Let’s Do It For Life

Last November, I developed an irrational fear that I would choke on my food and die. I barely ate for several weeks. When I did eat, I felt constantly like the food was on the brink of lodging itself in my throat permanently. A smoothie seemed dangerously chunky.

My grandmother was very ill and dying in California, and I flew quite a lot during this time. I found I had suddenly developed an intense fear of flying as well. I spent interminable hours locked in a sardine can with sweating palms and a racing heart. I would get off the plane, shaking with pent-up panic-induced adrenalin, and cry wet tears of relief that it was over.

I was afraid of other things too–driving, crossing the street, headaches, my boobs. Fear became my constant companion.

It seems obvious in retrospect, but I didn’t initially connect what was happening to me with what was happening to Grandma. One day, I was writing about Grandma, trying to capture what she meant to me, trying to understand why my grief was so intense, when it struck me, loud and clear: The world is not a safe place without her.

Without Grandma, the world had become the sort of place where you might choke on a smoothie.

About the same time that my grandma died, the mother of a little girl we knew also died, very suddenly. A couple weeks after that, the little girl–we’ll call her N–came over for a visit. She was cheerful and chatty. I’m not sure how she was holding it together, because at the age of 40 I was a hot mess of grief still over the loss of my grandma, and this tough little ten-year-old whose mother had just died carried on as if nothing bad had ever happened to her.

I couldn’t even hold it together for the duration of N’s visit. I went back to the bedroom to cry. And to look for Grandma in my hope chest. I mean, pictures of Grandma.

A short while later, N joined me. She sat down on the bed and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was looking for pictures I maybe had forgotten I had. I showed her some tea towels that Grandma had given me. I was crying the whole time. I knew it was ridiculous, to be showing the intensity of my grief to the girl whose own cause for grief was so much greater. But there it was.

N listened to me, and then she said, “I wish I had pictures of my mom.”

And there it was.

We cried and held each other for an hour.


When I was pregnant with Monty, I read a book called The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. Liedloff describes a Stone Age tribe she lived with for several months called the Yequana. When she first arrived there, the villagers asked her who her family is. She said she didn’t have one: Her mother and father had died.

The tribes people were aghast. To their way of thinking, being without a family is a massively unsustainable condition. Being without parents, even as an adult, was simply untenable. Fortunately, they had a built-in system to remedy the problem: Leidloff was officially adopted into one of the tribe families, and became their daughter for life.


This seems an incredibly good idea to me. Imagine if we never had to be cut adrift, never had to navigate this dangerous world and its chunky smoothies alone. What if someone always had your back, no matter what? What if, even after your mom and dad are gone from this world, you still had parents.

I’m lucky. I still have my mom and my dad. During Grandma’s illness and after her death, we gathered in California to take care of each other. We tried hard to be kind to one another, and we mostly succeeded. We hugged a lot more than is normal for the stoic Mann family. We cried a lot more too, and gave each other a lot of leeway for that.

N is lucky too, in a way. She still has her dad, and he is a good one.

But what if we never had to worry about it, what if we always knew that we would have family, for life, no matter what? Sure, we would still dissolve in a hot mess of grief when it’s time to say goodbye. But it wouldn’t be so scary, because we’d know that we weren’t alone, that we were not going to be set adrift. Maybe we wouldn’t spend so much time choking on smoothies.

So I want to make a proposal. I want to suggest that we adopt each another. Maybe formally, maybe not, but let’s do it for life. Let’s make it a policy to be each others’s safety net, to never give up on being there for each other. Let’s be each others’s family.

Who’s in?

Love Stories


He’s a promising young pup. No dog in the pack can match him for tracking wild boar. His master, Odysseus, is rightfully proud. But when Odysseus is called away to war, everything changes. The ensuing years are unkind. Careless men take over the kennels, use up Argos’s potential, and then discard him to fester in fleas and root in manure for his meals.


Meanwhile, halfway around the world, his master likewise falls on evil times. After ten years at war, Odysseus is forced to travel through perilous lands for another ten. When he finally returns, he does so in rags and disguised as a beggar, finding his home overrun by unscrupulous men.

He limps into the courtyard of his old home with a servant. Argos is lying on a trash heap, barely able to move his arthritic limbs. He has never forgotten Odysseus, not for one day, not through the hunger nor the neglect nor the beatings at the hands of lesser men. He’s sleeping, but when he hears his master’s voice, he raises his head and looks right at him.

Odysseus, that master of disguise, cannot help himself. He dashes a tear from his eyes, trying not to give himself away. “Servant,” he says. “What a noble hound is lying there!”

Argos cannot rise, but he signals joy at his master’s praise with a wag of his tail: At last! And as Odysseus passes into the banquet hall to deal with his enemies, Argos passes “into the darkness of death, having seen his master once more.”


A few years ago, one of our neighbors down the street was moving out, and they had many of their possessions on display in the driveway for strangers to pick through. Who can resist a little voyeuristic shopping? So I went, and took my young son Monty, who was 8 at the time, with me.

There were cars parked all along the street, but there was still a lot of good stuff left. We picked out a set of rose paintings for the bathroom, and some green cloth napkins. As we left, Monty stopped to pet a little brown dog that was wagging her tail at him.

A gentleman standing nearby tipped his cap at us and smiled at Monty. “She’s friendly,” he said, nodding at the little dog.

“Is she yours?” I asked. “She’s very sweet.”

“I wish she were,” he said. “She belongs at the house up on the corner. She comes out and walks with me every day. I walk for my heart, you know, doctor’s orders. Her name is Mercedes. I call her Sadie.”

The house on the corner, well, I will leave it out of this. Let’s just say that it’s no wonder Sadie takes every chance she can to follow Jack around the neighborhood.

Of course, anybody might want to follow Jack around. I do it too. I start running up the hill when I see him passing, and walk the block with him, just to bask in his company. Always a smile, always a kind word, always that same flat driving cap. He’s 86 and cares for his ailing wife, Lana. She’s his first wife, he’s her second husband.

Lana likes to knit, and to read, and to do crossword puzzles. It’s about all she can do nowadays, given how difficult it is for her to walk. Jack takes care of the house, and the lawn, and cooks their meals. They have no children, only each other.

About the time that I started getting to know Jack, the family on the corner got tired of Mercedes and decided to send her to the pound: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. Nearly 10,000 lives a year are ended at this pound.

Fortunately for Sadie, someone in the family had a brain–and a heart. The daughter, the troubled girl gone most nights on a motorcycle with her latest in a string of boyfriends, this girl. “Please,” she said. “Let me just see if Jack will have her.”

And Jack did. Jack gave her a bath. Jack bought her a leash. Jack sold one of his beloved cars to pay the $600 vet bill. Jack.

We’ve since moved out of that neighborhood and the thing I miss most is Jack. I run into him, on a visit in the area. He tips his hat to me, kisses my cheek.

“How is Lana?” I ask.

“Thank you for asking,” he says. “Lana is, well, Lana is about the same. She’s Lana for about ten minutes a day. The rest of the time she thinks I’m her first husband.”

Wow. That must be hard.

He bows his head slightly, “It is,” he says. “Lana calls me by his name now.”

I shake my head. I don’t even have words.

He smiles. “And I answer to it.”



It’s time to go.

“I’ll miss you” I tell Jack.

“I already miss you more than you know,” he says.

Yeah, I say.

Then he smiles. He always smiles. “Nothing is forever,” he says.


“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

This is the second in an impromptu series in which I use one of these fearless writer quotes as a writing prompt. Yesterday’s was the first.

If People Wanted You to Write Warmly About Them

I’m descending the main stairway in Hanson Hall. My boyfriend is waiting at the bottom, and I greet him with a smile. He says, “Is that what you’re wearing?” My smile falters. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt, the summer uniform of every college student in 20th century America.

“At least put a belt on,” he says.

I run back upstairs. When I return, he expresses distaste for the belt I’ve chosen. It’s my only belt. He says fine, I’ll buy you a new one.

Meet my college boyfriend. His name is Charlie. Wait. No. Let’s make it Pete. Or Jim. Can we think of a name that won’t malign somebody unfairly? No, it’s Charlie. We’ll just call him Charlie. Even though that’s not his real name (don’t sue me). (It is his real name.)

Charlie was charming. He spoke seven languages, read Kierkegaard for fun, and had the body of a Greek god. He was funny and smart and gallant. I fell for him hard.

Well, maybe not at first. I actually liked his brother (we’ll call him Roger, which was most definitely not his real name but the brother never did anything to deserve malignment by me, so we’ll let him use somebody else’s name). Had a crush on Roger from the first time I met him. But Roger had a girlfriend–a bat-sh*t crazy girlfriend, it’s true, but there it was.

Charlie, however, was available. And into me. He was cute, and interesting, and liked to talk about God, and Christian theology. He had a cool old car and great taste in restaurants. He was well-traveled and intense. A dream.

The first kiss was, admittedly, a little odd. Kind of cold and close-mouthed, but you know–first kisses are often a little awkward, right? He told me later–months later–that he was startled by how open and insistent my return kiss was.  He told me this so that I would understand why he thought I was more “experienced” than I said I was. He always tried to help me understand things, you see.


I could tell you things about Charlie–and about me. How he misused my trust and my innocence, and then accused me of impurity and deception. How he gradually led me down a path of hate and insanity–his that became mine.

How I followed.

Why did I follow? I could tell you that, too, but not in an hour. Shall we just say that I understand why abuse victims often aid and abet their abusers?

I got out eventually, obviously, thankfully. It took me a year and a half, and I had help. I wish everyone had the kind of help I had. I wish everyone had the right sort of stories.

Let me explain. If there were an abuser’s manual (and maybe there is. I don’t want to know), step #1 on the to-do list would be: Isolate your victim. She must believe she is alone, with no one to help her. Turn her against her family, pry her away from friends, create a vacuum around her.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t let her get her hands on stories.

Stories, you see, are how we find out that we are not alone. That others have been down this path. They show us our options. They show us our truth.

In many countries where women are still treated as chattel, the men have a problem, and the problem is soap operas. Soap operas are not exactly known for their world-class literary quality or forward-thinking social agendas, and therein lies their power. What is the harm in a silly little story on a television screen?

The harm is that the stories, trite by Western standards as they may be, show women other ways of being female, other possibilities for themselves. They raise revolutionary feelings in their viewers. Before long, women start thinking they own themselves.

Why do you suppose slave masters, those worst sort of abusers, didn’t want their slaves learning to read?

Why was Malala shot in the head?

I think if I had had the Internet when I was dating Charlie, things might have gone differently. If I had had access to Google, that semi-anonymous search for truth, it might have allowed me to more quickly put context around what was happening to me. I might have found the right stories, the stories that paralleled mine just so. They might have shown me how to get out, given me the courage, and the belief in my own worthiness, to do so.

Nowadays, one of an abuser’s early jobs is to separate the victim from her Internet network. Perhaps he convinces her to share a Facebook profile with him instead of appearing on social media independently. Likewise, email accounts. He monitors her Internet use, watches what she’s searching for. Maybe he installs keystroke monitoring software.

An abuser’s job is so much more complicated than it used to be. Alas for technology, right?

In my college days, life was in some ways easier for an abuser. I didn’t have access to stories about abuse, wouldn’t have known what I was looking for even if I did, and certainly was not about to go ask a librarian to help me find them.

My friends and family, as much as they loved me, couldn’t reach me. I interpreted their attempts to talk reason into me as attacks.

One person, however, ultimately did get through to me. He didn’t try to talk reason into me. He just listened and… you guess it… told me stories. His stories are his to share or not share, so I won’t tell them here. It’s enough to say that they were the stories I needed to hear.

They were the stories that showed me I was not alone.

I think that if we humans have a primary job here on Earth, something concrete and actionable, that job is to tell our stories. To tell them out loud. To tell them without fear, shamelessly and truthfully.

I think our stories are the primary way we show one another love. Stories are how we give each other strength.  By opening our stories to others, we light paths for them toward their own truth. I can’t think of anything more powerful and revolutionary than that.


And if anyone should end up maligned in the telling, well… maybe they should have behaved better.

You can clearly see how my clothing choices might have provoked ire in a caring boyfriend. This is several months post-Charlie and you can see how I've fallen back into my slovenly way. Oh, that's a plant press I'm collecting specimens into for field biology. It's a shame I'm not dressed more stylishly for this activity.

You can clearly see how my clothing choices might have provoked ire in a caring boyfriend. This is several months post-Charlie and I’ve fallen back into my slovenly ways. Oh, that’s a plant press I’m collecting specimens into for field biology. It’s a shame I’m not dressed more stylishly for this activity.

*Nodding to Anne Lamott, from whom the title of this entry is stolen: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better,” from Bird by Bird.

If I Waited for Perfection

I originally planned to do a half-way point check-in on Day 15, something like “what I’ve learned so far,” but that slid by me in a cranky mess. So here it is: Halfway point musings, a day late.

  1. Sometimes the days you most hate writing are the days you are nearest a breakthrough.
  2. And sometimes the days you most hate writing are the days you most hate writing.
  3. Every day has an hour in it for writing if you make an hour for writing in it. Even if that hour is 11pm or 5am.
  4. Blog entries where I talk about my book seem to be the most popular.
  5. Blog entries where I ask people to help me write my book are the most popular of all.
  6. Titles with the word “boring” in them get read less than anything else. Go figure.
  7. An hour is not anywhere near long enough to get a decent, thoughtful, illustrated blog entry done.
  8. Not every blog entry has to be a decent, thoughtful, illustrated blog entry. Sometimes it’s okay to just be a blog entry.
  9. Halfway points suck. Far enough from the beginning that the new shine has worn off, far enough from the end that you can’t quite see the light yet. And now you know just *exactly* how much work is left and it’s a LOT.
  10. I can do this.
  11. Inspiration doesn’t always come just because you sit down to write. At least, not in just an hour.
  12. My best entries have nearly always taken well more than an hour, and so I don’t think it’s a good idea to always limit myself to an hour. 

What I hope(d) is that I will(would) learn to produce higher quality in an hour by doing this, and maybe I will, but I strongly suspect that TIME is just one of those critical elements necessary to great writing. That and inspiration (see #11), and so forcing the every single day thing may not be a good long-term strategy.

That’s not to say that I think a person who intends to be a writer shouldn’t write every day. FAR from it. Writing every day is EXACTLY what a person does to become a good writer. I wrote my first book simply by deciding to write every day. It never would have happened otherwise.

What I am saying is that maybe it’s not such a good idea to force oneself to write for an hour a day and then hit publish. Or, at least, not for me.

A few years ago, a client asked me to take one of those strengths/weaknesses/personality type tests as part of our working relationship. The result was spot on, and one of the things it said about me is that I’m a slow processor. Which is to say, not a *poor* processor, not *slow* in the old-fashioned “special” sense. Just that I work best when my brain has time to digest things, to season them a bit.

This has always been true and is why (along with the fact that my dad did it and it seemed like a good habit to emulate) I refuse to make on-the-spot decisions. If someone insists that I do something/make a purchase/otherwise act instantly, then my decision is always “no.” I don’t move forward that quickly, because I don’t make my best decisions that quickly.

And I think this is true for my writing as well. I simply don’t do my best writing without time to season and digest.

On the other hand, as an exercise, I think it’s been incredibly helpful. It’s good practice to push things out quickly, it’s like sprints for a long-distance runner. Sprints may not be a runner’s strength, and may not ultimately teach her everything she needs to know, but they certainly can help with building speed and muscle.

So I guess that’s what this is for me. A little sprint training to build speed and muscle. So it’s fine. It’s good. I’m glad I’m doing it.


Gratuitous Selfie: Exhausted Me At the Halfway Point

P.S. Today’s moving sale actually went well. We made quite a lot more than I expected, and I’m feeling considerably less cranky. Though exceedingly tired.

P.P.S. This has been going around Facebook and I LOVE IT. It’s a list of 25 quotes from famous authors that will help you be more fearless in your writing. Some of my favorites: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better” (Anne Lamott, of course), “Mistakes are the portals of discovery” (James Joyce), and “If I waited for perfection I would never write a word” (Margaret Atwood).


Some Days Are


Let’s be honest. I had a crappy day.

I woke up cranky, I stayed cranky, I’m still cranky.

I don’t like hosting yard sales. Not even a little bit. There is nothing about hosting a yard sale that I like. Not even the money because who are we kidding, $0.35 an hour is a crappy rate. But the kids have been pestering us for years to have a yard sale, and the husband thought our recent move provided a good reason to do it.

So we’re having a yard sale. Tomorrow. We spent the entire day moving things from one place to another, cleaning it up as necessary, pricing it, and displaying it so people can come through and say, “This fine art print from the National Museum that you paid $45 for and that’s listed at $2. Would you take 50 cents for it?”

And I’m writing a stupid blog entry at 10pm the night before because I said I would do it every day and by gum I’m doing it. But I am NOT happy about it. For the record.

I’m exhausted and tired and worn out and cranky. Oh, and in the midst of all the clean-up and clean-out, Gunner’s leash & training collar somehow got misplaced and I am HEARTBROKEN over it. Gunner and I run together every morning, despite the fact that Gunner cannot keep himself together at the sight of another dog, and that training collar is what keeps us sane. We’ve turned both houses and both cars upside down looking for it.

I’m also heartbroken over these things:

  • My grandma
  • My grandpa trying to go on without her
  • A little boy in Charlotte who died yesterday after jumping in a culvert to save his sister who had fallen in (she lived)
  • A little boy in my network whose cancer returned
  • All the trees in the yard at the old house that the children will never climb again after this weekend
  • My back (it hurts)
  • Getting up at 5am tomorrow and not even having enough time to write, because that’s what time I have to get up to have our stupid yard sale ready in time
  • Writing this blog entry

So, basically, ALL THE THINGS.

And I’m just not even going to apologize. I’m not going to say anything to make it all better, or to give it meaning, or to make it so that we all feel better about it in the end.

Because sometimes life is like this. Sometimes it’s just not all better at the end of the day. Some days you just hate everything, and that is just how it is.

Wait. Crap. I just can’t do it. Okay, so. I was at the Walmart picking up things we need for our yard sale (because you gotta spend money to make money. For a yard sale that translates to: “You gotta spend $70 to make $0.35,” in case you didn’t know), and muttering under my breath (by which I mean saying quite loudly because what point is there in griping if no one can hear you?) about how much I hated this day and how much I hated yard sales and how much I hated Wal-mart, and meanwhile I was trying to shove a carton of water bottles up under my cart and it just would not. Go.

So there I am, everything short of swearing, fully aware that everybody in the store thinks I’m a terrible parent because half of what I’m muttering loudly about is directed at Everett who is of course being EXTREMELY ANNOYING by standing beside me and existing. And I’m really hating these stupid water bottles and my stupid inability to get them into the cart and the store’s stupid inability to be less aggravating.

And a guy comes over and takes the water bottles from me, and puts them under my cart for me, and says he doesn’t understand why the carts have to be so low you can’t even fit things under them.

Just like that.

And I’d like to say that I thanked him and was inspired to an attitude change, but that would be only half true. I did thank him, but I still had a crappy day full of craptastic attitude (my own).

But I guess I’m just a TEENY bit grateful that there are people in the world who look at a shabbily dressed woman (did I mention that in my hair I have, no lie, dried bird poop AND dried goat cud? Don’t ask) griping at her 6-year-old and muttering (not-quite under her breath) hateful things about the world, and think: Hey, I bet there’s a lady who could use a little kindness in her day.

So I lied. I don’t hate ALL the things today. Just most of them.

Good night.

What Do Your Dreams Look Like These Days?

There’s a woman up against a wall. Facing her is an old man, a beggar. He’s huge and ragged and bloody, and he’s just gone on a rampage and killed all the men in her banquet hall.

And now he wants to talk.

He’s saying crazy crap, talking about her son, and monsters, and gods.

She thinks he might be her dreams come true at last. Only, he doesn’t look so hot.

Do you remember that scene? I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I read it as a teenager. Odysseus comes home after twenty years to find his house overrun by men trying to steal his wife and kill his son. He’s faced monsters and witches and angry gods, and now that he’s finally home he’s got this: Rude guests.

That’s what growing up is like. As a kid, you think life is going to be all big glorious battles, important challenges, and working hard for your dreams: The great odyssey of your life. Maybe you even have some of those adventures. Then you grow up and realize life is mostly laundry and what to do about the rude guests messing up your banquet hall. I mean kitchen.

So here’s Penelope, and for her it’s been *all* laundry and rude guests, and in comes her husband, late as usual and caked with mud from his exciting adventures, and no wonder she’s sitting against the wall trying to decide what to do with him.

Lately I feel like Penelope, up against that wall, staring at this big ragged hulk of a thing in front of me. It’s saying crazy crap, talking about my sons, and my book, and God. I think it might be my youthful dreams come back to me, and they’ve been having an awfully exciting time without me.

Of course Penelope didn’t know what to do. She’d been bogged down for twenty years in drudgery, entertaining guests, protecting her son, and attending to clothes. It was hard to believe the miracle she’d been hoping for had actually shown up. And he didn’t exactly look the way she remembered him, either. Well, maybe a little, if you could get past the blood. Could she trust him?

Penelope did ultimately figure it out, what with her brilliant intellect and all. It helped that Athena cast a glamour over Odysseus right about that time, making him taller and goldener and “crisping curls”ier. Didn’t hurt a bit. Convinced at last, Penelope threw herself into his arms.

The Embrace

But what about me? What am I supposed to do with this thing in front of me–my book, my business, my family, these ragged things that look like they *might*, if you can get past the blood and sweat, look a little like my youthful dreams? I’m not as clever as Penelope, no olive-trunk-bed tricks up my sleeve.

And last I heard, Athena quit her job as a glamour caster.

And what about you? Has life turned out the way you thought, all adventure and excitement? And has it paid off like you expected? Would you recognize your youthful dreams if they showed up in your banquet hall covered in blood and asking you to embrace them?

Well, maybe this thing in front of me–my almost-finished book, my on-the-cusp business, my half-grown family–doesn’t look quite like I expected. Be that as it may. What with Athena having quit her day job and all, I guess if somebody’s going to polish these dreams up, it’s gonna have to be me.


P.S. I’m at page 149 of 294 in the final edits on my book before submission. The halfway point. Yah, still kinda sweaty and ragged, but it’s starting to shine just a little. Maybe.

P.P.S. HEY. I’m nearly at the halfway point in my 30-Day blog challenge too. Halfway points suck, btw. All slog no glory. Embrace, Heather. Embrace.

What I’ve Been Reading (The Good Stuff)

Yesterday I introduced you to some really fabulous well-known authors and their social media/blogging platforms. It was easy and fun and I like easy and fun, so today I’m sharing some of my favorite YA authors and their books.


I read a ton of YA literature, and most of it is mediocre at best. These are a few (not exhaustive) who rise to the top. The good stuff.


Kristin Cashore, author of Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue. Her worlds are interesting, her characters are fun, and her romance turns traditional gender roles on their heads in a way that I find delightful–imagine strong, interesting, sexy male characters who treat their love interests with genuine respect and admiration. It’s hard to find, even in fiction, but Cashore delivers. The stories are well-told page-turners directed at a young adult audience but with enough energy and depth to entertain any reader. Cashore is young (younger than me by THREE YEARS), which is a good reason to hate her for her success, but I can’t bring myself to do it. She’s wonderful. She also blogs, much more regularly and apparently effortlessly than I do. Maybe I *can* hate her, even if it’s just a little bit.

Michelle Hodkin, author of the Mara Dyer series. Delightful and funny person who also writes page-turner novels. If Twilight turned you off of paranormal YA romance… well, Hodkin will turn you back on again. If Twilight did not turn you off of paranormal YA romance then please stop talking. Find something to read and keep reading until you develop taste. Hodkin is also young but I can’t hate someone I’ve had coffee with, especially if I’ve examined her boobs for chocolate. Hodkin gets a pass. The third book in the Mara Dyer series comes out later this year.

John Christopher, author of The Tripods series. I have no idea whether Christopher is delightful or funny, and he is certainly not young. I’ve never had coffee with him and never seen his boobs. He died two years ago at the age of 89. But I can tell you that his books are very, very much worth the read. They’re the rivetingly well-told story of a world ruled by giant machines, written before stories for young people were labeled as “YA.”

128px-Montreuil_-_Salon_du_livre_jeunesse_2012_-_Ransom_Riggs_-_002Ransom Riggs, author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Hollow City. The first is a must must must read book. The second came out in January and I haven’t gotten to it yet, mostly because I only realized today that it’s even out. But DON’T WORRY. As soon as I realized my oversight, I placed a hold request on it at the library. Disaster averted. Miss Peregrine’s Home is one of the most interesting and innovative YA books I’ve read. Riggs wrote the story around a bunch of weird old photos he collected, which are reprinted throughout the book. Creepy but not scary, a wonderful and delightful read. Riggs also has a great sense of humor and is married to the MOST ADORABLE woman ever, Tahereh Mafi (and no, I don’t know how to pronounce that), who also writes books, none of which I’ve gotten to yet (hm. I wonder if they’re available through the library… hold on a sec… … YES. Awesome). Together they are like the modern literary world’s cutest couple. He has a blog.

What are you reading?

Round-Up: Authors Who Talk to Their Fans

It’s been a heckuva couple days, and I’m phoning it in with an introduction to three amazing authors who, despite enormous success, continue to communicate with fans on a regular basis. Three authors, three genres, three media platforms.

Lev Grossman, Fantasy, Blog:

128px-Lev_grossman_2011Lev Grossman is the author of the New York Times Bestselling Magicians trilogy (final book coming out later this year). One of my favorite current authors and a kind and generous human being. His blog, infrequently updated though it is, provides a rare, raw insider’s view into the life–and struggles–of a successful novelist. He’s also the books editor for Time Magazine, and, most impressive of all, the sort of guy who offers his time generously to help new authors and communicate with young fans. If you haven’t already, please read his books (I’d loan you mine, but they’re signed SO KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF you can’t handle that kind of responsibility I don’t want to).

Anne Lamott, Nonfiction, Facebook:

Love me some Annie.

Anne Lamott is the author of the wonderful guide to writing that every freshman writing class reads, Bird by Bird, as well as several other laugh-out-loud funny and simultaneously profoundly inspirational books, of which my favorite is Operating Instructions. She’s also a lovely, warm, beautiful human being whose Facebook feed is one of the things that makes Facebook worthwhile. And also makes me cry. Every. Single. Time.


Anne Rice, Horror, Twitter:

Anne_RiceAnne Rice is the author of Interview with a Vampire and of course many other masterful books. I admit that her genre is not my favorite and so I’ve only read the one book of hers, but she herself is most definitely among my favorite people for her warmth and her helpful advice for writers. Plus, her Twitter feed is just amazing–constantly filled with weird science news, book discussions, and even links to critical reviews of her work.



Check ‘em out. You’ll find something worth reading in all three places. Enjoy.


Play Along

I am bent over a piano in one of the soundproof rooms of Smith Hall. I’ve been here for hours. It’s Jan Term 1993, and I made the mistake of enrolling in Music Composition as my elective. Our assignment: Write a piece of music.

I want it to be beautiful. Perfect. Amazing. I want it to be unique and original. Wow-worthy. I want to impress Dr. Rohlig. It is way more work than I expected.

I enrolled in the class for two reasons:

1. I thought it would be fun and easy.
2. I wanted to spend more time with Dr. Rohlig.

1. I was dead wrong.
2. It was worth it.

I stumble into the classroom the next day clutching my music score in my hand. It’s six hard-won bars, hand-written on a blank printed staff. Dr. Rohlig comes into the classroom with his rolling gait, head tucked down, smiling.

“Ohkay, how are you? How are you? It’s good to see you, Oh, hello,” he says in his deep, rolling German accent. He takes attendance: “Heather, are you here, Heather? Oh yes, I know you are. Hello,” and on down the roster.

When it is time, he asks who would like to show their work first. I raise my hand. I always like to be first. He looks over my score, pleasure etched in his features:

“Oh, very nice. Shall we listen?”

He sits down at the piano and plunks out the notes written on my paper. It sounds pretty good, actually, not bad, for several hours of agonizing work. It’s nice, you know.

Then he adds a few chords. Really nice. A moment later, we are all listening to him run riffs and variations, up and down, adding harmony and sub-melodies until my music, my six scruffy hand-written bars, sound like something that ought to be performed in front of hundreds.

When he is done, we applaud loudly. I am so proud. He talks about the piece as though it were a great work of art, adding layers of depth and meaning that I didn’t know existed in it. It’s a beautiful moment.

Then the next person gets up. Now I KNOW this next guy is here for the easy credit. He’s a slacker, lazy t-shirt, lazy hair, lazy posture. He ambles up to the front and sits down at the piano. He doesn’t even have anything written down. It’s like he’s not even trying.

He throws out some chords, obviously making it up as he goes, so much bull crap. Dr. Harald Rohlig writes intricate and esoteric modern classical music that is renowned around the world, so I know he knows exactly how much this thing sucks.

His smile never falters. Dr. Rohlig survived Hitler, he can deal with this. He walks over to the piano. He stands over Mr. Lazy-Pants, still smiling. Just smiling and smiling. You know this is going to be good, right?

And then he sits down and starts to play, right alongside the kid. He plays a counterpoint, adds some chords, takes over one portion. He makes it beautiful. It’s beautiful. Stunning, actually.

I am agog. This is so. not. fair.

I adored Dr. Rohlig. We all did. A child prodigy, he survived the Nazi regime, came to America, built a world-renowned reputation as a composer, and settled in humble Montgomery, Alabama to compose and teach, and touch the lives of lowly students like me. And, apparently, slackers like Lazy Pants.

Harald Rohlig

It was Dr. Rohlig to whom I turned when I was torn up inside from an abusive relationship, Dr. Rohlig who always understood, always knew just how to talk to me. When Dr. Rohlig spoke, a person listened, because whatever came out of that brilliant, profound, loving heart was worth hearing.

So it bugged me that he treated us all the same. His smile was not reserved for the hard workers, the good kids, the talented ones, or even just the ones who actually cared. He treated us all as though we were all equally worthy of his attention and time. Not fair. I wanted to be special.

I’m still that way. I think it’s part of the same drive that pushes me to perfect. If I’m just good enough, if I just try a little harder, shine a little brighter, the important people will notice me. Hey Dr. Rohlig, look! Look at meeeeee! Maybe God Godself will look upon my countenance and smile (a special smile, just for me): Well done, my good and faithful child, God will say. If I just try hard enough.

It’s a sickness, actually. And wrong-headed. We are all beautiful sparks, children of God, no work required to belong on this train.

And whatever gifts we bring, God does just like Dr. Rohlig. All we gotta do is show up and bring something, and God will sit right down beside us and play along, turning whatever we’ve got, whatever lazy pants piece of bull crap we’ve brought, into something beautiful.

Well, I guess I can live with that.

P.S. Dr. Rohlig, despite the fact that he was already a triple bypass survivor when I knew him, is still alive and composing in Montgomery, Alabama. The wikipedia article about his life and work does not do him justice.

First It Gets Dark

As a child, I was a perfectionist. I stressed over whether my story was good enough, whether I was smart enough to be in the advanced math class, over whether the teachers at my new school would like me. I was a rules-follower, because if I ever broke a rule, it might damage my perfect, permanent record.

I had to be perfect, you see, so that I could be good enough. If I slipped up, made a mistake, received a reprimand–it would be a terrifying chink in my armor, a crack that might let someone see just how useless and unworthy I really was inside.

I grew up in a society–our society–that is obsessed with perfection. Perfect skin, perfect legs, perfect school records, perfect behavior records, perfect everything. That’s what it takes to be good enough.

Make a mistake, do something wrong, get a blot on your record: Damaged goods. Next.

It was not always so, and is not always so in all cultures.O.P.W. Fredericks of The Lives You Touch reminded me recently (on It’s How the Holy Gets In) of this quote (sometimes attributed to Barbara Bloom):

“When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”

One summer, Carey and I attended a camp-out in the mountains. I’ll admit, I was worried: All of the attendees except us were from a church, and I could not see myself wanting to spend 48 hours in company of perfectly perfect churchy church people.

A few days before, however, I found out that this particular group was mostly made up of “recovering” folks. Recovering alcoholics, recovering former prostitutes. Damaged people, learning to fill their gaps with gold, their dark with light. Suddenly, the weekend looked a lot brighter.

There’s something about a person who has BEEN THERE. Who has been down THAT road, the road with the holes in it and the dealers on the street corner and the gunshots and the desperation. The road that puts holes in tires and holes in hearts. There’s just something special about a person who has been there and is coming back out again, toward the light.

I believe God is like those Japanese artists, that (if we ask for help) God takes our broken tires and our broken hearts and puts them back together, mending the cracks with gold.

Or maybe God mends with crystal. You know, to let the holy in.

I started this essay thinking about the lessons I’ve learned during the first 10 days of my 30-day one-hour-only challenge. The biggest thing I hoped to learn from it, is letting go. Letting it be okay if my work isn’t perfect. Letting good enough be good enough.

So that’s where I started, and the entry went somewhere else entirely. And that’s okay too. Good enough. Better than good enough. It’s yours now, and you can mend its many holes and imperfections any way you like. I hope you’ll choose something beautiful.

(If you Google “How the Holy Gets In” in images, the first several pictures that pop up look like this:


(Look, I know that’s probably some pop cultural reference that Heather-With-Her-Nose-In-A-Book doesn’t get, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like Google knows. This is how the holy gets in: First it gets dark.)