“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”Gilda Radner

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Trading Mommies

I always knew I wanted to be a mother, but like most things in the my life, it happened a little sooner than I expected it to. Because of that, I felt ten steps behind in everything motherhood involved. When I discovered I don't take naturally to infants--that innocent squawling cry raises the hair on my arms and turns my stomach--and when my baby was sick the first time and up all night with a snuffly nose, and when my baby had pretty tough acid reflux that hasn't even quit at seven years old, I took none of it with a grain of salt. I did not grin and bear it. I threw my shaking fists toward heaven and cried out, "Why??? Why is this so hard for me???"

First of all, after having Noah, I've learned that Joey was actually a pretty easy baby. Embarrassing point number one.

Next, I did eventually realize that other people don't necessarily know exactly what to do every step of the way their first time around, either. They just don't freak out like I do. But as Noah would say, freaking out is kind of my thing. In fact, we come from a long line of freak-outters. Even knowing that, though, that I freaked out about things other people didn't, left me with a heavy weight of guilt. Somehow, it still meant to me that I was less of a mother, or that my children would always have a mother who wasn't quite as good. The feeling didn't go away until one day, unrelated to any of these emotions, I was invited by my mom and sister to visit Lily Dale, the community of psychics outside of Buffalo. Whatever you think about psychics, I went along, and I had a reading, during which the old, gnarled-fingered woman gripped my hands in a dark, candle-lit room, leaned forward and said earnestly, "You have always believed your mother didn't want you." 

I grew up in an extremely loving home and wanted for nothing my entire life. My mother told me I was beautiful and special every day, and on the whole, we are a people who understand the meaning of the phrase, "I would do anything for you." So yes, of course, I have always believed my mother didn't want me. In all seriousness, it was more because I'd heard countless times from countless sources how I was unplanned, a surprise, an accident, a "whoops baby," and so, love and comfort aside, I always had a nagging suspicion that I was less wanted than my brother and sister. (Who, if I ever asked them, would probably cheerfully confirm my suspicion.)

But that's not all. The psychic went on. "You have a child of your own now, yes?" 

I nodded, unwilling to give much away to this woman who might or might not be a total phony-baloney. I didn't even trust my voice, since I know how easily I show my emotions. 

"Your child was unplanned." She stated it, confident. "But you love your child. It's a boy, yes?"

Again, I nodded, feeling annoyed that she was "guessing" everything so accurately. 

"A person is here from the other side. She was very close to your mother. She had a beautiful rose garden, she keeps showing me her roses. She spent a lot of time caring for your mother when she was a child. This was also unplanned. Do you know who this person is?"

Hanging on to my stubbornness, I hesitated before nodding, but it was just too specific. The woman the psychic was referring to was, without question, my great-grandmother. "Nani" to all of us. We were raised hearing the stories of what it was like to grow up in a house with "Nani." Though she passed away long before any of us could know her, the memories and stories of her were so ingrained in us, it was like we knew her as well as our mother had.

"It's my great-grandmother," I said, giving in a bit.

"Your great-grandmother considered your mother a special blessing, always. She loved your mother, and was grateful to have the chance to love her. Likewise, your mother consider you her special blessing and loved you the same way. This woman, she wants you to know that because you are your mother's special blessing, she watches over you."

Of course, by now, I was crying. But it wasn't over yet.

"You are never sure of yourself as a mother. Your great-grandmother wants you to know--babies choose their mothers. You have this special blessing, your son, because he chose you. And she watches you, and you are a wonderful mother. So you don't need to doubt yourself anymore."

All of this, compiled with a particularly low day with Joey, inspired me to write a story for him, and for all my children. If you'd like, you can read it here, but the gist is, a naughty little boy announces to his mother that he wants a new mommy, and during the night, he dreams he goes to a land where children choose their mothers. Since he has put his mother up for the taking, all the children want her, and he realizes he doesn't want to give her up after all.

As Joey has grown, I've learned that he isn't really the sort of boy who needs such a dramatic warning. I know he would never trade me. It is Noah, however, who could use a reminder now and again. Noah, filled with the stubbornness and emotional-ness of his mother, fights with a passion and determination that I believe is probably unmatched by anybody. Nearly incapable of ever giving in, he says to me often, "I want a new life, and a new mother." He does usually do a take-back later on, when the event is a safe distance away in his memory of another time (usually a whole hour or so), but it doesn't stop him from casting the same stone the next time he feels angry.

The other night, I had to be somewhere, which meant it was Daddy's turn to put the boys to bed. Every night we read together, and Daddy thought it would be special if he loaded up a copy of my old story, the one I wrote about Joey, and read it to the boys. Especially to Noah.

When I came home later on, and the boys were asleep and the house was blissfully silent, I asked, "Did everything go okay?"

Joe gave me a withering look, and then proceeded to explain what he had done. "Big mistake," he said. "At first Noah thought it was funny, since it was Joey's name in the story, and so Joey who was being bad. But once he realized what the story was about, he started crying. All he wanted was you. He was afraid you wouldn't come back." Yeah. Probably because that very afternoon, he'd cursed me and shouted to anyone who would listen that, again, he wanted a new mother.

The next morning, before my eyes were truly ready to open, I woke to the sound of sniffling over the monitor. "Sniff, sniff!" I heard. And, "I just want my mother. I just love her so much. But I sent her away, and she might never come back."

I am not a morning person, but I'm also not an evil one. I pulled myself out of bed, careful not to wake Joe, and climbed the stairs to Noah's room. I pushed open the door, and found him sitting on the edge of his bed, legs dangling. He looked up at me with wet eyes that sparkled in the glow of his nightlight. 

"Mommy?" he asked, wiping his cheeks. "I was afraid you'd never come back. I just want you so much."

I went to his bed, hugged him tight, and said, "Well, you chose me, baby boy. And you know what? That makes me the luckiest mommy in the whole world."

Happy Birthday to the little boy who chose me. You changed my life, but I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mean Mom

Today I had a lot of things to do, but it seemed like every time I turned my head, Noah's face was right there in mine, ready with a long list of things to say.

"Noah!" I said finally. "Do you know you talk too much??"

"Oh, yes," he said. "I'm a very long talker. I always do that."

Still, I couldn't help but expect him to run out of things to say at SOME point, but I tell you it just wasn't happening. Perhaps part of my stress is due to the fact that we've foregone naptime in favor of stronger, better night sleep time. And it works great, it's just that it means there is a loooooong stretch during the day where I'm used to letting my brain rest, and that is now gone.

After too much of this for any person to take, I said, "Noah, stand here." And I positioned him "just so" beside me. I gestured to the air between us. I put my arm around the air, like a person was there. "This is my friend Steve. He'd like to be your friend."

"Mom, there's nobody there."

"Shhhh!" I hissed. "He doesn't like to talk about how he's invisible! It makes him sad."

Noah curled up one side of his mouth and lowered his eyebrows. In a low voice not meant for my ears (or Steve's, it would seem), he muttered, "I really don't think anyone's there."

"Steve likes Angry Birds!" I went on. "And he loves drawing in journals and making pictures. But most of all, he loves hearing other people TALK ABOUT their pictures and journals. It's perfect, Noah! Can you take him over to where you were sitting and show him your journal and talk all about it? To STEVE?"

Noah looked sideways at the air between us. "I guess." His voice was doubtful.

For effect, I leaned in and whispered, "And remember, it makes him sad that he's invisible. Be careful not to sit on him!"

For all of three minutes, Noah sat with his drawing journal and talked to Steve. Suddenly, he jumped out of his chair and charged me.

"MOM! MAWM. I know Steve's not a real person. There's nobody there! YOU made him up because you don't want me to talk to you anymore. And you know what? That isn't very nice!"

It was another three minutes, during which I clutched my stomach in silent gales of laughter (silent because I couldn't breathe from laughing so hard), before Noah looked up and glared at me. In a sing-song voice, he called out, "Steve isn't real! You're a mean mom!"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Little Bit of Kindness

Before I had school-age children, I had a lot of strong opinions about how the parents of my students dealt with their school-age children. For example, when a child in my homeroom came up to my desk in the morning and said, "I forgot my folder. Can I call my mom and have her bring it?" I scoffed at them. "Of course not," I told such students. "You forgot, and now you have to deal with the consequences." And in my head I would think, "What kind of over-coddling, helicopter parent would even do that for the kid?"

You know what I did this morning? I dropped my children off at school, only to discover that it was school picture day and we all had forgotten. I raced home, found them each a dress shirt, and...brought them back to school.

I have no idea where my standards have gone.

This is not to say that I was never kind and understanding. I was, on a lot of fronts. But I must say that at the school where I taught/teach, I had somewhere around one-hundred-twenty students total. Also, I teach middle school, not elementary, which I think is a big deal, since perfectly responsible angelic children morph into something other-worldly in seventh and eighth grades. If I let every kid who forgot their folder, or their school-picture outfit, or their anything, use my classroom phone to call home every time they forgot, I'd be working as an operator far more than I'd be teaching good and valuable testing skills--I mean, English skills (just kidding, and that was a shot at the state of affairs of education in general, not my district which is fantastic).

But I still look back and cringe. When I raced back into the building this morning with two button-down shirts (and an undershirt for Joey, who doesn't wear one under his uniform and therefore needed one), well, Noah was just confused. His class was already lined up to go down to have their pictures taken, and as I thrust the striped shirt that brings out his eyes over his Superman t-shirt, he demanded, "What are you doing? This isn't right!" His irritation was evident in his furrowed eyebrows and frowny mouth.  "Just do it," I said, buttoning as fast as I could. "It's what all the cool kids are doing."

What was his teacher doing? If his teacher was me five years ago, she would have been frowning with poorly hidden distaste as she expertly kept the other students in a military-straight line and led them in an organized fashion through the halls, so quietly you could hear a pin drop. But Noah's teacher is wonderful, so she smiled, began walking the somewhat squirrelly preschoolers through the hall, while her assistant stepped over and helped me button Noah's sleeves. "Don't worry," she told me kindly. "We have plenty of time. Isn't funny how forgetful we can be?"

After that, I rushed down the hall to Joey's classroom. Their school is small, so their rooms are on the same floor. I love this, because at least once a day they see each other. It makes their day. Joey's teacher greeted me at the door with a smile, then turned into the room. "Joey! Go ahead and change!" He came to the door, hugged, and kissed me in front of all his friends, who weren't even paying attention to us and who I really don't think would tease, because at some time or another their moms have come around and probably hugged and kissed them, too. They are a small, close-knit class who get along well. So cool. There was a moment when the teacher and I joked about how Joey and I are so forgetful all the time, and I was instantly put at ease about what I once would have considered my completely inappropriate presence in the school. In fact, I still do think it was inappropriate, but the nice thing is, it's a school that's about family and understanding, even when it comes to little things like this. My kids didn't have to feel uncomfortable because they forgot something (well, really I forgot, too). They didn't have a teacher who scoffed at them, or judged their crazy mom.

I'm going to admit I'm not thrilled about going back to work in the fall. I've loved being home with my kids and being there for them when they need me. But I can say this. My time home has made it such that when I DO go back, I hope to bring some of the kindness and understanding I've learned through being a parent of school-age children with truly wonderful teachers. Yes, I'll have one-hundred-twenty-some students, and it will be a different building with different rules and expectations, but you know what? Kindness is kindness, and today, it made my day. I certainly will love doing that for one-hundred-twenty-some families.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bye-Bye, Baby

I have avoided blogging in the last few weeks because I've begun my fourth month of my third pregnancy and it is following the pattern of my first pregnancy, which is to say, I'm a little crazy. I don't really trust myself to communicate the written word properly right now, and even if I'm feeling verbose I have nothing very nice to say. So as you can see, blogging seems like a bad idea.

But here I am. I'm going to preface today's story with a warning, which is that I know my husband Joe is going to be really unhappy with me for sharing this, but I'm pretty fired up about it and also, it's been my first moment of clear and normal thinking in quite some time. So. Without further ado (though it's definitely MUCH ado about nothing...)...

For quite some time, I have been plagued with the judgmental opinions of friends and outsiders because we have made the choice to send our children to a private, Catholic elementary school. If you are like the folks who have a problem with this, you are probably clutching your chest, gasping out, "My God, woman! What are you thinking?!" And the hard part for me is, for some inexplicable reason, it's okay for you to react that way to my choice, but it's not okay for me to feel offended by it.

For the record, I am.

Anyway, that's not really the point of this blog. The point is that my husband and I made the choice we thought was best for our family (which, by the by, makes it nobody's business to judge, since they aren't actually IN our family and can't possibly be in a position to make any sort of call on what is best for us or our children), and are quite happy with it. Both of our children love school and do very well.  Upon Joey starting kindergarten, and even when he was in preschool, I, as a burned out, angry teacher who only wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, had sworn I wouldn't be an active, involved "school parent." But you know what? I love our school so much I haven't been able to help it. And I think my kids are happier and more successful because of it. There's nothing quite like a kid who knows his parents and his teachers are all on the same page.

So here I am, going along all hunky-dory like, but feeling kind of sad because I know next year things will be a little different. I won't be a stay-at-home mom anymore. If that's not a hard enough change, I'm having a baby in October, which will make being present at my kids' school any day for any reason nearly impossible (for a lot of reasons I won't get into here; just take my word for it). So I'm sad. And while Noah has been at Joey's school this year, it's only been for preschool, so I also know I have to register my baby boy for kindergarten. That's kind of a big deal, you know? I can't help but look at him and see those round cheeks and remember his funny, leggy run from before he was even two years old. I can still picture him with the baby curls that invited strangers at stores to tell me how beautiful my daughter was (Hello, first haircut!), and hear his tiny voice calling, "Mama!" from his cribby when he woke. And he's starting kindergarten? How did that happen?

Well, I registered him. And it was pretty painless, but then I had to go a step further. I had to sign him up to take the BUS. Ugh, the bus! I hated taking the bus when I was a kid. HATED it. Remember those horrifying moments when the bus driver (formally named "Bus Driver" every time) would pull off the road because someone was in trouble? The loud brake would shout, "KSSHHHHHT!" and Bus Driver would--wait for it-- get up and stand in the aisle. For several long moments I couldn't even concentrate on who was in trouble for what because I was so shocked that the bus driver was anything more than a floating head in a rearview mirror. He had arms and legs and wore jeans. My goodness. So shocking.

These memories haunt me, so that signing Joey up for the bus back when he was in kindergarten was tough enough, but now my baby Noah? Well, I'm going to tell you, I delayed the process. I know, it's not bad. Nothing traumatic happened to Joey yet (well, there were a few incidents I'm not happy about but I don't think he's permanently scarred), and next year Noah won't even have to do this rite of passage alone. He'll have his protective older brother to show him the way.

Then recently, a friend and fellow mom happened to mention the bus situation to me, since our sons will be starting kindergarten together next year. "Just a head's up," she said. "There's a new policy for the bussing." Oh, that's just super. But it prompted to get on top of things and call the bus garage to refresh myself on what documentation was needed and when was a good time to come in and take care of the bus paperwork. And then I found out my friend was right. Do you know what they told me? "Joey's all set, but Noah you'll have to sign up at the district office. You have to register him for kindergarten."


"No, no," I said. "You're mistaken. My children are already registered at their school. I just need the bus."

"No, no," they said back to me. "It's standard policy. He has to be registered to start school with the school district before he can sign up for the bus."

Does this seem odd to anyone else? That I have to register my child for school in two separate places? And one of them at a school which he will not attend? Like, ever? Okay, so I'm irritated to say the least. But I call and make an appointment (oh, yeah, because you can't just go when it's convenient for you, no, you have to call a number nobody answers most of the time, until you reach someone, and then they tell you when you can come) because they've got me in a tough position, don't they? I've made this choice, this shocking choice, to not send my children to public school, and on top of it, I need a bus.

The appointment was for this morning. Just to remind you, I'm already annoyed, right? Well, I started gathering together the papers I needed. Proof of residency, driver's license. And since I was "registering" Noah for kindergarten, I also needed his original birth certificate. Annoying, but no problem! I know just where we keep that. I headed to our special Safe Place For Important Documents, opened it up, and found...Joey's birth certificate. Our marriage certificate. A letter from my mom from when I was young about how I'm beautiful and she loves me best. The newspaper announcement from our wedding. But Noah's birth certificate? Totally not there.

I decide not to panic. I go through the files again and again, but it's just not there. I take a deep breath. I go through all our mail and miscellany. Nope. I think hard. When was the last time we needed it? We went to Canada last summer, but it would have been with Joey's. No, no. And then I remembered. Last January, Joe needed it to sign Noah up for baseball at the town. Joe had it last.

Joe was on his way to a big meeting, but I knew it hadn't started yet. I called him. "Did you use Noah's birth certificate to sign him up for baseball?" I asked.


I took a deep breath. A wife never wants to sound accusational, but I knew that was the last time we saw the birth certificate. But also...remember how I said that since I'm pregnant, nothing I ever say comes out nice? Yeah.

"Do you happen to know where that went?" I asked then. But since I'm pregnant and I have perception...issues, it probably came out like, "Well where the hell is it NOW? I need it!" (Although I swear I don't remember sounding that way.)

But then Joe got all snooty. Ever the patient and loving husband, he suddenly decided to point out that maybe I have this slight (slight) tendency to lose things. Maybe I'm a little scatterbrained. But this? Our child's birth certificate? I had this really strong feeling I didn't lose it. In fact, I felt positive I hadn't seen it since I'd handed it to Joe the night he signed Noah up for baseball.

"I can only think of three things," he said finally. "It's either in the file where it belongs, I gave it to you and who knows what, or it's with the mail in the kitchen." (Do you like how he slipped that one about it being my fault in the middle of two other, more innocuous things?)

Of course, I'd already checked all those places ten times.

"Thank you," I said politely, and we had an amicable hangup. (Sure we did.)

Well, in these sorts of situations, there's only one thing to do. Pray to St. Anthony, the finder of lost things. And after much scrambling about, guess where good ol' Tony led me? Straight to Joe's winter coat. And guess what I found in the inside breast pocket?

Noah's birth certificate.


So, as I said in the beginning, after much ado about nothing, I headed to the district office and went through needless paperwork to sign away my child's babyhood. Thank you, town, thank you, husband, for making an already heart-pinching process more memorable. I assure you, I'll never forget this one.

Monday, April 8, 2013

What I Missed

I spent this last weekend in New York City at a writing conference. It was one of those plunges where I knew the water would be a little too cold, that when I was fully submerged, my body would go into shock for a second before I kicked and paddled to the surface, where I'd feel even colder because there was a breeze that I'm pretty sure was nonexistent before the big jump. Yes. That was me and the writer's conference. Except...aren't we always glad we jumped? The exhilaration? The reward and surprise at yourself as you gasp, "I did it!" Yup. That was me and the writer's conference.

It was my second trip to New York City. Interestingly, I was pregnant for both trips. Here's what I have to say about the city itself: A land of many bridges. People walk right into you and don't say excuse me (I found myself being so surprised--every time--that I said it instead, because there was a clearly a need for someone to excuse themselves and I can't let things like that go). The sun only touches the ground in the middle of the street, which is generally a bad place to be standing. The skyline of Manhattan is so crisp and clean it looks like it's made of beautifully painted boxes instead of steel and brick and cigarette smokers. And, oh, yes, right around the time you'd want to fall asleep, men stand on the sidewalks with whistles and blow them all night long.

Joe the Husband came along for my protection. Since I am pregnant and cities are big and I am small and, on a scale of one to ten, my sense of direction is negative forty, I felt horrible calamity might befall me if I chanced it alone. I was probably right. Plus, Joe is one of those cool, collected people who loves to be in a group or can go to the movies alone and be fine either way, so he was able to enjoy the freedom of the New York streets while I spent the days smartering myself on the glorious and limitless facets of being a writer.

I was shocked then when each segment of time we spent together began and ended with the phrase, "I just miss the kids so much." For the record, this was spoken by Joe, not me. It's weird. Back when they were smaller, I was the one feeling achy and sad for them, but now they're big and crazy and a lot of trouble, really, so I wasn't falling into so many of these sentimental lapses as Joe was. Then I felt guilty. Joe's face would grow long and moony while I was cheerfully sitting there all carefree and out-of-sight/out-of-mind. What a downer. I mean, this probably our last getaway for the next five years. Toughen up and have some fun.

Anyway, we ate a lot of great food, and we got to see Jersey Boys, which was totally awesome since I grew up listening to the Four Seasons. And when I say I grew up listening to them, I don't mean, like, when I was too young to choose my own music and listened to whatever my parents played. I mean that even when I got to high school and developed my own opinions, I still chose to listen to music of that era. I just prefer it. Joe gives me a hard time about this, since he's like, Mr. Nineties Alternative and his soul moves for Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Here I am, wanting to swing my snapping fingers side to side, hip to hip, smiling and light-hearted, and there's Joe, all broody in his flannel shirts feeling anger and bitterness and groaning along with the grunge. Yeah. I'm totally the weird one.

Joe loved Jersey Boys, too, though, because how could you not, and then finally it was time to wrap up our trip and head home. We came in on a late flight, and this morning went to my mom's (my amazing, heroic mother who babysat not just two grandkids but FIVE this weekend since mine was not the only trip and she's some sort of saint with superpowers) to fetch our children.

I'll admit that when I woke up this morning my heart was fluttery. I think it may have actually left my body, crossed the street, and camped out at my mom's front door, impatient for me to shower and get dressed. I did miss them, even though it was nice to be away and I was able to do things that would have been impossible to do had they been there. But they smell so good, you know? And their smiles are so twinkly. And their arms are so small and their hearts are so big.

I walked into my mom's house to silence, which could only mean one thing. They weren't sleeping, Noah wouldn't allow that the entire time, apparently. No, they had to be watching television. I tiptoed into the family room, and waited to be noticed. Joey and Noah were cuddled together with their cousins on the couch, everyone in pajamas with bare feet and messy, sleepy hair. Joey turned quickly, and his face lit up.

"Mommy!" he shouted. He flew off the couch and threw his arms around me. "I'm so glad you're back."

But nothing prepared me for Noah's reaction. He was slower to react. Maybe it was because he's not a morning person like Joey or maybe he just couldn't believe I was really there. This little boy, my Noah, my troublemaker, my monster, my Mr. Crazy Pants. This boy who said to me on the day I left, "I don't like mothers and I don't like you. My life is horrible!" He climbed out of his seat and ran to me. His small arms didn't hug me, they clutched me around the neck and he whispered over and over, "I knew you'd come back. I knew it. I just missed you so much. I missed my mommy so much." He buried his face in my neck and his hands played with my hair. I couldn't believe that this was my little tough man. "I cried and cried for you," he moaned, "and Grandma didn't even care!"

"That's not true!" my mother said indignantly. "He didn't cry once."

"No, I didn't," he amended, "but I was very, very sad without you."

Joe stood behind me a long moment, waiting his turn for such a Noah greeting, but my little boy just wouldn't let me go. He nestled himself on my lap and curled into me, and said, "Don't go away again, Mommy."

Joe did eventually get his hug, and we took the boys home and fed them squished street pretzels from New York City and got them ready for school. My house smells like old laundry and needs a good cleaning, and I have to pick Noah up from school soon. I thought I was sad my special "me" weekend was over, but now...I think being home with family is even better. Here's to getting back to the grind.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Baby's First Letter

Dear Baby,

Hello. This is your first letter from Mommy. Your brothers had handwritten ones, and you will, too, but, Baby, you will be born in a digital age and I am going with the times.

I write these letters to you and your brothers because it's important to me that you know how much I love you. Don't worry, I plan on showing you daily. You should know I'm a hugger and a kisser and squeezer. I'm also a fan of the random pet name. Your big brother Joey is "Angel" and "Cookie" and your big brother Noah is "Sunshine" and "Woojie." (Okay. You should probably know that I call Noah "Crazy-Pants," too.) I say pet names with clenched teeth and love to tickle. I tell stories and make jokes. Oh, and I'm very sarcastic, but by the time it matters, you probably will be, too.

Right now, I'm away on vacation and missing your brothers like crazy. You're the lucky one, because by default you got to come along. You've been here with me, nestled inside my tummy with your fingers and toes, and your ears--I know you can hear me, Baby--and we've had a really special time. I'm so glad that I got to share this trip with you.

Aside from what I've already told you, there are so many things you need to know about this family you've decided to join. Your brothers leave some pretty big shoes to fill. You will adore them and they will adore you (that's a command, not a prediction). They are handsome, funny, adventurous, creative, and smart. These are all things I know you'll be, too, in your own way. Don't ever worry about being just like them. I already have one Joey and one Noah. I'm very excited to have one You.

I like to wonder what you'll be like, but I also know that no matter how much I wonder, you'll surprise me. You'll change me in ways I never thought possible. Your brothers already started that process, but now you'll have your chance. I figure by the time you three are done with me, I'll look like Yoda from Star Wars. Wispy white hair, wrinkles aplenty, and a greenish hue. But I'll fight like a ninja, light saber or not.

You do have one advantage your brothers never could. Lots of people probably think it's that I've had so much experience with the drama of Joey and the crazy of Noah, and that might be part of it, but it's certainly not all. Much more important is that you and I are already kindred spirits. We are both third-borns, youngests, and happy surprises to our parents. My mother, your grandmother (she's also crazy...there's a lot of that in this family) always smiled fondly when she announced to large parties of friends and acquaintances that I was The Surprise. I hope I never do that to you, because it sends a message you might misconstrue (I certainly did). What I want you to know is that you are my very special gift. You are hope and wonder and love all rolled up into one person, and that's not even considering what other unique qualities you will bring by simply being you. But always know, Baby, that you are magic to us, and we love you very, very much.

Right now I'm told you are the size of a plum. Your brother Noah loves to find out every week how much you've grown. He wants your name to be Snowman Pajamas. Joey wants to name you after the characters from his favorite books. I promise it will be something great, something as wonderful as the person I already know you are.

Some day, Baby, you'll be able to look back and read the hundreds of letters I will write you. You will know that you never have been and never will have to be alone in this big scary world. You will know that one person will always know you better than anyone, and will be there for you no matter what you do. But, of course, as my child, you will be the closest thing to perfect possible (that's a command, not a prediction.)

Love always,
Your Mother

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Perfection & Writing

Finish your story; let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.--Emma Coats

I'm a perfectionist. I don't think I always was, but somewhere between becoming a teacher, being a wife, and having children it happened. And for me, being a perfection means that if I notice halfway through that something isn't the way I want it, I stop and start over. Is this a practical way to be? I think it has its place. I mean, I'm a super amazing stay-at-home mom, so something's working.

With writing, though, perfection isn't immediate, and expecting it to be is dangerous both to the writer and the story. It's world building and character development, all things that involve time and process. You, as a human, were not born as you are today. You grew. You changed. You met obstacles and challenges. You succeeded and you failed. It isn't fair to expect that a character in a story will pour from your head immediately perfect, any more that it's fair to expect a child to grow up without making a mistake or ever changing. And what's more, it wouldn't be very interesting.

If you plug on, and find yourself growing frustrated or bored with your story, it's time to throw in a twist or turn. Fling your main character down on some railroad tracks, or have them go skydiving. Are they claustrophobic? Lock them in an elevator with their archnemesis. As much as it's anything else, writing a first draft should be like playtime for a writer. Have fun. Know going in that no one needs to know about the imperfections, and you're perfectly okay in ignoring them. It's all a means to an end, really. Because, you see, if you never get to the end, there won't ever be a whole story. And that sort of imperfection is one that a real writer can find devastating and discouraging. Knowing an unfinished story looms like a week's worth of laundry. You never want to go back to it because it's become too overwhelming.

Would it be great to spit out perfect and complete stories every time? Of course. But it's not realistic. So suck it up, plug on, and when it's over, take a step back. It's time to revise and edit, and...well, that's the time to go all perfectionist crazy.

Please check out what the other bloggers are saying about Rule #8:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

If Only (Rule 7)

Here is the next segment in the blogging challenge in which I am taking part, where we consider the Rules of Storytelling as listed by Pixar writer Emma Coats. That list can be found here.

Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

My favorite books are the ones where I'm surprised by the ending. And if it's well written, when I get to that surprise ending I'm able to think back and recognize all the clues that were in place leading up to that fantastic finale. That's great writing.

Think of your story like a relationship. We've all had a few. Now think of the one that ended badly. One of the worst feelings in the early weeks after that breakup is, "I've wasted time. I would have done so many things differently. It all would have been so much better if I'd only known."

Boom. Your story is your opportunity to know the outcome ahead of time and make sure your characters act accordingly. And if you've got a character who's meant to learn the same as you did, there's still an opportunity for you to make it all happen the way you wish it would have. The ending can at least be fair! Or fitting. You are the mastermind. Make things as they should be.

But if you don't know how it's meant to end, your characters will be bumbling idiots just like you were in that ill-fated relationship. The one that makes you cringe. The one you hope no one ever brings up. The one that forces the need for a phrase like, "What was I thinking?"

So, painful as it might be, force yourself to ask what you have in store for your characters. Since nothing else has happened yet, make it great. Make it fantastic. It can be anything! Keep it in your heart, or write it down somewhere. Whatever you prefer. And then...fill in the rest. Your characters will thank you.

Please check out what the other bloggers are saying about Rule #7!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Memory Lane: Flying Solo

Today, I suddenly remembered the strangest thing. The first time I ever traveled alone. Well, maybe it was the first time I ever traveled alone by air. I can't be sure, because there was a drive to Cleveland once that was a lark I would never repeat, and it happened right around the same time that this story did. But traveling alone by air, I think, is far more daunting than driving in a car by yourself. For one thing, you're dropped into the circumstance of Crowded Airport, and you're at the mercy of flight times and unexpected change and sitting next to chatty people who talk in too low a voice for being on an airplane.

I was twenty-four years old. I was engaged to be married to the most wonderful person in the world. Our wedding was two weeks away, and I spent every night crying. Why? Well, it was late July. And he'd been traveling for work since early May. Possibly late April. He came home on weekends, of course, and if he wasn't too far (like Corning), he would surprise me by driving back at midnight and sneaking into my apartment (there were a few almost-911 calls with that; he's terrible at sneaking). But none of it could make up for what I really wanted: to just be together. Because when you're twenty-four and madly in love and getting married in two weeks, you just can't fathom being apart. 

Joe was in Chicago this fateful week, or rather, about an hour outside of it staying at a conference center in a charming little town that was trapped in some sort of creepy time warp. It was like Pleasantville. He called me when he arrived and said, "I booked you a plane ticket. I paid for a limo to take you from the airport to where I'm staying. Please say you'll come." Because when you're twenty-four and madly in love and getting married in two weeks, he doesn't want to be without you, either.

It was all so empowering. Packing my own suitcase, arranging for a family member to take me to the airport. It was also incredibly romantic. A flight someone booked for me? A limo waiting? Good God! I could hardly breathe when I arrived at the airport. I had printed my tickets the night before, so I could avoid the terrifying check-in counter, but security was all on my own. When I survived that, I felt like I could handle anything.

I was met at the Chicago airport by a gentleman holding a sign with my name. So cool! I walked up, unable to keep from smiling, and he smiled back. "Mee-how-eck?" He asked, pronouncing my maiden name in the traditional Polish way. 

"Michael-ek," I corrected. 

"But you are Polish?" he asked, still smiling hugely. His accent was thick.


"I am Polish!" He was excited, grabbing my suitcases with enthusiasm and walking bouncily to his shiny black car. I followed him. He turned suddenly, and I almost bumped into him. "You speak Polish?"

"Uh, no." I laughed a bit. "Not really."

His smile faded immediately. "Oh."

Still, it didn't stop him from playing jaunty polkas all the way out of the city, from Chicago-O'Hare into Pleasantville. I sat quietly in the back of the car, my hands folded in my lap. I was filled with anticipation and excitement; I couldn't wait to see Joe. I was wearing my purple cotton dress that he loved. I knew the rest of me was probably a bit of a mess from the plane and everything, but I also knew he wouldn't care.

We were twenty-four and madly in love and getting married in two weeks, after all.

He was waiting outside the main entrance of the hotel when we arrived. He was already smiling, and the fading summer sun made his hair glow like an angel and his eyes shine brightly. I couldn't stop myself from smiling, too, so much and so big that my cheeks hurt. When the car rolled to a stop, I didn't wait for the driver. I burst out of the car and ran to Joe, throwing my arms around his neck.

When I finally managed to let him go for a second, we found our driver friend waiting. 

"Mr. Bee-let-ski?" His voice was unsure, hesitant.

"Uh, Bielecki, yeah," Joe said, reaching into his wallet for his credit card.

"You are Polish?!"


"You speak Polish?"

"Uh, no."

"Oh." Again, the poor fellow was crestfallen, but kept up his bouncy walk as he hurried to process Joe's payment, good chap. 

When he returned with the card, Joe offered, "I know some of the foods," and he began naming all of the various things his grandmother had served over the years, things I couldn't even begin to try and spell here. 

The chauffeur was instantly cheered. "Yes! Yes!" He bobbed his head and shook Joe's hand with vigor. "Thank you! Thank you very much!"

This being my first time traveling alone in this way, my first solo limo ride, I had no way of knowing my jolly Polish driver was not run-of-the-mill. I'd never even been in a taxicab, so I mean I really had nothing to compare this experience to. This might explain my shock when the car returned to pick me up a few days later.

First of all, let me say that the few days I was able to spend with Joe in Pleasantville were magical and wonderful, despite the fact that he had to work during the day. I read books! I took naps! I tied up wedding plans. Then at night, we stormed Pleasantville with our love and our enthusiasm for life and our public hugs and smooches. But it wasn't enough, of course. I wanted Joe to come home and stay home. I loved him so much, so much more than was regular love, you see. I didn't want to spend another day without him.

So when the limo pulled up to take me away, it found me on the curb in front of the hotel, enfolded in Joe's arms, sobbing violently. And grossly. I was all slobbery, swollen-faced, and full of snot. Joe couldn't seem to calm me down (he was annoyingly calm for someone who was twenty-four and madly in love and getting married in two weeks, to tell you the truth). We waited for the driver to emerge from the car, fully expecting our happy Polish friend.

It was not. It was an unsmiling Indian fellow who gave me, The Mess, a disapproving glare and wordlessly moved my bags from the sidewalk to the trunk of the car. I sucked in air and tried to steady myself. It would be a long, lonely ride to the airport, much less exciting than the drive that had brought me here to the hotel, and I needed to breathe. You know. For life purposes.

Of course, when Joe went to kiss me goodbye, I started all over again. He hugged me tightly and got me into the car, and stood on the sidewalk as the car pulled away. Alone in the backseat, I cried openly. The partition between the driver and me was up, so I felt very safe in my own little world.


Until he lowered the partition. 

I looked up in surprise to see a pair of brown eyes glaring at me from the rearview mirror. I sniffed noisily, which made me then cough.

"You are upset, miss?"

Duh. "Um, yes." And then, because I felt uncomfortable, I stupidly added, "I'm sorry."

"Take this to wipe your nose." He thrust his hand back. It was filled with McDonald's napkins.

I swallowed and felt myself grow embarrassed as I leaned way forward to reach for the napkins. I was even more chagrined to hear how loud my nose-blow was in the silence of the car. I began hiccuping, and the driver turned up the radio, playing what I presumed to be Indian music, to cover my noise. 

I tried desperately to calm down, staring out the window, shuffling through my bags for a book, anything, but it was no use. There was a giant hole in my chest named JOE IS GONE! and I began to cry all over again. I tried to stay silent, but the blubbering was noticed by my happy chauffeur.

"Crying is silly!" he declared from the front. "Blow your nose. Dry your eyes. I leave my wife two years ago. I see her every three months. I do not cry. She does not cry. It is just the way it is!"

I was so mortified by his over-share that I froze. I blubbered only a bit more as I tried to catch my breath, and then settled back in my seat in miserable silence. I felt like the elementary-school principal had just caught me cheating and I was waiting for him to call my mom and tell. I don't think an hour ride ever took quite so long in the history of car rides, and when we arrived at the airport, I leapt from the car to escape. 

I had to wait for him to retrieve my bags, however, and when he did, he placed a firm hand on my shoulder. "You will be okay?" he asked, and his eyes went suddenly from hard judgment to kindness. 

Afraid I might begin again, I nodded, thanked him, and hurried off to find my flight information.

I've traveled alone a few times since then, but of course there aren't many more stories in my memory that carry the amount of bittersweet (and amusing) heartache that this one does. Eight years have passed. Two houses. Joe changed jobs. He traveled more, then less. And now, hardly at all. Thank God. 

I laugh now because if Joe had to go out of town I'd probably do a happy dance. Not that I wouldn't miss him, but somehow the idea of breaking down into tragic sobs doesn't seem like a remote possibility. Living together, working together, growing together, and of course, raising children together changes you. Love is still mad, but it is larger and different. It is accepting and full of something that being twenty-four can't ever understand. Experience.

But I must say. Eight years later, houses and jobs and children later, it is almost like we are back at the beginning again. A new baby we never expected is on the way, and it is like another chance. My handsome husband brings me flowers and buys me Jim's Steakout French fries at nine at night. I never forgot exactly, but I am reminded of why I married him, how much I love him, and how very lucky we are. Not everyone meets their soul mate when they're fourteen.

But I did.

The Best Sort of Conflict

6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

I've often told my middle school students that being an author of fiction is like being God in your own universe. You make everything, you decide what will happen. You give characters gifts and strengths, you decide what color their hair is, you make them live in Arizona or Iceland. And most importantly, you're in charge of the WHY of it all. You, the writer, understand what it's all supposed to mean.

I hate conflict. I hate it in real life, I hate it in movies and television, and I hate it in books. I might be the only person who really wouldn't mind reading a story that from beginning to end only says good things. I have no idea why this is. I also really despise the villains in stories. I know what you're thinking, because it's probably the exact same thing my husband says to me every time I get upset with a villain in a story. He says, "But he's supposed to be bad. That's his role. You're supposed to hate him." It took him a long time to realize that I would actually prefer the story without the villain at all. Now he just shakes his head and stares at me in total bemusement. I know. I'm weird.

So writing conflict is, of course, inordinately difficult for me. In fact, the novel I most recently completed took me five years to write because I didn't want anything bad to happen to my character. I really love her. Plus, I have an irrational fear that whatever I write, fiction though it might be, will come true and happen to me. A sort of twisted version of do unto others, except in this case, the others are not real people. I finally had to sit down with friends, present the character to them, and ask for help. It worked, and once I did it, I loved helping my character overcome and all, but still. Getting there was rough.

What I'm thinking now is that this rule not only makes sense to real life (seriously, whenever something bad happens, don't you always think, "But why THIS? THIS is the worst possible thing that could have happened to me right now!"--I know I do), but it's a really useful tool for a conflict-hater like me. What do I love about my character? What should happen to a person like that? Now, write the exact opposite. It's hard. It's really hard to make bad things happen to the fictional people I love, but at least this is a simple and easy way to make sure the story is authentic to the person it's about, and realistic to the reader. Not only that, it does also bring the reader deeper into the character's psyche. It's not just about strengths and weaknesses once they're up against impossible conflict. It becomes about what it takes to make that person stronger, what makes them grow and change and be better, which will ultimately bring us to that WHY factor I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Although now I suddenly feel that the bigger question to ask in not whether or not this rule is valid for writers (which, btw, it totally is), but why it's so true to real life. Like, what's up with you, Universe? Deliberately giving us problems we're not equipped to handle! Because, as I've said in every one of these blogs so far, writing simply is meant to mirror real life. And now I'm suddenly aware of the sucky truth in this one!

This disgruntled writer is now going to go sit in a corner with her arms crossed for awhile.

Please check out what the other bloggers are saying about Rule #6--it will probably be much more normal and helpful than mine!