Crossing the Line

We cross all kinds of lines in our lives. Lines of respect, lines of conduct, lines of age, lines in the sand … lines that seem to mark a distinct separation between this and that. While I may have hidden deep in my mama’s skirt as a young child, I am not shy about crossing lines.

I tend to see them as a challenge to be met and bolster all my reserves and plunge forward.

This is not always a good thing, I might forewarn you. It can have some amazing advantages but those hidden brick walls on the other side knock a pretty good punch.

If you don’t mind the punches, go ahead. Cross the line. I dare you.

When I was 22 years old, I had just graduated from college and had $1000 to my name. I bought a plane ticket to London, England, packed my bags, and moved more than 4,500 miles away from home without a job and with only $500 cash I got for a graduation gift from my parents. I had nowhere to live and knew nothing about living overseas.

I crossed a line.

My mother said it was the bravest thing she had ever seen anyone do. At the time I just thought that’s what I wanted to do, I no obligations to anyone else, so why not do it? Had I thought about it for too long or planned for all of the ifs and wants and maybes … I never would have walked out the door.

It was a line not unlike most of the ones we face in life. Those lines of coming of age, marriage, parenthood, death of loved ones, are all challenges we plunge through without having any idea of what’s on the other side.

Oh, I know, we think we know, before we are there, before we’ve crossed the line and taken a step or two. We think we know what’s coming. We’ve prepared, you see. We’ve planned. We’ve mapped out our approach. We’ve calculated the landing.

Just like I planned our last vacation to Yellowstone National Park.

Hahahahahahahahaha …… snort ….. hahahahahahahah …. lololol

Sorry, let me wipe the tears from my eyes.

I planned that trip for months. Four days in Rocky Mountain National Park, five days in Yellowstone/Grand Tetons, two days in Mt. Rushmore with a stop at Devil’s Tower along the way, and a loop back home. It was perfect. The first night we were to meet with friends for a campfire steak dinner. Then we would spend two days hiking and driving in the park. After that we would drive to Yellowstone where we would camp out in the beautiful wilderness and cook over a campfire while taking in the sights by day. A quick drive to Mt. Rushmore would give us a nice relaxing end to make our way home on.

SCREEEEEECCCCHHHHHHHH

And that’s as far as that perfect vacation got. Oh we went to Yellowstone alright and did everything we planned on … but the list of things we didn’t plan on and the list of alterations we had to make was endless. First our car broke down and we had to move all of our stuff from a Ford Expedition to my mom’s borrowed Chevy Lumina. We didn’t get to leave on time so we didn’t get to have the steak dinner campfire with friends.

Then we were so rushed getting to do the things we wanted, we didn’t leave time to adjust to the altitude and I got altitude sickness and thought I was going to die. Because my husband didn’t want to leave me alone at the camp with the kids while he went to town for what I needed, he sent our son … who then got lost and drove half way across the state before realizing he missed his turn and had no cell phone reception to call for help …

The idyllic campsite in Yellowstone turned out to be a wedge between a rented camper and group of drunk middle aged hunters in a campground with 600 other campers … and grizzly bears … and rain. Four days of constant rain, I might add. And drunk middle aged men who peed on our tent. And grizzly bears. And rain.

Have you ever tried to cook dinner on a campfire in the rain?

And then there was the electrical outage that lasted for two days in the park which meant no showers, no washing clothes, no hot meals in a restaurant, and no working gas pumps. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Yellowstone but it’s in the middle of nowhere. NOWHERE. Did you hear me?

Having no gas pumps and no showers was pretty much equivalent to nuclear disaster.

The bus full of Japanese tourists with Noro virus really helped, too. Noro virus makes you puke your guts up. Fun. Especially with no showers and no washing machines. And rain. Did I mention the rain?

And getting sulpher fumes in my contacts was just icing on the cake. I couldn’t even open my eyes. I was walking around trying to look at all those amazing natural wonders of the world and my eyes were swollen shut and weeping.

Then it snowed. In late June. While we were puking. With drunk guys peeing on our tent. And grizzly bears digging through the campground. And our stuff crammed into a car half the size of normal. And me standing over a campfire with an umbrella trying to cook a meal everyone was going to puke up anyway. On our perfect vacation.

Of course it wasn’t all that way. We had a pretty great day when we went to Jackson Hole and rode the tram to the top of the mountain and ate chocolate and bacon waffles with hot chocolate and then strolled through the shops in the square.

And the last day in Yellowstone was beautiful and sunny and we had a great morning driving through all the stuff we hadn’t done yet and touring the lodge and eating a magnificent lunch with mango sorbet.

Then we went to Mt. Rushmore.

Apparently it always rains and is always foggy at Mt. Rushmore. All those postcards that show bright sunny days were snapped in the hour of clear weather I assume. But not only did it rain, it hailed. Baseball sized hail.

Did I mention we were tent camping?

Sigh.

The point is …

I planned for months so we could have the perfect vacation, the memories I wanted my children to have, the experiences we wanted to share. But life had it’s own plans.

And that’s what most of the lines we cross in life are like.

We cross the line from being a child to being an adult, from being a college student to being married, from being married to having children, from being the child to caring for our aged parents and in what seems like a heartbeat our lives have changed. That one moment in time that we can never recover slips through our fingers and our hearts and our minds – a memory now, a cherished moment, a tug at the heart.

My son and my nephew are both turning 21 soon. My parents are aging before my eyes. Some days I feel squeezed in between them, like the cream in the middle of a oreo. I want to pave the way for the boys to make their lives smoother, easier than I had it. I don’t want my parents to suffer.

I see the lines we’re all crossing, all at the same time, all on our own paths. My instinct is reach across and pull the boys through and then rush forward and pull my parents back.

But if I’ve learned anything in life at this point, it’s to take each line as they come, each day as the miracle it was meant to be. The good and the bad, the ups and the downs, all work together somehow in the end to make life what it is.

Beautiful.

Ahem … drip, snuff … ahem ahem

I try not to do this, although I’m not sure why. Writing from the heart is always more gripping than trying to be detached. But it can also lead to … mistakes … vulnerabilities …

As I think I’ve mentioned before, our son is autistic. I know that’s a word that most people are familiar with nowadays, but when our son was diagnosed, it was a new thing. Now days they diagnose kids when they are babies or toddlers. In our son’s day, he was 9 years old.

Because our son happens to be gifted AND autistic, diagnoses was complicated.

For 9 years, we were just the parents who couldn’t control our child … or we must have done something to abuse him … or we must be neglecting him … or we weren’t disciplining him enough … and the list goes on. Everyone had their opinion. Everyone thought they knew what was best for us to do. We had advice coming out our ears.

And none of it helped. And most of it hurt.

We knew something wasn’t right with our son when he was about 2 1/2. But when we brought up our concerns, we were written off as being first time parents, among other things. We were told we just didn’t “know” what children were like or supposed to be like and that everything was fine.

But I knew he wasn’t fine.

My beautiful curly haired little boy who had spoken his first words before 12 months of age, who was using complete sentences on his first birthday, who knew ten colors and could say the alphabet at 18 months had quit talking. He sat in the middle of the floor tossing a balloon up in the air over and over and over and watching it fall to the floor or drawing page after page after page of faces or “scenes” for hours on end. He couldn’t walk up and down stairs. He couldn’t catch a ball. He couldn’t see anything if it wasn’t on a blank background. He couldn’t peddle a trike. And he gagged if he ate certain foods.

Night times were terror for all of us. He rarely slept, and when he did he would wake up screaming bloody murder and be inconsolable for hours after.

It was hard. It was mind numbingly heart breaking to watch our child go through this. And it was harder still knowing there was no one who could help us.

Every time we approached the subject of something being wrong with a doctor, the doctor would look at one aspect of the situation and decide it wasn’t really a problem. One doctor, one thing. Another doctor, a different thing. No one ever looked at the whole picture. No one ever asked all the questions.

At least not until our son was almost 9 years old.

That’s when we took him to see a new pediatrician. She was good. She was beyond good, we would find out later. She asked all the questions. She looked at the whole picture. She took in our whole son and his whole life …

And it was like magic. Finally someone was seeing what we had been seeing for all those years.

Getting diagnosed was hardly a magic cure though. We knew what was wrong, sort of. The multitudinous processes involved in the autistic mind are complicated to say the least. One child may experience issues with one thing while another child doesn’t have that problem at all. So defining the exact parameters that need to be dealt with is daunting …

And then, just because we could deal with some of the things, didn’t mean our insurance company would pay for any of the treatment. We were on our own.

We were poor. We still are. I had to give up my full time job to stay home with our son and while I’ve worked part time for the past twelve years and my husband has worked full time plus, we still don’t make ends meet let alone have enough to pay for extra therapy … for him or for us.

If my son had cancer, there would be funds to help pay for his needs. Cancer treatment can be a long battle.

Autism is an even longer battle, fought one day at a time for the rest of his life.

I remember the day it dawned on me what my son was facing. I was waiting in line to vote, which we do at a church. On the bulletin board in their hallway was a flyer about a fund that had been set up for the family of a child who had cancer. I thought, wow, I’m glad I don’t have to go through having a child with a long term illness as a parent. That would be so hard to face.

And then it hit me … I was one of those parents.

For the last 12 years we’ve faced this on our own. It’s brought us closer at times and nearly torn us apart at others. In our small town there are no support groups for it. No other parents to call for help and assurance or reprieve even for a date night. We used to sit at the kitchen island and eat a nice meal we fixed at home while trying to keep him engaged in a movie in the other room eating a pizza. That was as close as we got to having a date.

All the “reports” say that kids “grow out of it” over time. But the reality is, they don’t. They learn to cope, they learn to compensate, they learn to adjust everything they do to fit into a world that has no tolerance for anyone or anything that is different. And then the world still doesn’t accept them.

I won’t lie. It’s hard. It’s beyond hard some days.

It’s scrape-yourself-off-the-floor, fill-yourself-with-caffeine, and hope you make it to the end of the day.

It’s taking those few precious moments while your child is engaged and curling up in a ball on your bed and crying your eyes out so they won’t know or see.

It’s making a game out of going to store every single time so that you don’t lose your mind when they pull everything off the shelves and the store clerks are going mad and everyone is looking at you like you’re the worst parent of all times.

It’s explaining, yet again, why they can’t have ravioli for every meal.

It’s meeting the gaze of the old people sitting in front of you in church glaring over their shoulders.

It’s wondering what “social media” is and dreaming of the day you might get time to engage in it like the rest of the world.

It’s sitting with a box of pictures of your family when you were young and wondering how life might have been different.

It’s feeling guilty that you somehow caused it all.

And feeling more guilty that you couldn’t stop it or fix it.

And feeling even more guilty because you want it to stop.

Because …

Because I love my son more than life itself. He is so incredibly precious and smart and lovely and caring and thoughtful and …

I would do anything to make his life better, easier, happier.

But I just don’t know what that is …

A Holiday Meme Worth Remembering

Friends are amazing to me. Well, I guess I should really clarify that. People, all people, are amazing to me. They are complex, fascinating, emotionally charged packages of everything that is logical and illogical in our world rolled into one. They are beautiful …

and ugly.

That’s just the way it is. Some days we see their good side, some days we see their bad, and other days we don’t really know which is which.

I try to stay out of social media wars on humanity and civilization. It’s not that I avoid discussing politics or national media events or that I don’t have an opinion on the matters at hand. I do. And it’s not that I refuse to stand up for what I believe in. I do that too. But …

Time matters. In all things, the one constant is time.

But wait, you say, time moves on. Today becomes tomorrow. This week becomes next week. This century fades away. How can time be a constant?

A week ago, a year ago, a decade ago, our lives were consumed by the news of the day – the weather, the wars, the heartbreak, the joys.

Ten years ago, the Taliban was claiming responsibility for the 9/11 bombings, a hurricane nearly wiped Haiti off the map, the war in Iraq was full blown, Barry Bonds was on a record breaking home run streak, a massive earthquake caused a devastating tsunami in Indonesia, and the Mars Rover ceased communications with mission control. In other words the things that made us “take sides” and flood the media ten years ago, were not the same things influencing our decisions today.

Today we’re screaming about Black Friday retail workers rights and riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

The thing is, whatever all those things are that assault us day in and day out from Facebook, Twitter, and the evening news, the things that really matter, that are the same today and yesterday and two hundred years ago, have nothing to do with all that.

Spending the day with our family enjoying a meal, watching a movie, walking in the leaves, cheering on a sports team, the burned pumpkin pie, the dog that stole the turkey leg, the flat tire on the way to grandma’s, the opossum in the apple box, the jig aunt Betty danced, uncle Coy’s snoring on the couch, waking at 4am to go hunting in the snow, the game of cards or monopoly that lasts all night, cousin John eating all the corn on the cob before it reaches the table, piles of dirty dishes no one wants to wash, the good china, red plastic solo cups with names written in sharpie, sharing the piano bench at the card table with two other cousins, cracking pecans …

those are the things that matter, that we remember, that time never changes, that influence our lives in a way that an event happening a thousand miles away broadcast through a television screen can never duplicate.

those are the things that real life is made of. Those are the things that should be our Memes.

In the Aftermath

I took one of those silly quizzes on social media yesterday. You know, the ones that ask “What would your Hillbilly name be?” or “What profession should your dog have?” This one was “How Many More Years Do You Have to Live?” I thought it would be a hoot, so I took it. (50 years and 6 months supposedly)

One of the questions was “Which body part do you think is your greatest weakness?” or something like that. It listed arms, legs, mind, and a few other things. I picked emotion.

Emotions have always been my undoing. They probably always will be.

Not that I am an emotional person. I have to be really really happy for someone to know it. And conversely, I have to be really really mad for someone to know it as well. My excitement over things is usually constrained to the comment “good” accompanied by a lopsided grin. I have learned to shut them off … because they matter too much.

In other words, they make my world it’s own private roller coaster.

I’ve been told harboring emotions like this is what makes people either go crazy or take drugs or become addicted to things. My lack of addictions must mean I’m either insane or weird, then. Unless writing or gardening can be called an addiction. Hobbies gone wild … but I digress.

The one thing in my life that can still throw me for a loop is going through any kind of emotional experience. For the first few days, the adrenaline sails me through whatever life brings, but after that, I crash and burn.

I mentioned this to a friend a year or so ago and she gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard. “Give yourself time to grieve.”

At first I thought she was kind of nuts. No one died, at least not this time. I mean if someone did die, I would understand feeling so down and blue. That’s expected. I argued the point.

Then she reminded me, for someone who is sensitive, whose emotions matter so much that they hide them from the world, every event that changes something needs to be given time for grief. That’s why we often feel so down just after some of our biggest accomplishments in life.

Those who rise the highest, fall the farthest … or so I’ve heard …

It seems to hold true in my life. Every award I’ve earned, every time I accomplish something I’ve struggled to do over time, every achievement has been marked by a period of utter and complete sadness where I either sit and stare at a wall or curl up in bed in the dark and hope no one will bother me. It eventually goes away and I return to normal.

But …

I always thought I was nuts. Win an award, go curl up in bed. Accomplish something new, hide in front of the tv. Somehow my image of how the world is supposed to work doesn’t include that scenario … and yet, that’s how I function.

So the most freeing thing in the world was for my friend to say, “It’s okay. Give yourself time to adjust.”

I’m in the middle of adjusting. Blech.

A couple of weeks ago, after trying for over a year and a half, I managed to write a good short story and then another and another. They just rolled out of me. That might not seem great to others but I’ve written novels without blinking an eye and poetry as well, but the short story had me baffled. Try as I might, technique after technique failed me. I’ve literally tried to write over 40 short stories in the past year … and not just a single pass at them. Editing, seeking critique, starting over … nothing clicked. But for some reason it all just coalesced in a single 876 word story.

I was elated. And so I wrote another and another and another. Then I took a deep breath, curled up in my bed, and wished the world away.

I’ve heard all my life that creative people are more sensitive, more emotionally driven. Some of the worlds best seem to follow that pattern, either acting out publicly or falling into a world of drugs and addiction … but there are others, too, like me that sink into a dark place and have to “adjust” to the new world around us, to our own new view on life.

But there are many others, perhaps the ones who have learned the secret of allowing themselves to grieve, that carry on.

For me, life will always be a matter of adjusting, day in and day out. I’ve learned to breathe a lot. Lol. And to remove myself from places I shouldn’t be. And then the emotions settle down faster and I can resume with my world.

I guess if there’s a time to achieve, there’s a time to grieve. A time to do and a time rest. A time to make changes and a time to learn to live with those changes.

And So It Goes

And goes and goes and goes …

Some days I’m pretty sure the only things I can count on in this world are:

1. my cat will camp out on top of my computer

2. my cat will steal bacon off my breakfast plate while I’m pouring juice

3. teenagers are insane

4. logic does not prevail

5. nor does good triumph over evil

6. I will never dance naked in front of strangers (or family … you can breathe easy now)

7. sanity is fleeting

8. a good story is hard to find and even harder to write well

9. and a good writing mentor is even harder to find than that

Sigh.

Writing is such a fickle thing. Writers like to talk about their muse, as if it’s a friend they invite for tea or a weekend at the beach. And yet, writing is 98% perspiration and only 2% inspiration, so the muse is simply another myth created to maintain the mystic of the writer persona … I guess.

I don’t think I have a persona.

That’s okay for a writer. After all we hide behind our stories. We live life through our characters. We act out all those devilishly clever ideas we could never find the strength to do in real life. We don’t need a persona as long as we can create one when it’s needed.

The public has the idea that writers are enormously great at what they do. They write therefore they must be educated and intelligent. Right?

But it seems to me that, like a muse, is only a tiny part of writing. And for some people, it’s not a part at all. I’ve met some enormously talented writers in the last few years with wildly successful novels to their credit. But I’ve also met some enormously bad writers as well with wildly successful novels to their credit.

That’s how it goes.

It doesn’t seem fair and I find myself puzzled over and over when I enter a competition with a beautifully thought out, sweat induced, thoroughly edited piece of writing and, then, something that has nothing to do with the prompt, misspelled words and incomplete sentences wins.

It’s bizarre. It’s like there’s some standard of perfection, that isn’t perfection, that needs to be attained but no one can tell you what that standard is, let alone how to achieve it.

Write from the heart.

Write what matters to you.

Write what you know.

Don’t use omniscient voice.

Only use first person in certain situations.

Always have a plot twist that no one expects.

Always …

Never …

Do …

Don’t …

Every single book on writing, every writing instructor, everyone who’s ever published anything has their own theory on what to do right and what is wrong.

Truth is … there is no right answer in life … or writing. That’s just how it goes. You just have to do your best, work your butt off, and hope, somewhere, at some point in time, you’ll find your own perfection.

My Writing Meme

You know all those writing memes you see on Facebook? The ones with the movie character, typically a hot dude like Sherlock or Loki, pointing a finger and saying “You should be writing!”?

I don’t need one of those.

Instead, I have a cat. A writing cat. A big orange fluffy warm ball of purring fur. (And his protege. Also an orange cat.) His name is Wiggins and I don’t think I’d get any writing done at all without his help.

I’m not really sure how he came to be “the” writing cat in the family. He’s one of eight, after all. He’s not the oldest or the friendliest or the favored or the cuddliest. He’s never figured out how to use a litter box. He’s not a cute little kitten that plays with strings or licks my hair.

So, I guess, really, the only slot left for him was to be THE writing cat. And he’s good at it.

We don’t let our animals sleep with us at night. I know. We’re mean. But I’d be a whole lot meaner if I was woken up fifteen times by a cat jumping in the middle of me.

So, first thing in the morning, when I open my bedroom door, he charges in talking to me, as if spelling out the agenda for the day. He perches on the end of the bed while I dress and go about my morning routine, occasionally rolling around to make sure his scent is everywhere it needs to be. I suppose the pheromones are supposed to inspire my muse or something.

If I then leave the room, which I do every day, he stays on the bed for about fifteen minutes before coming to find me. At which point he sits at my feet and stares at me, wide yellow eyes watching every movement. If I go to another room, he follows pushing in front of my feet and flopping over on the floor in my path, as if to say, “Stop. It’s time to write now.”

On those rare days when I don’t write and actually close my bedroom door again, he lays in the hallway and bangs on my door. I can walk up to him in the hall, even, and he will continue to try to open my door. He’s not trying to find me.

He wants to write.

Of course, I would never encourage such a thing. I mean, he has his own pillow that sits beside me on which he wallows and perches and does his thing. Mainly he sleeps, curled up in a tight ball purring away. But, for good measure, about once an hour, he gets up and flops over my left arm and paws at the keyboard. Since I still don’t speak cat, I haven’t quite figured out what that means. I proceed to type and he eventually turns around and curls back up.

One of these days, I’ll have to write a book about him.

ARGH!!!

Spent the evening arguing, mostly with myself. It’s hard to have an argument with someone who refuses to admit that they don’t know what they are talking about.

It pertains to writing, as it was with another writer and we were discussing writing techniques.

He asked me to review some of his work on a private group. I did so. Honestly but respectfully. He then decided that he didn’t like what I said. Okay. That’s easy. Don’t ask me to review your work again then. I won’t give you my thoughts on it, objective as they are.

I said nothing that hadn’t been told to him by two or three other people independently. I didn’t even know what they’d told him until after he started arguing. Then I went back and checked. I always check. And double check. And even when I’m positive that I know what I’m talking about and doing something in the correct way, I still ask for help from other writers I trust.

But some people.

Writing is not easy. It takes time and effort to put the right words on the page at the right time in the right order to create a story that speaks to the reader. So I never understand other writers who don’t want to do that. Why spend time writing and creating a story if you’re not going to make it the best it can be?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m the goofball. Maybe I shouldn’t spend so much time worrying over things like passive voice and whether my character can read minds or see through walls. I think those things matter. They matter to me as a reader.

Anyway, I ended the evening with a big ol’ GRRRRRRR.

I hate arguing. It’s pointless really. Most often neither party walks away with anything new, other than a headache, or resolved, other than the determination to show that they were right. I’d rather just ignore the whole thing.

But durn it all. This guy asked for my help.

If you’re going to ask for help, be prepared to accept the help you’re given and at least consider it for more than 2 minutes before you reject it. Otherwise, what is the point in wasting their time?