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Archive for August, 2012

FTIAT: Mama and that Old Brown Dog

Lynda (If Only She Had Applied Herself) makes me laugh so often and so loud via her Facebook page, it’s easy for me to forget how much can be concealed by humor.

That all’s my fancy way of saying, “I made the mistake of first reading this post while walking to the grocery store, without a single tissue on hand.” I’d recommend you have a tissue or two on hand as you read, but that you also be prepared to laugh.

My favorite reads are those that call forth tears and laughter alike. It’s these that live longest in my heart. And, indeed, as long as my heart beats, this post will resound within it.

Recommended post: I hope you dance…and other cliches for my daughter

Mama and that Old Brown Dog

My mom hated dogs, and she was quick to give her reasons. They’re loud. They stink. They’re a waste of hard-earned money that should be spent on more important things like food and HBO. I never had a pet as a child, but I guess you don’t miss what you never had because it wasn’t a bone of contention with me. I didn’t ache for a puppy only to be denied by my frugal parents. No, I longed for Barbie dolls. They were much easier to care for anyway, and my Malibu Ken never once left a smelly surprise by the back door.

When 2005 rolled around, we decided to buy a larger home and move my elderly mother in with us. I worried about her being alone and defenseless in her small apartment. She was beginning to have a tough time with even the simple chores of bringing her grocery bags in from her car or toting around a laundry basket. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement because in exchange for a safe, rent-free home for my mom live in, my 8-month-old daughter and 5-year-old son would get full access to their grandmother, and I would have someone in the kitchen who knew her ladle from a hole in the ground. Win-Win!

What my mother didn’t know was that I was secretly plotting to get a dog for my kids once we moved into the new home. We had a nice backyard with a tall privacy fence. Fido would have room to run and sunbathe and all would be right with the world. I scoured shelter websites looking for the perfect dog to rescue, but it was a daunting task. With so many homeless pups to choose from, we decided to take the family to a farm where the dogs were housed, meet the shelter director and let the dog pick us instead.

It was overwhelming…and loud…and it smelled foul. Dogs barked excitedly and came at us from every direction. Each one met our arrival with a look in their eyes that screamed, “Please pick me,” and I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of sadness in knowing that only one would be going home with us that day. Tiny dogs and big dogs alike clamored for our attention…all except for one. He was an older, non-descript, brown dog that stood off to the side making a noise that was not quite a howl and not quite a bark. It was more a like a scolding for the other dogs that seemed to say, “Settle down, you fools! Don’t you know we have company?”

I liked that brown dog. He wasn’t jumpy or desperate. When I asked the director about his story, she said he didn’t really have one. A Good Samaritan found him by the side of a road and rescued him – no drama, just a plain, brown dog. That was good enough for me, and from a pool of nearly fifty dogs, we decided that laid-back Benji would be coming home with us.


“You mean you’re KEEPING that, that…DOG?”

My mom was less than thrilled with our new four-legged housemate. She scolded him for barking and for daring to laze around on a sofa that was deemed a “No Dog Zone.” She proclaimed her utter disdain for having a mutt inside the house to anyone who would listen to her. She protested even further as we added two more dogs along the way, but although she would never admit it, I could see a soft spot growing for Benji. Being an older dog, he wasn’t interested in the wrestling matches and stair races that kept our other pets busy. There were many evenings when the chaos of our house filled with five people and three dogs became too much for my mom and Benji, and I would find them hiding out in her room watching Law and Order reruns, my mom in her recliner and Benji at her feet. They had a lot in common, those two.

In early June of 2008, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and died two and a half months later. For weeks after her death, I would find Benji in her room alone, once again escaping the noise and drama of the day. He seemed to miss his crime-show-watching partner, pacing around the room while sniffing every square inch. His quiet place would never be the same.

Benji became the grandfather dog of the house in the years after my mom died. His face turned gray and his walk up the stairs became slower, shakier. He no longer raced to lap up crumbs from around the dinner table, preferring to sit in the background while the younger dogs fought over scraps. He would bark to go outside only to turn around and immediately bark to go back inside. (We decided that elderly dogs must suffer from dementia like elderly humans.) His hearing was nearly gone and his eyesight wasn’t too far behind.

After a weekend out of town, we came home last month to find that Benji’s health had taken a catastrophic turn for the worse while we were away. He could barely walk and every breath was a struggle. The vet counseled us as he gently broke the news that he couldn’t fix that Brown Dog our family loved so much. As we huddled around Benji in the exam room, we stroked his coarse coat and told him how much we would miss him…and then he was gone.

I always joked that Benji took my mom’s place as the senior citizen of the house. It just feels wrong for them both to be gone now. The loss of my mother brought heart-wrenching pain, but I’m glad that my children had so much time with her before she left us. If there is any silver lining to such a horrible black cloud of enduring the sickness and death of a loved one, it’s that I know my children learned an important lesson: We MUST take care of each other. Loving and caring for someone (human or critter) even when it’s hard, even when you want to scream and run away, even when you can’t make it better is a legacy that I have left to my children. They know that we are in this for the long run. I will love them and take care of them to the moon and back. I am certain that when my day comes, they will also do the same for me.

It’s the circle of life, and for this I am thankful.

last : Living Systems | Mothers and Daughter : next

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Categories: Family, FTIAT, Guest blogger, Health, Love Tags: ,

Fat Kid Rules the World (and my heart, too)

My movie-induced narcolepsy has frustrated my movie fanatic fiancée, Ba.D., for years.

I seldom actively try to fall asleep. It’s just that movies were for so long my bedtime lullaby, it’s hard for me to appreciate them as anything more.

Once in a while I find a movie it’s impossible for me to sleep through. More rarely, I find a movie that not only holds my wakeful attention for two hours but invigorates me even after its credits have wrapped.

Fat Kid Rules the World  is such a movie. The script didn’t so much whisper as sing through its actors.

“Troy Billings is seventeen, overweight, and suicidal. Just as he’s about to jump in front of a bus, he’s saved by Marcus, a charming high school dropout/street musician. The two begin an uneasy friendship when Marcus enlists the musically challenged Troy to become the drummer in a new punk rock band. As Troy’s relationship with Marcus grows, Troy’s father becomes increasingly concerned about his son’s new friendship.”Official synopsis

Photo used with permission

“Fat Kid” Troy (Jacob Wysocki) immediately won both my heart and my full attention. I would have stayed awake for two hours simply to watch him go through the motions of his life. And yet, each of the actors in this amazing cast held their weight not only collectively but alone. Through their words and silences alike, these actors created living characters who didn’t so much feel real as really exist. At the movie’s close, I knew and loved each of them.

It would be impossible for me to pinpoint any one thing that sold me on Fat Kid Rules the World. There were so many that shone: its relationships, its lighting, its locations, its humor, its tenderness. Its magic was not in any one piece but in many beautiful pieces moving together in perfect synchronicity; indeed, when asked what he loved most about the movie, Ba.D. waxed effusive until I cut him off at fourteen minutes. (I know it was fourteen minutes because I recorded him in the hopes I could post his response here.)

Like me, he found it impossible to choose any one part of the film more perfect than another. Still, I gave him a second chance, asking him to describe his favorite thing about the movie “in one to two minutes.” After four minutes, I told him to wrap it up. After five minutes, I stopped the recording and asked if we should try one more time.  He said we should.

That recording ran three minutes but felt insubstantial compared to the others. For indeed, how can you possibly say only, “This is cinematic perfection” when the rush of that cinematic perfection is still coursing through your veins?

Shockingly, the film has had a hard time finding its distribution groove. In a discussion following the screening, Ba.D. and I learned about the trouble with selling “a movie about a fat kid.”

Ba.D. had a lot to say about that as we drove home, shaking a verbal fist at Hollywood for trying to stick to movies easily boiled down to two- and three-word catchphrases. The movie, he said, would have virtually distributed itself in the era that brought us movies like Heathers, Pump up the Volume and The Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club analogy resonated with me.

At its most basic level, Fat Kid Rules the World is about a fat kid. The Breakfast Club is about a group of kids stuck in detention.

But is detention what you think of when The Breakfast Club’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” comes on the radio? Or do you grin as you sing along and remember the unlikely kinship that grew between its dissimilar protagonists?

Fat Kid Rules the World isn’t just about a fat kid. It’s about grief, friendship, anger, transformation, punk rock, and the unlikely kinship that builds between people who only seem unalike at the most superficial of levels.

There aren’t many showings of this movie scheduled yet. Check here to see if one is in or near your town. If one isn’t in your town, please request it by following the request link at the bottom of that page. It’s a little work, to be sure, but great things are worth the work, and Fat Kid Rules the World isn’t just great. It’s incredible.

Next time I see director Matthew Lillard’s name, you won’t hear me saying, as I did a few days ago, “Oh, hey, it’s one of those kids from Scream!”

Nope. Next time, I’m more likely to say, “Yeah! That’s the guy whose vision made Fat Kid Rules the World come to life on the screen!”

Photo used with permission

I’m not a movie reviewer. I’m barely a movie watcher. It’s hard for me to find the right parting words to show how much this film rocked me. Instead of the right words, then, I leave you with the ones I uttered after I stopped cheering when the movie ended:

I love this movie so much, I just want to kiss it. I don’t even know how I’d do that, but I want to make out with the entire movie. So much.

(For the record, I still do.)

FTIAT: Living Systems

Andrew (Lucid Dreams & Saturn Skies) intrigues me with the merger of meditation and the macabre on his blog. It’s a unique merger that keeps me coming back for more.

He shares my love of horror, and has even helped feed my own with his horror stories.  I enjoy reading his blog features about terrifying things–more so when they’re fictional than when they’re true!–but am equally fond of his reflective posts.

Recommended post: As the Life of A Flower

Living Systems

Initially, when Deb approached me about FTIAT, I drew a blank. It isn’t that I don’t have gratitude for all the wonderful people and things in my life – I do. It was that I couldn’t quite find a way to express what I wanted to express. That coupled with the craziness surrounding the last semesters of my undergrad career led me to put the project in my digital dustbin. However, a recent conversation with a close friend and another invitation from Deb conspired to swat me upside the head with inspiration.

Hang on to your hats folks. Things are about to get science-y!

You see, I am a biology major (and a business major, in the interest of full disclosure). Naturally, I find the science fascinating. So does one of my closest friends, who is enrolled in her first college biology class at the moment. It’s kind of funny how minds can meld during a close friendship, even if said brains are separated by thousands of miles. (My friend lives in Alaska.) You see, as I recall it, she and I were basically struck by the same pseudo-epiphany almost the same day, and it was that conversation that led to this post.

The more I study biology, the more I am amazed that any living system works at all. We are used to thinking of our body as a single whole, but that could not be further from the truth. In reality, each and every one of us are a super colony of trillions upon trillions of interconnected and symbiotic cells and bacteria.

All of the intricate structures that make up our bodies are either made of cells or are secreted by said cells. Said cells are regulated by the genetic code: DNA. The acronym DNA is tossed around quite a bit, thanks to shows like CSI and NCIS, but as with many of the other acronyms we use on a daily basis, many use it without knowing what it’s short for. DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, and it acts as the molecule that confers inheritance. In a basic biological sense, if not a psycho-spiritual one, DNA makes you you.

Crazy, right? You know what’s crazier? At the end of the day, DNA is just a bunch of stringy white goop. Seriously. One day in lab I was twirling a bunch of fruit DNA we’d isolated on the end of a glass stir rod, amazed that this pulpy looking gunk was quite literally the stuff of life.

That white stringy gunk is responsible for everything. It contains within it the recipe of life. Somehow it can direct all the varied cells to find their proper place in the body. Not only that, it contains within it code for the mechanisms that allow said cells to communicate with one another, to divide, and even to kill themselves.

What is more, DNA is the code for all known life. From bacteria to elephants to people, all organisms use the same molecule both to replicate themselves and to provide the recipe for their living bodies. It’s all wonderfully complex and, especially for those trying to unravel life’s mysteries, often very confusing.

So you might be wondering at this point what I am thankful for. Life itself. Not only is how it works amazing, but it’s amazing that it works in the first place!

last : Battle Scars and Brokenness | Mama and that Old Brown Dog : next

Categories: FTIAT, Guest blogger Tags: , ,

The sweet memory of magic

In 2004, I wrote a YA trilogy over the course of six weeks. The trilogy retold a story I’d begun as a vampire-obsessed high school freshman.

I ignored the trilogy for a long time and for many reasons. I’m not a writer, I told myself. I just wrote some stuff because I was bored and broke in the middle of nowhere.

When my mom died in 2010, I remembered all the times she’d encouraged me to write professionally and hated myself for waving her off every single time. I started editing the first book in my trilogy not because I suddenly saw myself as a writer, but because it was important to me to do this one thing in my mom’s memory.

I edited the book as I edit my contracts, parsing the story down to its barest essence instead of letting it breathe as fully as it needed to. 78,000 words became 52,000 words, and those 52,000 words were released as The Monster’s Daughter.

Over the last eighteen months, I’ve tried dozens of strategies to force myself to edit its sequel. I’d written a trilogy, by damn, and I needed to publish a trilogy.

I told myself it was OK to pause editing the second book if I wrote a new, unrelated book. I wrote the new book and still balked at returning to the second book of my trilogy.

I released a non-fiction ebook while beginning work on another non-fiction project. A few weeks ago, I set aside the non-fiction book in progress to work on a new fiction project. Anything to avoid returning to my trilogy!

The deeper I delve into my new project, the harder it becomes to imagine returning to my trilogy. It’s not that I don’t love the trilogy or its protagonist, Ginny, who made otherwise excruciating loneliness tolerable. I do love the trilogy, and I love Ginny, most especially when I am lonely or aching.

I love the trilogy the way I love Edward Scissorhands, The Bridge to Terabithia or The Escape Club’s “I’ll Be There.” Once, these things were my everything. They occupied my mind, my heart and even my aspirations, both for what they were and for the layers of meaning I added to them. When things are deeply beloved, it’s hard to look at the past they belong to head-on and embrace that it’s the past. The moment is gone, the moment’s magic transformed to the sweet memory of magic.

As I wrote to my friend El, to whom I first confessed I was thinking of letting The Monsters’s Daughter stand alone:

I think I was afraid of letting [Ginny] go, but it’s impossible to let her go; she lives in me, now and forever.

Watching the words pour out of me for this new project just makes it so clear that I need to follow whatever voice is singing to me right now . . . not try to catch a tune playing miles away, now.

Ginny and The Monster’s Daughter were once my everything. Today I set them free, with a sigh and a butterfly kiss, as I turn my ears toward the music that plays for me now.

Bon voyage, Ginny. Bon voyage.

Hope, unbound

Thanks to What I Had Really Meant to Say for this opportunity to visit with hope today as part of the Hope 2012 blog relay.

The summer my mom snapped, I didn’t understand “hope.”

What I understood that summer was that I might never talk to my mom again. That the resources available to assist the mentally ill and their loved ones were woefully inadequate. That a woman could struggle through hardship after hardship only to find new hardships where at least one iota of peace ought have been.

I pieced hope together slowly over the years that followed. Shopping for hardware with my boyfriend one Mother’s Day, I found a colorful card that reminded me of my mom. I wrote on it that she’d always been a little colorful, but that her colors made the world brighter and richer. I delivered the card to her house only to have her scream and wave a shovel at me.

My boyfriend held one of my hands in both of his own as I cried in the front seat of his car. But I, like my siblings, kept at it. I believed something might happen to change the game tomorrow, or the day after it.

I passed by my mom on a run a couple of years later. Instead of screaming at me, she told me about all the neighborhood squirrels she was caring for. I slowed my run so I could accompany her all the way to the town’s bus station. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another moment like that, so I wanted to prolong and savor it.

Hope came a little easier after that.

Conversations were a little stilted when they happened, and my mom still occasionally accused her neighbors–and her children–of bizarre crimes, but conversations did happen. It seemed, after years of struggling, we might be getting somewhere.

Then, in the middle of 2009, my sister Rache called to tell me Mom’s doctor was concerned our mom might have “the C word.” My sister couldn’t even say it the first couple of times we spoke about Mom’s early appointments, so that I misunderstood what “C word” we were talking about. It hit me like a train to the stomach when Rache finally said the word: “cancer.”

That evening, I wrote my dearest friend:

I feel like I lost my mom several years ago, so I didn’t think it was possible to feel greater sorrow on that front. But hearing that physical death may also be imminent, it’s clear there are degrees of loss. Intellectually, I understand that there’s very little hope my mom as she existed while I grew up could be regained. Apparently, though, my heart has been holding onto hope that there might be some movement that direction. With physical death, what once was and what is now are all wrapped up neatly and concluded, with no chance of semi-happy endings.

When my mom’s diagnosis was confirmed, I was devastated. For years, I had hoped, and that hope had been destroyed by a single word spoken in a single second.

I thought and thought, and I fought with myself over what was and wasn’t reasonable in light of my mom’s diagnosis.

I’d trained myself to hope. I couldn’t not hope. So what, then, could I hope for?

I hoped that my mom would live long enough to meet her first grandchild, with whom I was seven months pregnant. It was a hope replete with moments of agony and frustration that I should be limited to such a small and fleeting hope, but I clung to it. I needed it to sustain me.

My son was born. Tickets home were purchased. My mom held her grandson.

She hated how she looked, but I saw only the love.

After my mom met my son, I invested my hope in the possibility of my mom’s recovery. And yet, there came a time where it was clear that hope would not be translated to truth.

I hoped my mom would get to see my son again, but I was struggling. It was easier to tell myself to hope than to actually tend to its tiny embers and set them full aflame again.

My mom did see my son again. He brought her great joy through suffering written so clearly on her face that I couldn’t help but feel its echoes, and despair.

He brought her so much joy that, occasionally, she’d grit her teeth and try climbing unsteadily from her bed, saying, “I will survive. I will live and see him grow up. I will meet my other grandkids.”

I would smile at her and try to calm her enough to get her back in bed, and then retreat to the cold bedroom down the hall and cry, and cry, and cry.

I didn’t know what to hope, but I knew better than to share that fleeting, wild hope of hers.

A week after the last time she told me this, I wrote my friends a letter that began:

At 2:35pm yesterday, my mother breathed her last breath in the loving arms of my sisters. 

The letter described many things that brought me joy, and great love for those who’d helped me through the last months of my mom’s life. What it didn’t describe was hope, for I felt hopeless, even as I wrapped up that letter thusly:

Next October 30, I will celebrate alone the birthday I shared with my mother. But she’ll be in my heart, and the gifts she bestowed upon me will carry her spirit forward in my every action, every day.

At my mom’s memorial, I caught sight of my son sleeping and felt the slightest stirrings of hope.

My mom’s final chapter had been written, but my tiny man’s life had so many chapters remaining. Imagining those chapters filled me with joy that couldn’t be touched by words, and kindled those stirrings so they began to take on their own vibrance.

As I worked with my siblings to clean out my mom’s house, I thought about all the chapters remaining my son. I saw that I, too, had many chapters left in my own life.

I chose hope. Even as I bawled, and cursed, and listened to music I hated to know my mom would never hear again, I chose to believe that there was good ahead.

I would edit one of my books. I would nurture my son’s passions. I would lend a hand to others as often as I could. I would focus not on what had been taken away from me, and the inevitability that still more would be taken away from me with time, but on all the possibilities left open to me, my son, and my loved ones. They were so, so many.

In August 2009, I believed hope was lost. In August 2012, I see that hope was simply hiding then. She was clenched tightly to herself, nestled deep within me, keeping herself safe until once again free to expand to fill me.

Hope has since unfurled and stretched herself into every piece of my life. Sometimes she retreats, but I know she will find her way back to me, and I to her. She needs me to give her my voice in this world; I need her to remember why I have a voice, and how to use it.

Hope was never lost to me. She just needed to be freed from the constraint of being tied to one place, to one situation, or to one person; for, indeed, she thrives best of all when her feet are untethered and she is allowed to wander as free and far as the human imagination extends.

Instructions for Hope 2012: A blog relay

Step 1: Write a blog post about hope & publish it on your blog.
Step 2: Invite one (or more!) bloggers to do the same.
Step 3: Link to the person who recruited you at the top of the post, and the people you’re recruiting at the bottom of the post.

Melanie Crutchfield will be holding “Closing Ceremonies” around August 10 and will gather up little snippets from people that wrote about hope, so make sure you link back to her as the originator of the relay

I call on:

When characters run amok

I’m 12,000 words into a new writing project.

I know, I know. I’m supposed to be working on that autobiographical collection of essays.

I’ll just come clean and say it straight: That project was boring the heck out of me. I thought I’d start another project as a joke, but the joke’s on me, because that project’s got me wrapped around its little finger. (Just don’t ask me to pinpoint that “little finger” on a diagram, because I can’t!)

One thing about this project that’s bugging me is how much its characters talk.

I think, “OK, these guys have got to communicate X.” But when they get to talking, they don’t just talk about X. They talk about X, X’s little brother Pedro, Pedro’s crush on Georgia, and Georgia’s hometown in southeastern New Mexico, as well as the fauna particular to the area.

Like WALL-E‘s EVE and adorable little cleaning machine, I’m pretty objective-driven in real life. It’s not uncommon for me to obtain the information I need ten seconds into a conversation with someone and then actually ask questions like, “Wait, why are we still talking?” twenty seconds after that. (I’m getting better about this.)

The fact my project’s characters can’t stop talking is maddening. And yet, in an approach I should probably better emulate in real life, I let them talk. This is where I find out who they are. I can cut their conversations all I want later, but right now, they are telling me about themselves. It’s important. It’s good.

Yes, it’s slow, but it’s good. And I’m just going to sit here reminding myself of that. “It’s good. It’s all good. No, really, it’s good.”

(But, seriously, characters, why do you have to talk so much?!)

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