Resolutions 2014

“Believe you can and you’re half way there.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

New Year’s Day rings in with lists of resolutions. It’s a natural time to reflect on last year’s mis-steps and the new year’s missions. “This year,” the lists read, “I resolve to eat less, to exercise more, to stop procrastinating, to quit smoking, to spend less money and to save more.” happy_new_year_fireworks_and_special_effects_highdefinition_picture_170356Resolutions are posted in magazines and newspapers, on refrigerators, on Facebook and Twitter. Now there are even Smartphone Apps to keep us focused on these promises. Time’s article “10 Apps to Help Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick” helps assure adherence to improvement.

Like some of my Facebook friends, though, I’m not sure I want to write a list this year. Yes, it can help focus resolves. Writing down a goal is a first step toward achieving it, right? But will I stay focused? Is putting it on paper or online enough? Author Sharon Sala writes, “If you want to do better…or you want a change in your life, don’t make a big deal out of it. Just do it!”  Solid advice from a practical woman.

Paris - Seine - Copy 1

Tom & I cruising the Seine

The world is a scary place. It’s made scarier by those things out of our control – accidents, disease, violence, death. New Year’s Resolutions may improve our day to day life but they can’t guard against life’s tragedies.  What can help us get through is another sort of resolve – a desire to adjust our attitude toward life.  Toss out the bad.  Resurrect the good.  Cherish each day — past and present.  “Just do it!”

About four years ago I received a diagnosis. Eating healthier to lose weight would help.  That wasn’t easy considering weight loss is probably the number one fail on each list of New Year’s resolutions. But I told myself repeatedly that, if I didn’t do it, I would grow sicker and die. I told myself so often that I came to believe it. So I lived my life eating healthy. I cut out junk and counted calories.  Amazingly I lost weight and became healthier. I’ve backslid some since then, but parts of that belief are still ingrained in my brain, still nudging me toward health. I must listen. I have my sons, my family, and my goals to live for. (One is to publish the great American novel. Gotta do that before I leave this earth. 🙂 )

Two years ago my soul mate and sons’ father unexpectedly left us. His sudden passing devastated me and his family. Those who have endured such loss know more than anyone that no words can describe the pain, the paralyzing grief.  On the day of his funeral, a dear family member quietly told me that if ever I felt myself slipping into despair, imagine instead that I was the one in Heaven and he was still alive on Earth but now sinking into darkness. Would I want him to grieve in such a way? Or would I want him to learn to live without me? Would I want him happy? In the shock of my beloved’s death, I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other. I did what must be done.  That led me through the first many months. Her compassionate words are leading me through the rest.  I would want him to be happy.

My new home in Wisconsin
(Thank you, Sue, for the winter photo)

It takes a change in attitude, learning to adjust and move forward. I believe that’s what is needed to see any sort of resolution succeed. For me, that means adjusting my mindset to help achieve my goals. At midnight, as I heard a few fireworks exploding in the distance to celebrate the birth of 2014, the word brave came to me on a whisper, Tom’s voice.  I need to be brave this year and in the years to come.

There’s so much ahead.  I’ll retire this year and say goodbye to my job of twenty years. I’ll move 800 miles back to my hometown, to my new home. There’s so much to do. I’m eager for my move, but it’s also a huge change and a bit frightening. It will take bravery to make it all happen.  A list will help but this year I must focus on attitude and my new found word to guide me. In 2014 and in the years to come, I must be brave.

What word will help you achieve your New Year’s goals?  ♥

Moving Forward

Last week I traveled to Wisconsin to visit my siblings and to attend WisRWA’s 2013 Write Touch Conference.  I also, unexpectedly, bought a house.  

It’s been a long eighteen months since my loss.  During that time, I’ve kept busy with my day job and various house projects.  But despite living in the East for close to 25 years, at heart I’m still a Midwesterner; most of my family still lives there. Last year I decided that when I retired in 2014, I would move closer to home. A logical decision, one that felt right in spite of the added drama so many nearby kinfolk might bring into my life. 

On the Internet I began to follow the southern Wisconsin housing market.  On trips, I began dragging siblings with me to see houses.  Most recently, I made offers on two separate houses, both non-productive.  On this particular trip, however, nothing seemed to fit.  Last  Wednesday, after two afternoons of seeing an assortment of selected listings, I parted with my realtor and headed back to my brother’s.  “We’ll find something next visit,” I thought.  “There’s time.”

Lovely Cape Cod

Minutes later, my realtor called about a new listing she’d just seen on their in-house board. 

When I drove up the quiet, tree-lined street to meet her in front of the brick Cape Cod, its traditional charm greeted me.  Mid-tour through the empty house, I called my local sibs, pleading with them to meet me at the house despite the busy dinner hour.   During their tour, each of them privately pulled me aside.  Although they may rarely agree on much, each said the same thing.  “If you don’t buy it, I will.” 

Bright Sun Room

Bright Sun Room

An hour later, back in the realty office over take-out pizza and store-bought peanut butter cookies, my realtor guided me through my offer to buy.  My husband and I, during our 38 years together, bought four houses.  And, as mentioned above, over the past few months I’d written up two other offers.  This still felt strange, alone.  At the form’s bottom, there are two spaces for the buyer to sign – generally husband and wife.  I signed the top line, noting the other line with a degree of sadness.  Thoughts raced through my mind.  It’s serious business, committing to buy a house, alone.  It’s serious business, committing oneself to an 850-mile move into retirement, alone.

Bedroom

Bedroom

Of course, I’m not alone. Everywhere loved ones reach out in support.  My friends.  My realtor.  My family.  My sons.  And always, my husband.  During the very long 22-hour wait for the seller to respond to my offer, I felt his warm presence.  I believe he would love this house.  (Well, maybe not some of the wallpaper, but that can be replaced.)

Right now I’m in mid-process. Inspections completed with closing scheduled for summer. With luck, all will move smoothly. It’s a friendly house with good bones. With some repairs and a few minor changes to make it my own, it will comfortably meet my needs when I retire and in years to come.  It’s a bright, airy house that, next year, I’ll make into my home.  

I’m moving forward.

WisRWA President Anne Parent chats with Keynote Speaker Michael Hauge

WisRWA President Anne Parent chats with Keynote Speaker Michael Hauge

By the way, the WisRWA Write Touch Conference was great.  I heard dynamic speakers, enjoyed wonderful visits with old friends, and savored the joy of forming new friendships.  At times, though, I had a tough time focusing on conference business.  In my mind I kept walking through the rooms of my new house. I stripped wallpaper, arranged furniture, entertained family and friends, read, and created new stories in that glorious sun room.  I’m glad my roommate and other writer friends were understanding, and that our Keynote Speaker, Michael Hauge, offered a DVD.  

On birds

Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever remains to them? ~ Rose Kennedy

ravenI never thought of myself as a bird lover.   My feelings toward the creatures may have started in adolescence when I first read Poe’s “The Raven” then saw the dark movie with Peter Lorre.   Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”    Then came Hitchcock’s “The Birds” where flocks invaded a peaceful California town bringing with them chaos and terror.  For a short while after that I was repulsed by their reptilian quality.   But slowly some birds flew into my life bringing with them a fascination, and more.

As I matured, I remember watching a lone hawk soar against a blue sky; my heart beat faster.  I became awed with the sweeping silver V of snow geese overhead.   After a dreary winter, the brilliant red of a cardinal in the oak tree, or a bright blue jay in the maple, brought wonder to my soul.  I began to smile whenever I heard the first robin’s song in spring.  Who could not?

Mourning Dove eggs

Mourning Dove eggs

Many years ago our young family moved from Wisconsin to southern Indiana.   The winters there were warmer than our former northern home. One year I left a large hanging geranium on our side porch for the winter.  Careless me; eventually a year-end  cold spell hit and the plant died. In the early spring I found that a pair of grey mourning doves had nested in the planter.  I suppose the dead plant made a ready-made nest for the doves.  Each dawn when I went outside for the newspaper, I was greeted by intriguing coos.  As the young chicks grew and finally flew away, our whole family was awed.  Of course the next winter, I purposely left the hanging planter on the porch.  We all smiled when the gentle pair returned to hatch another brood.

yellow finch

Yellow Bird

Years later a smaller bird came to visit our new home on the East coast.  Our master bedroom sported a large arched window.  The east-facing window didn’t allow for sleeping in.  But for a while, it wasn’t the sun that roused us on weekends.  One Saturday spring morning Tom and I woke to an odd sound. We were puzzled until we saw a yellow finch, tapping against the arched window.  He came to visit regularly that spring, and the next as well.  Tom named him “Yellow Bird” and for a few years he became a part of our lives.   Yellow Bird, our happy little alarm clock.

My new parrot lamp

My new parrot lamp

Parrots, to me, are loud creatures, like an obnoxious drunken step-uncle in the bird family. I never thought a parrot might come into my life.  Then several years ago, my youngest son created a funny series of animated videos about a pirate, Amish J. Pirate.  And, as we all know, pirates have parrots.  Arrghhh!  Overnight, it seemed, I found myself strangely drawn to parrots.

Recently I’ve been searching for a new lamp.  I didn’t want a novelty lamp, just the right-size traditional table lamp to put in the front window in my living room.  For weeks I browsed in stores, in catalogs, and online.  And I kept returning to one particular lamp described as a ginger jar ceramic hand-painted parrot lamp offered by Lamps Plus.  No matter how many others I looked at, this one called to me.   So I ordered a parrot lamp, the last in stock.  A parrot lamp.  So much for traditional.  Arrrghhh!

My new lamp arrived today.  Looking at it warms me.  It makes me grin;  I sense Tom’s smile, too.  I guess there’s something to be said for parrots.

cartoon-parrot-007

Dear Mom

Among the family treasures Mom left behind were packets of her personal letters.  The earliest ones were written to her parents in the months after she divorced my father.  My brother was four; I was a toddler.  Mom was preparing to marry again.  Her new marriage would take her over a thousand miles from home.  Usually she wrote to both parents but one letter was addressed only to her mom, my grandmother.

  “Mother, I know what I’m doing so don’t worry.  I am very happy…and I’m sure everything is going to work out perfect.  (He) loves me and thinks a lot of the kids.  We have very nice plans for the future.  We are so happy when we’re together and we have talked everything over, and we seem to feel the same way about everything.”

Mom, Tim, and Grandma

A twenty-five year old daughter, writing to reassure her worried mother.

A few weeks ago my dear aunt sent me another letter Mom had written, one I had never seen.  This one was written in southern Wisconsin and mailed to my uncle in northern Minnesota.  It was written five years after the letter mentioned above.   By then my brother and I had been joined by two younger siblings.

“The children are going to Sunday School here now at the Faith Lutheran Church….We have been going to church there too, every Sunday since they started Sunday School.”

I know my uncle cherished his sister’s letter.  In those pre-Internet days when phone calls were only for holidays or emergencies, letters were how people communicated, how separated families kept in touch.  Letters were eagerly awaited. Receiving one was a gift.

“We had another letter from Jim and one from his fiancé…Elizabeth.  They are going to be married August 15th.  She sent a clipping of their engagement and her picture out of the paper.”

Just as my uncle had when it was new, I enjoyed receiving this letter, so many years after it was written.  It brought back precious memories from days gone by.  It gave me a glimpse into our family’s history, written in Mom’s fine penmanship.

“(All of us) went for a picnic in Palmer Park on Sunday.  Really enjoyed it.  The (kiddies) went in the pool.  We roasted wieners and marshmallows.”

This picture is from another Sunday, in another park, but the same year, and with the same people.  Along with Sunday School, picnics became a regular event, an inexpensive way to gather with family, and enjoy each others company.  I’ve had a copy of this picture for years but when I read Mom’s words about the picnic, it reminded me anew of those warm, carefree days.

In the letter my aunt sent me, Mom also wrote about my little sister’s illness, and of my step-dad’s still fledgling business, how much money he’d earned the week before, and his hopes for a city contract.  These small details make this particular letter even more priceless, more poignant.  More poignant still is what she could not write in it.  Just over a year later, an unforeseen accident would take the life of her youngest son, my brother Tim.

I believe in the value of holding on to old family letters.  While some details may seem insignificant now, in a few years time they’ll refresh treasured bits of memory, and serve as a part of family history.

The Internet has pushed letter writing into obscurity.  For the wordier among us, it has been replaced by e-mail.  Others rely on Facebook or Twitter for rushed messages. Twitter only allows 140 characters but a lot can be said in a few words.  I can almost see a snippet from one of Mom’s letters tweeted to the masses “Baked a chocolate cake today.”   Those words alone would remind me of her.  Of course, it wouldn’t be in her handwriting, on the prettiest stationery she could afford.

I do like aspects of the new social media.  I love the ability to almost instantly see pictures of my grand-nieces and grand-nephews blowing out their birthday candles.  I love the shorthand way of sending an animated electronic greeting card.  And I know how very much military families treasure frequent e-mailed messages from loved ones serving overseas.  I do hope they think to print them, or save them in some manner, for the future.

Tucked away, tied in ribbon and stacked in a sturdy box are letters my husband wrote to me when he was stationed overseas.  In another box are those I wrote him.  We haven’t looked at them in years, but each one was received with as much joy as any e-mailed message.  In old age we’ll sit down and re-read these letters written and mailed with love, and loneliness.  Memories will awake.

Do you save old family letters?  How long has it been since you received a handwritten letter in the mailbox?  How long since you sent one?   ♥

My Brother Tim

May is the month of warm breezes, blue skies, and fragrant lilacs. It is also the month Timmy was born. My big brother was seven and I was four when Tim burst into our lives, a blond bouncing wonder of a boy. Seventeen months later our baby sister appeared and our small house was filled. Just as my older brother and I were inseparable, so too were Tim and our baby sister.

From the beginning, Tim exuded a teasing, electric energy. It was readily apparent in how he laughed and in how he played. His laughs were wholehearted belly laughs. He loved grown-up things, donning dad’s work helmet and boots, racing his fire engine, riding his tricycle. For him, life was an exhilarating adventure filled with ever new possibilities. He never walked when he could run, as if he knew he had to reach and gather every ounce of enjoyment from each day.

Baby Tim

Family stories are almost legend…how he once climbed out on the porch roof when he was three…how he raced his tricycle into and up a sloping tree.  If he liked something, he wanted to touch and play with it whether it was playful puppies or swimming goldfish.

The morning of July 2nd was hot and promised to get hotter.  We had no air conditioning so doors and windows were open, in hopes of a catching an errant breeze.  Mom was working in the kitchen.  My older brother was eating a bowl of cereal when he happened to glance outside. Mom later told us that his face drained of color.  “The car,” he said.  It was rolling down the hill. They raced outside to see our twenty-one month old sister standing alone in the car’s front seat.

Paula and Tim

The driver’s door was open.  Timmy lay on the street.  He’d fallen, or jumped…no one knows exactly.  The car rolled over him.  Mom found him and lifted his crushed body.  A passing motorist raced them to the hospital. Our four-year old brother Tim died on the operating table.

Death changes life.  The death of a child changes life forever.

All people experience grief. It is part of being human, part of the price we pay for being sentient, for having a soul.

But we also live through true joy, such as my nephew Tim, my sister’s son, experienced three days ago when his son was born.  A new generation.  As he held his newborn son, I have to think that his Uncle Tim was looking down on both his namesake and on his newborn grand-nephew with a huge grin.

As writers we need to draw on life’s grief and on life’s joy and feed these raw emotions to our characters.  We need to make them a part of their lives.  It is how our fictional characters become real.  In this way, our stories become a gift we can pass to others.  

A Family for your Characters

My mom and dad divorced before my 2nd birthday. Within a few months, Mom moved to another state and remarried.  She’d known my step-dad since their childhood in northern Minnesota.  My older brother and I grew up in a household with Mom, our step-dad, and ultimately five other siblings.  Our younger brother, Tim, died in an accident when he was four and I was eight.   His death forever touched our lives.

My Great-Grandparents, Godiace & Alphonsine - With their children about 1910

Both my real dad and step-dad were working men who started and ran their own businesses. Through the years Mom tended house, raised her children, baked, read, and sold Avon.   Nearby lived our aunts and uncles and many, many cousins.  We visited a lot.  One of our uncles was an elementary school teacher with a passion for knowledge, a true Renaissance man who, among other pursuits, played guitar, carved Nordic tree sculptures, and boiled down road kill for the skulls.

Who we all became as adults was a direct result of the childhood we lived through together.

The Maher Siblings, around 1920

George Santayana called the family “one of nature’s masterpieces.”  For all its faults and even dis-functionality at times, I view my family as such.  Somehow, despite familial squabbles, when things matter we band together.  My siblings, my cousins, and I share much more than blood kinship, much more than common strands of DNA.  We share the common bond of memories from growing up together.  And I love them all.

When developing the protagonists for my books, even before I write about them, I must create and come to understand their family lives.  Did they grow up wealthy or poor?  How many siblings?  What was their education?  Where did they live?  Rural, urban, apartment, mansion, log cabin?  What part of the country, and when?  What was their family heritage – Irish or English? American or French?  Norwegian or German?  Did they or their parents fight in a war?  What is their religion?  What was their role in the family – big brother, pacifist, troublemaker, caretaker?  Are their parents still living?  What was their relationship with them?  Who was most important in their lives – a parent, a sibling, a pet, a favored aunt?  Why?

The Ueland Siblings - 1973

I cannot paint my hero’s, my heroine’s, or even my villain’s personality without first developing then understanding their families.  Not every aspect of this information must be written directly into the book; in fact, it’s generally better if it isn’t.  But I need to know it, and I need to understand it.  Their family life is part of their background.  It shapes who my characters are.  Equally as important, it shapes their motivation in the story.  It makes them come alive.

Creating family backgrounds is also essential in creating the book’s core conflict.  But I guess that’s for another blog.   🙂   

Traveling American

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” ~ Henri Matisse

Last week we had a sudden death in our family. I needed to travel from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin so I went online to make airline reservations.  Since I had to fly in two days, the fares were close to $1,000; normally it’s a $300+ flight.  Someone mentioned a “bereavement fare.”  I called the airlines, gave the information they needed and was booked on a flight at a closer to normal fare.

Soon after the funeral bad weather thundered across the Midwest.  Massive storms dumped snow and ice.   Shortly before I was to leave for a 2-hour drive to the airport, American Airlines called with news.  My flight was cancelled and I was re-scheduled on a Tuesday flight.  I stayed in my hometown another night.

On Tuesday, the first leg of my trip was delayed.  That delay jeopardized my connecting flight.  The agent at the counter quickly put me on standby for an earlier flight.  Subsequently I was seated on that and made my connection.

Several years ago my husband traveled a lot for his job.  His words of advice came back to me.   “You just go with the flow.”   So during my Tuesday travels I did that.  I also watched other travelers (a favorite activity of writers, I think).  While many sat back with books or laptops, or simply rested, others whined — about everything.  I heard way too many gripes about airlines overbooking, lost luggage, and delayed flights.

It is because of those complaints that I’m writing this post.  Throughout my journey I saw only kind, professional helpfulness.  My sincere thanks to American Airlines and its hardworking employees.  Thank you…

  • to the ticket agent who walked me through the bereavement fare and booked my original flight
  • to management for the call notifying me of the weather related cancellation and rescheduled flight
  • to the agent who offered a standby change so I could connect to my final flight
  • to those who de-iced the plane, the mechanics and ground crew who kept things safe
  • to the flight attendants who brought me a sense of security
  • to the pilots who kept the flights on course
  • and finally, to the baggage handlers who brought my suitcase home safely.

You all made this emotionally draining trip easier.

Some folks seem to believe that the purchase of a ticket in life buys nothing but smooth sailing.  It usually does but sometimes bad things happen beyond control.  When they do just go with the flow and thank the person who guides you through, whoever that may be.

For now I’m saying thank you to American Airlines.