direction.

But she was gone.

She was gone. His Emma. Gone.

He crumpled to the floor and howled, insensible, inconsolable.

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I Am A Craftsman

I am not like my mother. My strength is obvious. Impossible to ignore.

Somehow, Ma can haul tubs of our wet clothes, butcher a pig, and get her way with my father, all while seeming as gentle as a butterfly. The kindest thing a villager ever called me was sturdy. Before I started putting my ham hock fists to good use, I was more likely to get hulking, giant and ogre.

The other kids were unkind, but they weren’t wrong.

I’ve been as tall as my father since my fourteenth year. My shoulders are as broad and my muscles as thick as most of my brothers’. And I’d be just as good as any of them at the forge. Better. But Da won’t let me apprentice because there are no girl blacksmiths. His exact words were, “The forge is no place for a girl. No man is going to want a woman with burn scars up and down her arms.”

No man was going to want me even without–

The pot was warm and the pitch was soft, so I cut off that thought. My materials were much more satisfying than something I’d known for a few years. The gold sheet was the size of my big toe and thinner than a fingernail. I placed it on the pitch and picked up my tools. This week, I was working on a relief of the place where I came to practice, the one place that was so massive, it made even me feel delicate. The wind was strong enough across the open plain that it whisked away the evidence of my fire, but the stones were big enough to shelter me, and in the middle of the day, the shadows weren’t too thick, so I had good light. And nobody used it regularly in anyone’s memory.

I’d already roughed in the shapes with the bigger tools, so now I used my smaller dapping punch to crisp up the edges. I was so engrossed in my task, examining the sheet every few taps to make sure I wasn’t going too far, that I didn’t hear my father’s whistle until he was almost upon me. My body began to panic before my mind caught up. I was scrambling, touching everything, trying to decide which thing to hide first, but then I stilled.

It was time for him to see what I could do.

Instead of shoving everything in my basket, I came out from behind the Sarsen stone that hid me, and waved, holding my ground as he came near.

He was still wearing his leather apron, his hands buried in the pouch. “Well.”

“Well, what?” So I wasn’t as ready as I was telling myself I was.

“Why did your mother push me out the door before I’d finished my stew?” Da fished a bowl and wooden spoon out of his pouch. “I had to eat while walking.”

Although each heart beat felt like a hammer hitting the forge, I swallowed and led him behind the stone. His face turned to thunder once he saw my setup. The fire and pitch pot were small, and I didn’t have many tools, but there was no mistaking what I was doing.

“Da,” I pleaded.

He threw the bowl and spoon down and looked like he was about to kick it all over. I clenched my fists and prepared myself for the destruction, but then he crouched and picked up the gold sheet, turning it over several times before nestling it in his palm and running his middle fingertip over the relief. When he placed it between his thumb and middle finger and held it up, looking back and forth between it and Stonehenge, itself, a little vein of hope sparked to life.

“So this is where my scraps have been going.” His voice was flat and he still wasn’t looking me in the face.

“Yes, Da.”

“This was your mother’s idea?”

“At first.”

He crouched next to the pitch pot and carefully replaced the gold sheet. One by one, he picked up my dapping punches, I only had four, and my hammer. “You made these, too?”

“Yes, Da.”

The spoon he’d tossed down was close enough for him to grab. It was one of my more intricately carved pieces, with a tendril of vines coiling around the handle, and a big ivy leaf cradling the bowl of the spoon. “I guess it was too much to ask for you to restrict yourself to wood carving.”

When he finally met my gaze, I shrugged.

“Why did the only child who inherited my skill have to be a girl?”

My lips barely curved up.

He patted the ground next to him and I sat. If I opened my mouth, I was afraid I’d ask for too much or tell him I told him so, so I borrowed my mother’s kind of strength and stayed silent.

“Word has it that the ealdorman will be visiting here this winter. His priests have been nagging him to use Stonehenge to solidify his position.”

Ma had told me that, too.

“We’ll need fine metalwork. Finer than anything your brothers can do, and finer than I can manage with my eyes.” He sighed. “Even my fading sight can see that you’re a real craftsman.”

“Truly?” My voice was thick with the tears I was holding back.

“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “But I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.”

Da put out the fire while I loaded my work into my basket, and then we headed to the forge to begin my apprenticeship.

“How long have you been teaching yourself?” he asked when we were halfway there.

“Two months.”

For the first time in a long time, he grinned and put his arm around my shoulders. “You’re going to hate me soon enough, when I make you redo a shield relief for the fifth time, but we’re going to bring fame back to this village. They’ll be coming from other kingdoms once you hit your stride.”

I let his pride in me, in my gift, swell until it filled every part of me. It wasn’t just me saying it to convince myself it was true. I was a craftsman.

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The Wasp in the Punch

[A group of us are taking the advice of Ray Bradbury, "Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row." This story (which had to involve a police officer, a garden, and a trophy) is part of that endeavor. It was also inspired by my cousin, who watched a wasp do to his glass of beer what it does to my cop's glass of punch.]


“We’re not giving her this award because she’s my daughter.” My mother tittered into the microphone.

Tittered was the perfect word to describe the tweety giggle she gave. Could she have had too much of the spiked punch already?

“We’re giving her this award because she displayed such a cool head under pressure at last year’s garden party fundraiser. Because of her leadership during the fire, most of us didn’t even realize what was happening until we were all safe.”

The applause was a mix of ladies-who-lunch-fingertips-only and the heartier clapping of people who were not embarrassed to have emotions.

“She put out the fire so quickly our dresses didn’t even smell like smoke and then called in all those delicious firefighters to secure the scene.”

Delicious? While Mother simpered at the Fire Department’s table, I froze the smile on my face and leaned over to my best friend. “Who spiked the punch?”

She could also talk while barely moving her lips. “Funny story. I did. And then Duke did. He just returned from Vermont.”

“That 190 proof stuff?”

“Don’t arrest him. Everyone’s having fun.”

Everyone but me. My tulip-petal chiffon sleeves floated in the breeze, brushing against my skin, reminding me how ridiculous I looked.

My mother was wrapping up. “From her youth as a Junior Ranger, through her years as a wetland guide and her countless hours maintaining paths and buildings, until now, she has always been a friend of the Lexington Conservation Commission. I am so pleased to present the Conservation Steward of the Year Award to my daughter, Officer (she made me say that) Blair Emerson.”

Maybe this ridiculous dress was worth hearing my mother use my title in public. Maybe.

I accepted the crystal cup and put it on the podium right away, since, and I quote, It’s rather heavy and holding it will make your arm muscles pop out. Sigh. Plenty of the tennis-and-Pilates ladies had great arms, but mine were an embarrassment, presumably because I used them in the line of duty.

“Thank you so much.” I looked around and, as irritated as I was, I couldn’t help but smile. “Most of you have watched me grow up. I’ve worked with some of you on the trails and in the wetlands, and watched others work the donors in the garden while I spied from my bedroom window, back when I wasn’t allowed to come to this party. I’ve loved the Lexington Conservation Committee since I went on my first guided walk when I was 5. Loved it even more when I started leading walks and nature programs and swinging a hammer. The work we do is so important, not just to preserve the land for future generations, but for us, now.” I ran my thumb down the side of the trophy. “I feel a little like I’ve cheated, because I’m getting this award for following my training as a Lexington Police Officer, but my mother always taught me to be gracious when accepting thanks. I’m so proud to accept this award from you. Thank you.”

I picked up the award and should’ve gone straight to my seat. Instead, I leaned into the mic. “Since I am a safety officer, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out that the punch has been accidentally double spiked. Use that information as you will.” And then, because I’d been decorous and charming and had worn the frothy monstrosity for over an hour, I walked to the punch bowl and dipped in my trophy, filling the cup to the brim and holding it up to everyone in a toast. There were a few hoots of laughter as I took a good swig.

Which turned out to be ill-advised. Nobody hurled into the hostas, but they drank enough, without realizing it, to do something much more risky: tell the truth.

One woman latched onto me while I was talking to the mayor, leaning too heavily into my shoulder and, in a loud, drunken “whisper,” thanking me for something I’d thought she wanted to keep quiet. Since she wasn’t in her right mind, I lead her away before she revealed to the group that I’d come to her house on a domestic call. If she wanted to be open about it while sober, I’d cheer her on, but she was in no state to make a rational decision.

That was tricky enough, but it happened twice more with other people, including one couple who were very happy to be led off by me so they could tell me all about the positive changes in their relationship since out last meeting. In nauseating detail.

Add to that the usual suspects asking me when I was going to give up police work, as if it were a hobby, and I reached my limit of politeness.

So I plunked down my trophy and sat with the “delicious” firefighters in hopes of having an interaction in which I didn’t have to guard myself or fight with myself to not say what I wanted to.

One of the younger guys, who’d I’d worked some accident scenes with, nudged my arm. “Seriously, now, seriously. I’m not joking. I’m being serious.”

I gave him my deadest dead-eye cop stare. “Anything you say to me now will be a mistake.”

“No, no, no. I really want to know.” He looked over to where my parents and older brother were standing, and then back to me, although he had to blink a few times before his eyes focused properly. “Are you adopted?”

The other guys at the table exploded in a chorus of, “Oh, man’s,” and “you’re going to get it now’s.”

I crooked my finger to make sure he came close.

“Don’t do it,” his friends warned him. “She’s going to lay you out.”

“My mother’s great grandmother was a famous baker in Poland, hauling heavy bowls of dough and trays of bread and cakes. She needed arms like this.” I shoved my finger an inch from his face. “So do I. I love those skinny people, but that baker is my true ancestor. You got anything more to say about it?”

He put up his hands and slouched back. “I’m shtupid, but not that shtupid.”

We all laughed and I felt at home for the first time all day. I was about to lift my trophy to take a drink when a wasp flew into it. The cup was about half-full, with the liquid below the etching, so I had a good view. As the insect tried to get free, it stung the cup. I watched, mesmerized, as it shot venom over and over into the punch.

That wasp was me. Yeah, in the stupid way of me being a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. But I’d also been doing what that wasp was doing: I felt stuck so I was impotently lashing out, spewing poison. The fact that I’d kept most of my poison to myself didn’t mean it wasn’t hurting someone.

I needed a transfer out of the city I’d grown up in. If this kept going, I’d wind up hating everyone, including myself.

Of course, my mother chose that moment of realization to come over. “Stand up, stand up, dear. Let me see that beautiful dress again.”

How many itty-bitty glasses of punch had she had? I dutifully stood and let her take my hands in hers, but I glared at the firefighters to keep their comments to themselves.

“You look like a vision of summertime.”

“I look like a linebacker in drag.”

“No you don—” Her hands flew to her mouth and she giggled. “I’m so sorry. But you do. You really do.” She sighed. “I apologize. I thought if you looked like the rest of your friends from LCA you’d remember that you’re one of us and you’d get a nice, safe job and date—”

“Nice, safe men. I know, Mother.” I pulled her in for a hug. “We almost had a moment, there.”

She patted my back, too soaked in alcohol to hear what I was saying.

I foisted her onto a passing friend and sat back down. The wasp seemed dead, so I fished it out with a spoon and put it under an overturned glass. “So which of you guys is driving the truck?”

Al and Rich raised their hands.

“I’m assuming you didn’t drink?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Would you be willing to drive some of these people home in the truck? If we offer an incentive, we’re more likely to get them to cooperate with not driving themselves. I’d have to arrest two-thirds of them if they so much as looked at their cars.”

“Why not call the paddy wagon?”

“Same reason I’d rather use pepper spray than my taser: paddy wagon means paperwork.”

They laughed as I stood and lifted my award to them. “Here’s to the fun we’re going to have in the next hour.” I took one last sip.

It wasn’t until I’d swallowed and then dumped the rest of my punch on the ground that I remembered about the wasp venom. I went still.

My throat didn’t swell; my stomach didn’t hurt.

The Everclear probably killed the poison, just like it killed the inhibitions of the Lexington Conservation Committee.

I took a deep breath and put my arm around the nearest drunk person. “How would you like to ride the ladder truck home?”


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My Own Damn Ice Pack

[This is a flash fiction piece I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. I was given the assignment of writing a piece of political satire that took place at a golf club that included an ice pack. Also should be noted that it’s rather cruder than what I usually post here.]


used with permission from morguefile.com

used with permission from morguefile.com

I couldn’t post about my first loop of the day on Facebook – the club frowned on caddies publicly mocking their members and guests. But thank the geeks for the disappearing messages of Snapchat:

Yeah, Sen. Rogers, a longer shaft / is better, but you still have / to know what to do with it. / I was talking about golf. / What did you think?

Hope he connects with his own / balls better than he does / with a golf ball.

By the time Rogers was taking his practice swing at the 7th hole, his cronies were sniggering at him like mean girls in high school. If I could see them, that meant he could, too, so I moved to block his line of sight.

That was my mistake.

His mistake was to overcompensate for his lack of power by using his driver although he only had to make 175. Whatever the head speed was when the club slammed into my ribs, it had to be higher than anything he’d managed all morning.

It hurt almost as bad as a piñata stick to the nuts – no, worse, because I couldn’t breathe. The bag clanked to the ground as I folded in half and dropped to my knees. I dug my fingertips into the turf and begged my lungs to inflate.

While I suffocated, I watched the players’ feet move into a tight circle, toes in. I couldn’t see my fellow caddies, but when they spoke, the sound was close enough that I knew they were crouching beside me.

“If you die,” Bear said. “Can I get your locker?”

“Biggest tip of the year, for sure,” Scratch said. “He’s shitting his pants at the idea of you going to the media.”

Wanting to laugh only made the pain sharper. Finally, air seeped in. I sat back. The players were still talking in their knot.

“Can you stand?” Scratch asked.

I couldn’t talk yet, so I gave a thumb’s down. Of course that’s when the players looked at me, which sent them to whispering more furiously.

Soon, Rogers announced to the air above my head, “I’ll take you back to the clubhouse while the others play on.” He stalked off in the direction we came from. Without his clubs.

“Senator.” My voice was a weak rasp. “Senator.” The effort of yelling almost did me in, but it still wasn’t loud enough. I raised my eyebrows at the other caddies and pointed to our left. Bear jogged toward Rogers and showed him where the shortcut was; he went to the mouth of the path and waited, arms crossed.

My legs shook as I got back to my feet. Did he really just nail me with his club and then expect me to carry his bag? Did none of his friends think that I might not be able to shoulder fifty pounds immediately after getting the wind knocked out of me and, possibly, breaking my ribs? They’d already turned back to their game.

The searing pain when I tried to lift the bag almost dropped me again.

Still no offers of help.

To hell with the turf; I dragged the bag. The Senator was glaring down the fairway, so I don’t know how he saw me, but when I was ten feet away he finally came at me and snatched the bag. I hobbled five feet behind him the rest of the way.

I headed for the caddie shack but he ordered me to follow him into the clubhouse. He took the house manager’s arm and muttered in his ear before they steered me to a couch and each got on their phones.

After a few minutes, the caddie manager appeared. “You know the club isn’t liable for this.”

I nodded. That was minute one of caddie training: You are an independent contractor. You can’t sue the club for anything.

“Trainer’s with a client. Can you manage another loop today?”

I dropped my head back against the couch. Just breathing was still painful. “No.”

A pat on the shoulder was the end of support from him.

The Senator took the phone off his ear and grabbed the manager again. “Is there a doctor in the house?”

The manager apologized profusely. To the Senator.

Rogers gave the man a dead-eye stare. “No doctors. In a golf club.”

The manager swallowed hard. “Our retired doctors don’t all keep their malpractice insurance, so…”

I tried to sigh, but it hurt too much.

Three club members came over. To the Senator.

“Driver slipped out of my hands.” Rogers shrugged.

They chatted about club accidents for a while before someone said, “You’re trying to keep this quiet, I assume.”

“Especially because you haven’t been polling as well with the Hispanics,” another one added.

I closed my eyes. The Hispanics. One Mexican grandmother was apparently too many. Too bad I’d need these idiots’ money to turn pro after college.

“Call your attorney now to get a non-disclosure agreement started.”

“This could cost you some money.”

“My doctor owes me for a little information that made him a bundle. I could get you in this afternoon.”

“Fax the agreement to the club.”

“Make sure he signs it before he leaves.”

There was some whispering and the next thing I knew, the couch cushion dipped and someone snuck his fingers under the caddie bib and my shirt and probed around my torso. I flinched and sat up but his hands were out of there before I could even yell.

“Ribs don’t feel broken to me,” he said.

I could’ve told him that.

And then they were talking about times they’d broken their ribs.

It was almost funny. Not one person had asked me what hurt or what I needed. Not one had even looked at me.

Same shit as always.

I teetered upright and got my own damn ice pack from the freezer by the bar. Where everyone knew they were kept.

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The story is the heirloom

I have a folder called Family Stories. It started with my Oma’s funeral. I’d gone around that day, asking people to remember the sayings she had, “You haff to laff,”  “It comes handy-in,” “It’s an unicum [oonickum],” “I simple cannot,” and, to her own children when they were growing up, “Act normal and you’re acting crazy enough” (except said in Dutch). I wrote down every remembrance, every story, every detail someone told me.

And I’ve done that ever since, whether with my family or my husband’s, because I know that if I don’t scribble them down somewhere, I’ll forget. There are stories that stick with me, like the Nazi soldiers coming to the house for my Opa (because he worked in the Resistance) and his sister-in-law dressing him in a lace cap and nightgown, plunking him in a rocking chair and handing him a baby, and then showing the Germans around the house, “See. No men here. Just women and babies. Women and babies.” They bought it, and he was safe. That one’s so good I’m putting it in the second David and Saul novel, with David getting the nightgown and baby treatment. Or one my father’s earliest memories: he was playing outside during the war and the air raid siren came on, and his mother (and nanny?) screamed for him to come inside, but he wouldn’t, because he was only two, and it was fun outside.

There is one story that I’ve been wanting to write about in a more formal way for a long time: the time my mother’s house burned down when she was 6 and she managed to salvage something both silly and important and everyone laughed at her. catapult* magazine gave me that opportunity, and I’m grateful to them for it.

Even in the writing of that piece, I found out things I didn’t know before. I had to call my mother for clarification and learned that the outhouse she used until she was 7 was a two-holer, and that the Sears and Spiegel catalogues were the toilet paper of choice. Also that they moved into the basement of the new house the year after the old one burned down, and lived in just the basement for a few years while her Uncle Herm built the house above them, as they could afford it. This was apparently a common way to build houses back then.

Don’t get me wrong, I love every item I have from prior generations, and I recently made clear to my dad that I don’t want him to give away their art after he and my mother have died (which won’t be for many, many, many years). But the real heirlooms are the stories, the reminders of different ways of life, of the fears and struggles and triumphs of those who eventually made me (and my husband). The fun stories and the not-so-fun ones. They’re all important.

So I’ll keep jotting down the details as my family members let them slip. I’ll keep stealing good stuff for my fiction. And I’ll keep turning them into more formal pieces, so I can learn even more. ETA: Since publishing this, I learned two things I got wrong — there were 5 kids in the house, and she only had to run 1/4 mile to the neighbor.

When my mother was six, in the summer of 1947, her home burned down. Her mother was in the barn, and the four kids were in the house. After the four-year-old noticed fire licking out of the wood-stove pipe in the kitchen, my mother and her older sister got the kids out of the house and then ran a mile to the neighbor’s — he didn’t have a phone, either, but he had a car and could drive to a phone.

The fire department doused the flames, but the house was a total loss.

Their neighbors followed the truck, gathering to commiserate. Once the ruins cooled, the kids took turns dashing into the house to see what they could salvage, tossing the spoils on the grass. My mother was very proud of one thing she managed to save: my grandmother’s ratty house shoes.

Everyone burst into laughter, leaving her mortified and confused.

Please click here to read the rest.


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On opening the clenched fist

You know how you can take months (even years) to struggle through an issue, unable to move on or let go or make a decision or whatever the problem is, and then in one moment, the angst is sloughed away? I had that experience recently.

A friend was giving the children’s message at church to illustrate  Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man who wanted to know whether he was doing all he could to get into the kingdom. Jesus loves him — this is an important part of the verse, I think, and one we don’t often focus on, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus loves him and, in a glance, knows him, and knows that he has a problem with the love of money of which he needs to let go.

The children’s message involved a raccoon and a jar.

my great-grandmother's jar

He explained that raccoons love shiny things, and if they spy a shiny object at the bottom of a jar, they’ll stick their paw in and grab it.

sticking my hand in the jar

But then, sometimes, the neck of the jar will be too small and they can’t get their clenched fist out. They don’t want to give up the shiny item, so they don’t unclench their fist — and they’re stuck. All they have to do is let go of the shiny item, and they’re free.

I can't get my hand out!

But they don’t.

This was me. I mean, the photo is of my hand and my jar, but also, in broader areas of my life, I was clenching something tight in my fist and I wouldn’t let go. I was good and stuck. The thing I was holding: the desire to place my novelization of the story of David and Saul with a conventional publisher. Or with an agent who would then find said publisher.

Some of this desire was practical. It’s a novel for young adults, and (as of this writing) they read paper books more than e-books. In addition, being traditionally published can put you in libraries (both school and public), which are a major discovery tool for kids. Besides, lurking around inside me, still, is the girl who wants the gold star: “I’ve done something good — now acknowledge me!” Traditional publication would be a great big gold star.

And then it didn’t happen.

At first, I looked deeper into the story (after whining for a bit), and discovered some holes that needed filling. So I filled them. Still…crickets. While I’m the good student who wants the gold star, I’m also the daughter of an entrepreneur and do-it-yourselfer (long before that term even existed). I read James Altucher‘s blog, who’s such a believer in the idea that he titled a book, Choose Yourself. I’ve been following news about self-publishing for years.

I wasn’t ready. I put off every decision deadline I gave myself, still holding out for that one more chance. Stuck. Unable to get any traction on revising the next book in my stuckness.

Until that children’s message.

I opened my clenched fist and decided to self-publish. Like so many big decisions, there were no fireworks or giant resolutions. Just a quiet, calm, “yes.” Since then, I found an editor who doesn’t know me and sent her the manuscript; as an editor, myself, I know the value of an outside eye. I’ll start talking to cover designers soon (one lives a block away from me). A Calvin Seminary Old Testament professor recently joined my church, so I’ll ask her to look it over (for an honorarium, of course) to make sure I haven’t gotten any of the cultural stuff wrong. I’ve booked a room in Alexandria, VA for 6 days while my daughter is at a youth conference there, to take a writer’s retreat and get cracking on Book 2 — the best advertisement for your first e-book is your second e-book, so I’d like it to come out about 3 months after the first one. That’s my list so far.

Even my fortune cookie agrees. Here’s this evening’s widsom: You create your own stage and your audience is waiting!

Do you have any advice for me? Any areas you’ve come unstuck from recently? Any areas in which you’re stuck?

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Sunday Ramblings

On this lovely Sunday, I begin 3 days of kid-free existence. I feel rather giddy about it. And also rather nappy. In fact, a nap may very well interrupt my writing of this post. Which might make this the best kind of Sunday afternoon, except for the problem that I often wake up crabby — scratch that, I always wake up crabby.

The Sunday afternoon nap remains an appealing daydream, despite the fact that I’m a terrible napper. Not only do I always wake up crabby, but I also have to trick myself into sleeping. Even then it mostly doesn’t work. Just now, for example. I had This American Life on the radio and all those mellow voices were lulling me. My eyes were getting heavier and heavier. My behind was sinking deeper into the couch as my muscles relaxed. I put the computer down, but kept the radio on, and curled up, listening and not listening, trying to distract my brain.

No go.

My brain whirls and whirls. So there was no nap.

Just rambling.

* The telling moment

It happens in fiction all the time — that one little moment, comment, reaction — that tells the truth of who someone is or how healthy a relationship may or may not be. But we don’t always gets to see one in real life. Here’s one I heard about recently.

A young man liked a young woman. Happily for him, the young woman liked him back. But they were taking it slowly, making sure they had a solid foundation of friendship before taking things in a romantic direction. Truth be told, this was the first young woman to like the young man back.

Both of them had recently read The Fault In Our Stars and were looking forward to seeing the movie when it came out. The young man’s mother told her son about something a friend of hers had done: seen an advanced screening, with the author, during the movie, they were served risotto during the dinner in Amsterdam scene, and after the Q&A, they all went out in the parking lot and egged a car. She told her son, thinking that he’d get all jealous about her friend meeting John Green and doing that cool stuff.

But, no.

The young man turned a serious face to his mother and asked about the throw-up scene, and how graphic it was, because the beloved young woman had a problem with seeing other people throw up, and he’d like to be able to warn her about it, so she’d be more comfortable seeing the movie.


What a lovely glimpse of her son as a boyfriend.

* Scope for imagination:

A Facebook friend linked to this article this week. It was an interesting piece about a subculture I’d never heard about: young women in southern Guangdong province in China who could choose to become “self-combed women” rather than marry. Now, it’s not like they could then go to university and live a fabulous and independent life. They had to leave their families and work hard, either in factories or as servants in others’ households. They were illiterate. They were expected to send most of their income to their family of origin. But the women made money, and their contributions to the household were worthy of thanks — these were unusual in that culture in the 1800s through the mid-1900s. Women who entered (either by choice or by force) their husband’s family’s household would have had to endure whatever kind of treatment the husband and his family deemed their right, and they’d have to serve their parents-in-law with no thanks (because they were merely doing what was expected). Also, the self-combed women were expected to remain celibate. They were independent of the marriage system, but still bound by cultural norms; able to choose, but not have many choices.

The thing that has my imagination all fired up is the name itself, “self-combed.” By deciding not to marry, they wouldn’t get to do the pre-wedding ritual when their mother would comb their hair into a bun to symbolize their transition from single girl to married woman. They combed their own hair into their own bun.

When I looked into this more, I found a contemporary visual artist, Man Yee Lam, who sees her own life in the complicated story of the self-combed women: “‘Self-Combing Women’ is an exploration of my relationship with my ancestral roots, and of my life-long battle between my independence as a woman and my experience of subjection to cultural patterning.” Click here to see the piece she made of a woman inside a silk cocoon (the self-combed women often worked in silk industry factories).

* Do I miss my children when we’re apart?

I won’t keep you in suspense: no. For the most part, I do not pine, I do not ache, I am not distracted by their absence. When they’re gone, I am glad they are on whatever adventure they are on, with whichever friends they are with. And if I’m the one who’s gone, I’m generally consumed by whatever adventure I’m on, with whichever friends I am with.

This is in the forefront of my mind these days because my 15-year-old son is off in Europe for 2 1/2 weeks with his best friend and said best friend’s mother. In the week he’s been gone, I’ve had one teary moment — right after we’d finished a FB chat. We talked via Skype this afternoon, and there was no teariness. He’s having way too much fun, seeing way too many amazing things.

And, as I said at the beginning, I’m giddy because my daughter is camping with a friend and her family for 3 days. It’s fun for me and my husband to have the house to ourselves, to have cut in half the needs and schedules we have to negotiate. This time, I’m not even racing to paint the kids’ rooms, as I was the last time we had them both gone for days at a time.

There are many different kinds of mothers, and I guess what I’m doing here is claiming my own style, my own way of loving my children.

* I must confess

That most of my ramblings these past few days revolve around bad words and unkind thoughts that I aim at my neighbors and their love of all-day and middle-of-the-night fireworks, particularly those booming M-80s.

Netherlands Lion* And also Hup Holland Hup

I’ve been enjoying The Netherlands’ performance in the World Cup, spending lots of money at the Dutch store, eating more dropjes in the last month that I normally do in two years.


SO, what are you rambling about this Sunday?


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