I Can Do Hard Things

This hydrangea is in my sister’s backyard. Hydrangeas always make me think of my grandmother’s house in summer.

Miles run today: 8

Baby birds in nests around my sister’s house: 7

Bunnies spotted on our run today: 1 (yay!)

My mom is an avid bird watcher, and our yard while I was growing up was Bird Central.

She knows all the birdie names and their quirky behaviors. Sometimes she and I would sit at the kitchen table in front of the big picture window with cups of tea. We would watch the birds come to the feeder and bird-type our friends and relatives.

House finches were so convivial, the bluebirds true nuclear families with two working parents, the chickadees nature’s hyper cheerleaders. Doves were dim, pecking around the ground, picking up the bits and pieces left by others. I wanted to scream, “You have wings, you lazy bums!”

My mom would get excited when a goldfinch would scoot in and make a rare, flashy appearance. She agonized over the bright red sugar water for the hummingbirds who zipped in and worked around the ants who tried to hijack their food supply.

And forget about it when a baby owl made his home in a tree right across from the window over the kitchen sink. I received nightly reports via phone in my dorm room.

My parents are staying over at my sister’s house this week, and my sister’s house is now Bird Central.

Mommy and Daddy Bluebird have made a home in the bluebird house on my sister’s deck, and we watch as one parent brings food while the other watches for predators, then the other parent takes his turn. They are very courteous and careful with each other, and the mother bluebird doesn’t seem too offended that her husband looks more smashing in his snazzy bright feathers.

But around in the side yard is where the real action is happening. The Cardinal Family has built a nest in the butterfly bush, and the (as my sister calls them) “cute-ugly” babies are starting to spill out of the nest.

My mom knows her birdie facts and said that the cardinal babies will have to leave the nest and remain on the ground, defenseless, for up to 48 hours. They have to weather the tough stuff and gather their strength before they leave the nest. Maybe that’s why they choose bushes for their nests instead of trees, where the foliage starts up higher on the trunk: the bushes’ leaves might help shield the babies from big dogs and lawnmowers.

The baby cardinals’ rite of initiation tied in so perfectly to what Anna Elliott over at “Writer Unboxed” posted about today. Some tasks seem insurmountable, and you have to find some source of inner strength to continue.

One of her personal mantras that I loved was “I can do hard things.”

In many situations in life, the easy way out is so appealing. If you’re working on completing a novel, there are several points where you could give up. Characters become cantankerous and don’t do what you want them to do, plot twists don’t work the way they did inside your head, and later on down the road during the editing process, that beautiful scene you wrote, you know… the one with the unforgettable description and heart-tugging moment… it has to be removed. Forever.

I think Anna Elliott had it just right: you have to remember that only you can tell this story just this way.

And for me, I try to look back on personal triumphs; things I did that I wasn’t sure I could accomplish. Running a marathon and finishing a novel gave me confidence about long-term goals that I’m sure I didn’t have at age 21.

But I also think about the baby cardinals. There are no shortcuts for them, no intermediate branch for them to cling to instead of going all out for the ground. From early on, they fly away knowing that they conquered something big. As a reward, they get brilliant red plumage to share with the world.

What is your internal dialogue when you come up against a major challenge? What is your best advice for others when they are confronted with a brick wall or feeling exposed on the ground to metaphorical predators?

What Lies Beneath

So much happens beneath the surface.

Trips to the lake for the year: 1

Hours spent visiting with my parents and sister yesterday: 9

Words written in my novel since Monday: 0

I love the water and feel grumpy if we’re near water of any depth and I can’t get in.

I spent a fair amount of time at local lakes as a kid. My dad had the sailing bug, and we would take our sailboat out as often as he could get physically motivated.

My favorite part of sailing was stretching out on the bow and staring up past the sail at the puffy clouds in the piercingly blue sky.

My mother’s favorite part was reliving the Capsizing Incident of 1981 wherein various beloved objects like her new Tretorns with yellow swishes were dumped into the bottom of Lake Lanier, never to be seen again.

These days, my husband and I don’t have a boat. But we have something better: friends who have a boat. We were invited to join them for a day of jetskiing and swimming and generally lounging around the lakeshore.

My rule: never turn down an invitation to a beach house or lake property. Never.

I’m such a Water Person that I forget others don’t share my passion. Friends of mine have expressed their fears of lake and ocean swimming. I get it to a point, because I’m not a camping kind of person, and some of the fears overlap. But water is involved here, people! Water!

Here are their fears:

1. You can’t see the bottom, and there might be something weird lurking there. Unless you live in Australia or Florida, the worst you’ll probably come up against is an old tire or a bored catfish. (I would love to see a Far Side cartoon about catfish plotting to scare humans.)

2. Fish pee in the water, and your mouth is going in the water. Have you eaten a Twinkie ever in your life? Much worse, my friend. Much worse.

3. There is no chlorine to clean the water. This is true. Chlorine is our friend, and I’m quite fond of pools. However, I’ll take my chances with nature. It’s been around a while… probably longer than chlorinated pools.

4. There are bugs. Yeah. I don’t like bugs much either.

5. A creature akin to the Loch Ness Monster may lurk in Lake _____. My parents used to watch the TV show, “In Search Of.” It had spooky music and pseudo-scientific leanings. They watched it when I was heading to bed, and I caught glimpses of the intro: images of the Loch Ness Monster. It spooked me, but I always secretly wished they would find some big, herbiverous creature in some lake, somewhere. It hasn’t happened yet, and I also never got a visit from E.T., so my life has been full of disappointments.

Oceans and lakes seem to bring out our biggest natural fears, next to death and the dark… we can’t tell what lies beneath the glossy surface. We have video now to show the underwater worlds, but those of us who jump in the waves or bump over them in jetskis are only touching the surface. I think that’s the part I love about water. We don’t really know what’s under there when we jump in. How exciting is that?

When You Have Words with Friends

You learn something new every day.

Words I have written on my novel so far: 17,287

Words with Friends games I have going right now: 4

Miles run today: 4.5

It is a little embarrassing when you are a writer and you lose a game of Words with Friends.

My BFF practically skipped to our run because she creamed me with words yesterday: as Amy Duncan on “Good Luck Charlie” would say: “Ba-bam!”

When I was younger and we went to my grandmother’s house for a week each summer, my sister and I used to play Scrabble with my grandmother. My sister is four and a half years younger. My grandmother was very good at Scrabble.

I was middling, and I never got much better. Strategy is apparently not my strong suit in life, and Triple Letter and Triple Word scores are not helpful when the tiles you hold are: REAOUIL.

So when my son wanted to get the “Words with Friends” app to whup me with while away the long summer hours, I agreed.

Now, years after all other people in the Known Universe have moved on to complex apps, our family has become obsessed with it. Two hours this weekend consisted of us, sitting out on the deck, waiting for pings from our various electronic devices.

Why? You might ask. We have a perfectly good turntable-ish hard copy Scrabble board. But oh, how fun it is to touch the screen and put tiles on the board and then recall them when the app tells you it isn’t really a word. I must have tried a million “RECRY”s and “PILIS” words that actually do not exist.

I love words. I know a lot of words. A lot, I tell you. I do not actually know a lot of words that make use of the letters “OIAOEIQ.” And yes, I know “QI” counts as a word in Scrabble.

This weekend, I learned from my husband that “JOW” is a word, although I have never heard it before and secretly wonder if he pretended to look up the definition. My husband is not supposed to know about bell tolling kinds of words; he is supposed to only know unhelpful science-y words like “deoxyribonucleic acid” and “ethylene” which are not Scrabble-ish words.

He got irritated when I played “QUOTH.”

My son got irritated when I beat him by about a hundred points.

“I am 28 years older than you and a writer,” I said, not very secretly excited that there is at least one person I can beat, even if he is only 11.

“But some of your words aren’t real,” he said.

“Words with Friends thinks they are,” I said happily.


Words with Friends does not reward me for knowing SAT vocabulary words like “recalcitrant” and “aesthete.” Those are words I can wrap my head around.

I’m studying up, all you “QI”s out there. If I see a Triple Letter score, you better believe I’m on it. And quite frankly, tiles full of vowels are starting to scare me. I really, really like consonants.

But good news! The Words with Friends app does the math part for you. That’s when I decided it’s my kind of game.

Update: In the Wild, Graduation Style

I wish you had scratch-and-sniff screens for this gardenia. Sublime!

Words written in novel so far: 15,932 (too many other commitments this week!)

Days of summer completed: 1

Pool trips so far: 1

I know you are all sitting on the edge of your computer chairs wondering how many tears I left behind at my graduations. Well, none actually.

Hours spent at my son’s 5th grade graduation: 2. Hours spent at high school graduation for work: 1 1/2. Seems backwards, doesn’t it?

High school graduations in my county have morphed into speedy, efficient cattle calls where parents are seated at floor level and must watch their students walk across the stage and shake hands on a large screen. Speeches are regimented, kept to under three to five minutes, and contain nothing juicy that a journalist might cheer about.

NOTE: Judging by the crime stories out of Birmingham, Alabama, I am living in the wrong city for interesting quotes. Birmingham’s police officers give the reporters something to write about there. Colorful quotes, good local flavor. Here, not so much.

While the caps and gowns have gone to all black (showing gravitas?), the festive atmosphere is more like my impression of a very old marketplace. Babies, wheelchairs, crutches, people talking in normal tones of voice during the ceremony. And yes, despite begging by administrators, plenty of “Gooooooo Errrriiiicccc!”s. One unexpected shriek in the row behind me almost popped me out of my chair.

My son’s 5th grade graduation was more tame and more personal, as you might expect. I did fine until the principal, who we have known since my son started kindergarten, started talking about parents who have come to her office and cried.

I’m pretty sure she was talking about me.

I remember the counselor who told my son he would be sent to the principal’s office if he worried. I remember the horrible handwriting that was marked “illegible” on his report card in second grade. I remember the End of Grade tests that stressed him out until he took them and realized they were nothing to fear. I remember the first grade teacher who loved math and inspired my son to love it, too.

And I remember crying in the principal’s office. I haven’t even cried in front of some of my closest friends, but at our principal’s round table, I was a blabbering mess.

One of my friends described parenthood as being cut wide open and walking around open to the elements; you are completely laid bare and vulnerable. All the time. When a bully threatens my child, I imagine myself like the Cowardly Lion, fists raised: “Put ’em up, put ’em up. I’ll fight you both together if you want. I’ll fight you with one paw tied around my back.”

When your child struggles with a concept, a teacher, a negative behavior, a fear… you can feel like Prometheus with the eagle chomping on your liver, only to have the pain return anew each time your child meets a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Every triumph is so sweet, every “I love you, Mom” afterwards so rewarding.

Perhaps the reason 5th and 8th grade graduations have come into being is because we need to celebrate the mile markers along the way: finishing 5th grade is akin to completing a 10K race. Congratulations–no small feat!

But the bittersweet part is that raising a child is in fact, a marathon. A little over six miles done, but over 26 to complete.

And then… well, my parents still call and tell me to go see a doctor when I’m sick.

Backseat Navigation, Eyes Closed

You can only imagine where you’ll end up.

Words written in novel so far: 14,696

Miles run yesterday: 4.5

Days of school until summer: 2 1/2

I can’t lie and say I never got bored as a child, mostly because my mom would shout to the world, “LIAR!”

But even with all of the free time in the summer, I remember being bored less during those long, lazy days.

Some years, I was in daycare, roller skating to Kool & The Gang and The Beatles. I was all about the disco ball but unfortunately never mastered skating backwards with proficiency.

On hot afternoons, we sat under trees on the playground and French-braided each other’s hair.

When I got a little older, I owned time. Time had no value or boundaries, and I rolled around in it, let it spill over me in an abundance I would never know again.

I love the pool; we used to spend hours there and never got bored. I love to read; just lying on my bed with nothing to do but read The Once and Future King was my idea of heaven.

But one of my favorite things was when my friend and I would say, “We’re bored! What can we do?” and her mom, who looked like a Skipper doll and often burst out into “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To,” would say, “Get in the car.”

She had a little white car (make and model unknown; see why here), and we would stretch out in the hatchback section and close our eyes.

“Here we go!” she would sing out.

My friend and I would pay attention to each turn: left on Emory, right on Holt, right into the high school parking lot… no, maybe that was the next right, into the church. Dangit!

Once you got off track, it was impossible to salvage the Navigation Game. But we tried. Oh boy, did we try.

Summer is here again. I want those fun memories for my kids. And I also want to write my novel and see its progress… I want happy memories of this summer for me, too.

As a fiction writer, they say there are two types of writers: the Outliners and the Pantsers (as in Seat of Your Pants).

I’m a Pantser for the most part. I have an idea of where the plot is going, but I’m always sad when I see that something bad has to happen to one of my beloved characters.

I’m in the backseat, eyes closed, visualizing the left on Emory, right on Holt, driving, driving… but we didn’t turn at the high school like I thought we might. Oh? We’re still driving? Wow. All the way to Lower Roswell?

With writing and with summer break, the most gratifying part is that there are still surprises around every corner.

This summer, there will be the pool, there will be lazy afternoons of reading, but if my kids give me a precious few hours of writing time each week, maybe one day, I’ll say, “Get in the car.”

They will climb in the minivan, close their eyes and get ready to play the Navigation Game.

This time, only I will know where we end up.

When Squirrels Attack

Coming to a suburb near you.

Days left in the school year: 3

Potential fiction writing hours available until then: 3, max

Cadbury’s mini-eggs on standby: 9… no, 8

The suburbs are rife with animals… animals who look innocent but aren’t.

Although we don’t have mountain lions, which freak me out from several states over, we have smaller natural elements close by that give us suburbanites that rush of adrenaline some might swim with sharks to achieve.

My neighbor would know. While puttering around his yard, he has been visually assaulted by snakes, crickets, chipmunks and bunnies. One day, he might be ridding the world of weeds, reach to pull back some shrubbery, and look out… BABY BUNNY!

He is certain that small creatures seek him out for their own cruel pleasure.

A feral cat now named Oreo has taken up with this same neighbor’s family after years of surviving bitter winters and fry-an-egg-on-the-pavement summers. Oreo is either A.) ticked that she’s been given the sissy name Oreo or B.) wants to show her love and affection or C.) is trying to avenge these small animal attacks. She leaves small “gifts” on our neighbor’s front porch. They represent a cross-section of the creatures who have wronged our neighbor. Coincidence, you think? Discuss.

Squirrels are a repeat offender in the ‘burbs. My running partner is convinced that squirrels are plotting to leap onto her back as she runs. We have had to nix the greenway runs because a large portion of the time is spent with her yelling, “SQUIRREL!” as a cute, fluffy-tailed squirrel scampers across the trail in front of us.

I used to think she was being silly.

But then our families spent several hours out at a local lake, and the squirrels there seemed to taunt my friend as she sat innocently sipping ice water. The squirrel contingent hovered at the edge of the woods, calling out to each other with little squirrelly squeaks, their tails twitching, lurching forward every now and then to get a reaction. I swear they were laughing.

We went out for our long run last week which takes us past posh mansions on the golf course and less well-kept homes with decaying fences, the kind that squirrels like especially much. (The bent and twisted fence boards provide more challenge for them than well-maintained, regularly-spaced wrought iron.)

So here I was, on the right hand side of the sidewalk, near the fence. My friend was running on the left, right next to the cars. You might think she was in more danger. You would be wrong. Oh, so very wrong.

I was chattering away, telling a story about being in Florida as a kid and riding in a boat at some attraction where there were monkeys on these islands that creeped me out. Trust me, it was a great story. Scintillating. I was wrapped up in it, thinking about the monkeys and imagining them waving at me…

When a squirrel bounded onto the fence mere inches from my face! It was squeaking, and its claws! They were loud and scratchy on the wood! Like a monkey’s would be! (Do monkeys have claws?)

Well, technically, it was a few feet away, but still. It felt close. Too close.

I grabbed my friend’s very sweaty arm with my very sweaty hand. It was a very close call between pushing us both to the ground in front of a car or surrendering to the hostile squirrel.

Sweat won out.

The collision of sweat brought me back to my senses.

Pfffft. Seriously. It was just a squirrel. I checked behind us. Did anyone see that? That moment when I considered biting the asphalt to avoid a squirrel attack? No?

I haven’t ended up on YouTube yet, so I guess I’m safe. And let’s get real: at least it wasn’t a baby bunny.

Endings, Beginnings, Changing For Good

Hawk 2012.
My husband took this photo at our son’s soccer game.

Miles run yesterday: 10

Words written in novel so far: 14,230

Squirrel attacks on me while running yesterday: 1

My son graduates from 5th grade next week. When people mention it, I find it silly: passing 5th grade and going on to middle school is not optional or a particularly huge achievement. But when they asked us to send in a photo of him as a baby for a slide show, I knew I would be doomed.

I have a Graduation Problem, the way some people have a Wedding Problem: I tend to cry. Even when I don’t have a horse in the race.

For one thing, as a mom with only two kids who have not yet graduated from anything but preschool, I have been to an alarming number of graduations. I’m not sure I could count them.

Although I a.) didn’t like school and b.) especially hated newspaper projects while in school, I have been assigned various high school graduations to attend and write about for my local paper. Go figure. Be careful what you dislike as a kid, I say. Karma has a sense of humor.

Absolutes at graduation ceremonies:

1. It will be hot, with little air circulation.

2. Some families will scream out, “Wooooo, go Errrrrrriiiiiicc!” even when the administrators ask that applause and cheering be held until the end. (I secretly wished my family would do that, and they never did.)

3. I will cry.

For a couple of years, the big graduation song the choruses would sing was, “For Good” from “Wicked.”

Imagine a warm, gymnasium-like setting, the lights dimmed, teenagers in shiny gowns singing:

It well may be

That we will never meet again

In this lifetime

So let me say before we part

So much of me

Is made of what I learned from you

You’ll be with me

Like a handprint on my heart

And now whatever way our stories end

I know you have re-written mine

By being my friend…

[And lots of other words, then…]

Who can say if I’ve been

Changed for the better?

I do believe I have been

Changed for the better

Because I knew you…

I have been changed for good…

This is when I start crying, notebook in hand, wishing they would get past the maudlin part to the “Go Errrrriiiiccc!” part.

Keep in mind, I know none of these people. I do not know the parents, the students, for the most part, the administrators either. Still, the tears.

When my sister “graduated” with her Ph.D., it was not in a sea of gowns but rather at a speech that she gave with an official-looking laser pointer and lots of very big science-y words that involved a protein or riboflavin or something pharmacological. There was no music or singing or inappropriate cheering. But I still got teary.

So next week, even though graduating from 5th grade isn’t optional, I’ll be the mom at my son’s graduation who is bawling but pretending I have a cold.

I am praying they don’t play, “For Good.”