Friday, August 22, 2014

Fiction Fridays: Lost Chapter Forty-five

Hello Dear Readers,

Sometimes life imitates art, but more often it's the other way around. As strange as it sounds, what happens to Sara in this chapter happened to me when I was visiting my best friend's grave. Darbi died in a car accident when we were only seventeen, and I thought of her often while I was writing this book. Her death hit me really hard, but I believe what happened that day at her gravesite was her way of letting me know she was okay. 

This chapter marks the official end of the book, but there's an epilogue to come next week. Thanks for reading. I really appreciate everyone who has taken this journey with me. All your kind comments and donations have meant so much. 

If you miss a chapter of Lost, don't despair. All of the posts can be located by clicking on that lovely turquoise badge to the left of this post. Since the story has been running for a while, you now need to scroll down to the bottom of the file and select Older Posts to start from the beginning. Thanks for reading!

~ Chapter Forty-five ~

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Jake asked.
Sara shook her head. “Thanks, but this is something I have to do on my own.”
 “Take your time. I’ll wait for you.”
She leaned over to kiss his cheek before getting out of the truck. “I won’t be long.”
The sun shone on her face as she walked toward the cemetery gates, but the wind was cold. Sara studied the trek ahead of her and groaned. No one had bothered to shovel a trail through the snow, and getting to her sister’s grave would be a formidable challenge.
Tessie was buried in a newer area of the cemetery, far away from any trees or shrubs that could have provided shelter from the wind. Her gravestone had yet to arrive from St. Paul, so a simple wooden cross marked her final resting place. T. Martin was written across it in black letters.
Sara hadn’t visited her sister’s grave since the funeral, but she picked her way through the cemetery from memory. Snow drifts rose high as her hips, frosting her jeans with a thick crust. The wind nipped at her face and throat as she continued her hike uphill. She wished she had thought to wear a scarf.
At the halfway point, she was startled to see deep holes in the snow, left by others foolhardy enough to make the same journey before spring. Tessie’s grave was swept clear of snow. The gifts from her many visitors were evident here and there: a rosary twined around the cross, china figurines of horses and puppies, a blue soccer ball.
Shaking from the cold, Sara reached into the inside pocket of her jacket and withdrew Sam Skunk. She placed the little animal on the grave, right below the cross, snuggling him in between two votive candles. Fishing in her pocket for a lighter, she lit the candles and watched them burn a moment.
The air in the cemetery was heavy, as if a thousand spirits were holding their breath, waiting for her to speak.
“I miss you, kid,” she whispered, tears sliding down her cheeks. “Nothing’s the same without you.”
Gradually, Sara realized that she wasn’t cold any longer. A warm current of air drifted around her, protecting her from the brutal wind and thawing her frozen face. She took a step back from Tessie’s grave. The same hostile wind she’d felt before promptly howled in her ears. Quickly, she stepped forward again and was once more embraced by that inexplicable feeling of warmth.
Suddenly, Sara knew that her little sister was at peace.
And maybe … just maybe … she would be one day, too.

We're coming to the end of the road. If you've enjoyed this book, please consider making a donation. Any amount, no matter how small, would mean the world to me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Surprising Lessons I Learned From Being Grateful

This blog was recently called out for being "touchy-feely."

I'm okay with that because I am touchy-feely. I hug my friends hello and goodbye. I will give my last dime to charity. And I tell the people I love that I love them ... on a semi-regular basis. 

So when I saw a bunch of people being tagged in "The Gratitude Project" on Facebook, I secretly wanted to be one of them.

For those not in the know, The Gratitude Project involves posting three things you're grateful for on your Facebook page every day for a week. When your turn is finished, you tag three others. 

Once I was tagged, I dove right in. I fully expected to name the usual gratitude-inducing things: family, friends, partner, meaningful work, pets, etc. And I did do a bit of that.

But what surprised me was how grateful I was for the things I usually complain about. Like growing up in small northern community, for instance.

A conversation about my hometown usually goes something like this:

"You grew up in northern British Columbia? Wow, it must be so beautiful there."

(Shrug) "I guess so, but we never really noticed that in high school. We just wanted to get out."

The last thing I ever expected was to be grateful for the place I was raised, but as soon as I sat down to write my three things, there it was.

Instead of focusing on the lack of opportunities, the isolation, and the pressure to conform, I felt a deep sense of thankfulness that I grew up in a place where it was safe to walk to school. Where the backyard provided plenty of space to play, and where we didn't have to lock our doors. 

I was also grateful that my mother never censored what I read. As a child, I quickly exhausted the appropriate books at my home, my school, and the local library, and soon moved onto hers. I read Rosemary's Baby, some racy Jackie Collins numbers, and discovered a bag of Stephen King books in the basement--THAT was a find. I even read true crime. Sometimes I had nightmares, but I'm so thankful I was never taught that any books were bad. I believe all that reading shaped the writer I am today. 

I've seen some articles urging parents to police their children's reading material, and that makes me so sad. I can understand it, but I think it does more harm than good to put barriers between young people and the books that interest them. I'm sure my mom wished I hadn't read "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," in Grade Three, but she dealt with it--and the dozens of questions that came afterward--gracefully.

What started as a simple Facebook exercise became a real eye-opener for me. Here's what I discovered:

  • Touchy-feely or not, a surprising number of people enjoyed reading these lists. You can learn a lot about someone by seeing what they're grateful for.
  •  Thinking big picture about gratitude puts things in perspective. Instead of simply being grateful for my work or my martial art, I thought about all the women who helped get me and so many others to this place--without them, we wouldn't have the opportunities we do today. This got me thinking about how I could be a trail blazer or at least give another woman a hand up.
  • Thanking people feels really, really good. This I already knew, but acknowledging those who aren't part of my daily life--tireless advocates and volunteers, the inspiring people I've interviewed--made me feel amazing, and it helped the people I mentioned feel appreciated. One woman was moved to tears. You never know who might need a kind word.
  • So often we focus on the negative--even if we're positive people. I'm not sure if it's an effort to appear humble or what, but this project taught me the power of looking on the bright side. 

By the end I was feeling so great that I decided to start keeping a gratitude journal again--something I haven't done in years. But there was something very powerful about expressing my gratitude publicly, and I'm glad I did. Thanks to Kei Ebata for tagging me.

Have you ever kept a gratitude journal or tried the Facebook project? What did you learn? What three things are you grateful for today?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fiction Fridays: Lost Chapter Forty-four

Hello Dear Readers,

If you miss a chapter of Lost, don't despair. All of the posts can be located by clicking on that lovely turquoise badge to the left of this post. Since the story has been running for a while, you now need to scroll down to the bottom of the file and select Older Posts to start from the beginning. Thanks for reading!

~ Chapter Forty-four ~

Audrey, Sara, and Jake returned home, well fed and well-rested, in time to ring in the New Year along with the rest of Rapture. On the day before Sara returned to school, they walked into Tessie’s room together.
All of Tessie’s things were the way she’d left them: the posters, the books, the stuffed animals, but somehow, they didn’t cause Jake pain anymore. Though he still felt the loss of her deeply, and knew he always would.
Audrey handed out the cardboard boxes. One box would be donated to charity, one would hold the things intended for Tessie’s friends, and one the memories they would keep. She squeezed Sara’s hand as she passed her daughter one of the boxes. Sara smiled back.
They agreed Tessie would never have wanted them to remember her this way, keeping her room as a tragic memorial to all they had lost.
“The Ladies’ Auxiliary donates stuffed animals to needy children,” Audrey said as she began to pack Tessie’s massive collection. “I was thinking….”
“Wait. Not that one,” Sara said as her mother started to put Sam Skunk into the box with the others. “I have another place for that one.”
Audrey handed her the little matted skunk.
They worked all afternoon, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying. By the time they called it quits, the treasures of Tessie Eileen Martin were separated into three cardboard compartments.
Jake knew the pain surrounding her death wouldn't be dealt with so easily.
Later that evening, Jake relaxed with Audrey in front of the fireplace. They sat on the rug before the hearth, watching the flames create an ever-changing picture show.
            “I loved to watch fire as a kid,” Jake said. “My parents used to take us on camping trips, and they’d have to drag me away from the fire to make me go to bed. It mesmerized me.”
            “Me too. I thought it was magic.”
            “According to my mother, it is magic. She used to tell me this story about how all the animals on the planet would have frozen to death if some little spider hadn’t brought them the gift of fire.”
            Audrey stretched out, rolling onto her side. She propped up her head on one elbow so she could look up at him. “How did a spider bring them fire?”
            “She wove a bowl from her web and carried the bowl on her back.”
            “You know, you’re lucky to have the background you do.”
            Lucky? Jake had never thought of his Cherokee blood as a blessing. He’d been tormented about it far too many times. “Why do you say that?”
            “Because you have traditions, and rituals, and meaning to things. I really envy that. I’m English, so what rituals do I have?”
            “Tea.” Jake smiled. “Christmas.”
            “It’s not the same. There are no stories.
            “No, I suppose it isn’t,” he agreed, watching as a spark popped and disappeared up the flume, leaving a trail of orange stars in its wake.
            “Your mother’s a fantastic woman.”
            “Yeah,” he nodded. “She is. When I was little, I thought she was invincible, and my opinion hasn’t changed much over the years.”
            Audrey smiled. “It must be nice to feel that way. I can’t stand mine.”
            Jake reached for her hand. “I can’t imagine feeling any other way. She did so much for us, especially when Dad’s drinking started to get out of control. I loved my mother’s stories. I always hoped I’d be able to pass them on to kids of my own one day.”
            “I’m sure Sara would love to hear them.”
            “Tessie would have for sure. It’s too bad….”
            With the mention of Tessie, Jake’s mood shifted. He had felt her with them all day as they cleaned out her room, so strongly that he wouldn’t have been surprised to see her standing there, watching them. “I’m sorry, Audrey,” he said, an ache starting deep in his chest. “I feel like I’ve failed you.”
            “Failed me?” Audrey put a hand on his back. Her touch felt warm and soothing, and he leaned into it slightly. “How could you fail me?”
            He felt his anger return. “Ash is still out there.”
            “Oh, Jake. Why are you torturing yourself like this?”
            “Because that monster doesn’t deserve to be walking around free.”
            Audrey’s hand began to move in small circles down his back, but now his spine had stiffened, and her touch couldn’t heal him. “He had the element of surprise. You were caught off-guard, but next time you won’t be. He can’t hide forever. What does he have, a thousand bucks?”
            “Closer to two.”
            “Still, how far can he run on that? You’ll catch him, Jake. You have to be patient.”
             “I still feel like I’ve failed you. How can I sit here and be happy with you, knowing he’s out there?”
            “That kind of guilt will kill you. No one blames you but you.”
            “Maybe so.”
            I know you’ll find him. You have to have the same faith.”
            He didn’t have the heart to tell her he’d lost his faith long ago. “I promise you I’ll find him, Audrey.”

            She clung to him tightly, burying her face in the crook of his neck. “I know you will, Jake,” she said. “I know.”

We're coming to the end of the road. If you've enjoyed this book, please consider making a donation. Any amount, no matter how small, would mean the world to me.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Suicide Isn't a "Choice"

Once again, the world has lost one of its brightest lights.

And once again, amid the reactions of shock and sadness, are the voices of idiots.

Like many others, I was deeply saddened when I heard of Robin Williams' untimely death. I was even sadder when I learned that he died of depression.

Can anyone imagine the depths of despair one has to be in to take such drastic action? As I read more and more posts and comments, I'm beginning to realize that if you haven't been there, you just don't understand.

The comment that angers me most is the one that claims suicide is a choice. "Depression doesn't kill you like leukaemia," wrote one blogger, roughly paraphrased. "It doesn't put a gun in your hand. You always have a choice."

That would be true if clinical depression wasn't a mental illness.

A mental illness, in case anyone doesn't know, screws with your mind. People who take their own lives due to depression, crippling anxiety, or any other mental illness, do so because they think they don't have a choice.

They honestly believe the world would be better off without them. And even if they don't believe that, they're in too much misery and pain to get out of bed in the morning.

Many of us have thought about suicide in our darkest moments. Maybe we've even come up with a plan or seriously considered it. Maybe something or someone intervened at the last minute, and we managed to survive another day. And maybe that lets some of us believe that people like Robin "chose" to end their lives, just as we chose not to.

This is akin to comparing apples and oranges. If you were able to choose not to, your pit of despair wasn't as deep, wasn't as dark. You were able to climb out of it with a little help. But not everyone is so lucky. That still doesn't make it a choice.

Saying suicide is a choice trivializes the overwhelming pain and despair. It also hurts the suicide victim's loved ones, who are already suffering. No one needs to hear that the person they love most in the world chose to leave them.

Robin had six decades to develop coping mechanisms for his depression, and for being bipolar. If he could have figured out a way to survive, I'm sure he would have. I'm sure he tried everything.

When will the world realize that depression is an evil disease? That it's nothing to be ashamed of, and that those who lose the fight are not selfish or weak. They're casualties in a war many people still don't understand.

But more than that, they are people who loved, laughed, and made an impact on the world--in a big way, like Robin, or in a smaller but no-less-meaningful way, like my friend Stan.

Please don't add to the pain and suffering of Robin's family and friends.

It wasn't a choice.

If it was, he'd still be here.

Rest in peace, Robin.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Fiction Fridays: Lost Chapter Forty-three

Hello Dear Readers,

This chapter will make some of you very happy. Enough said. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in a comment.

If you miss a chapter of Lost, don't despair. All of the posts can be located by clicking on that lovely turquoise badge to the left of this post. Since the story has been running for a while, you now need to scroll down to the bottom of the file and select Older Posts to start from the beginning. Thanks for reading!

~ Chapter Forty-three ~

Jake halfheartedly watched the annual television broadcast of It’s A Wonderful Life. He never looked forward to Christmas anymore. Since Beth left him, it had been a lonely holiday.
Tomorrow would be different. After he packed up the truck, he and Sunny would be off to Duluth to spend the rest of the holidays with his sister Alison and her family. His mother would be in attendance, along with Alison’s husband Michael, who was a little too introspective and moody for Jake’s taste, but otherwise an all-right guy. (At least Alison was happy in her marriage.) They had three great kids: sixteen-year-old Jacob (named after him), fourteen-year-old Maguire, and twelve-year-old Jenny. Jake loved his nephews and niece with a passion and enjoyed spending time with them. They were good people, the kind of distraction he needed to get his mind off everything that had gone wrong in Rapture.
He’d taken a couple of hours to have lunch with Alison when he went down to Duluth to recover Faith Pembrooke’s car. That car was the first clue to the whereabouts of Ash Pembrooke. So far, the boy might as well have been invisible. The producers of a new Crimestoppers show had agreed to talk to Jake in the New Year, though, and that would help. Maybe one of the viewers would recognize Ash.
Jake had to admit he’d misjudged the kid. Ash’s trail had vanished, which meant he was probably traveling under a different name. Jake doubted the boy had lingered in Minnesota for long.
Even though Ash was running around free somewhere (which was enough to give Jake nightmares) he hoped Audrey had gained some peace from having the mystery of Tessie’s death resolved. Their conversations had been kept to a minimum, but Jake sensed a new strength in Audrey’s voice when he talked with her. It made him more determined to track Ash down. He owed her that much.
A knock at the door woke him up around midnight. Feeling dazed, he rubbed his eyes and saw that It’s A Wonderful Life had ended, and Miracle on 34th Street was somewhere in the middle. Sunny leaped out of the chair and ran to the door ahead of him, her tail wagging furiously. She let loose with a series of joyous barks, which usually meant she’d deduced the identity of their visitor.
Forbes, Jake thought with a smile. The Dogman had dropped over for a late-night eggnog on Christmas Eve before. He was one of few people who could inspire such a positive reaction from Sunny.
But his visitor was a far cry from The Dogman.
Jake stood in his doorway, stunned, while Sunny went about the business of making their guest feel welcome—nuzzling, licking, and wiggling all over with doggy pleasure.
“Well, aren’t you going to say anything, Jake?” Audrey asked, looking up at him from where she’d knelt down to hug Sunny. Her arms were wrapped around the retriever’s neck and she strained to control the dog’s enthusiasm.
“I don’t know quite what to say.”
“You could invite me in,” she suggested, but stepped inside before he could say anything. Sunny followed, acting more like a puppy than a full-grown dog, turning circles in her delight.
“Sunny,” Jake scolded. “Settle down.”
“Oh, she’s fine,” Audrey said, showing more patience for the dog’s exuberance than she had in the past. She only laughed when Sunny jumped up and licked her face. “To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I’d find you here. I was afraid you might have left for your sister’s.”
Audrey had only been in his house once before. All of the things he’d never given mind to suddenly took on new importance. The emptiness of it…the shabbiness of his furniture…the absence of decent food in his fridge. It was in sharp contrast to her place, which, in spite of everything, felt like home.
 “Can I take your coat?” Jake felt as if he were sleepwalking through some bizarre dream.
 “Sure, that’d be great.” She handed him the forest-green wool, which was now liberally sprinkled with golden dog hair.
“Make yourself at home.”
Audrey walked into the living room, Sunny bounding alongside her at every step like a deranged kangaroo.
He’d pressed the mute button on the television before answering the door, and now rolls of toilet paper danced across the screen to some unheard music, no doubt proclaiming that they were “The Softest Ever.” Jake felt his face grow warm. It seemed ludicrous to be standing there with the woman he still loved—the woman he’d dreamed about for too many nights to count—watching bathroom tissue dance the polka.
“Would you like a drink?”
“We’re still friends, aren’t we, Jake?”  Audrey’s tone was light, but he could tell that she was afraid of what his answer would be.
“Of course. I never offer my enemies a drink when they stop by.”
She smiled. “What a relief. I thought I’d blown it.”
“How so?”
“I treated you terribly, and I’m sorry. It’s been such an awful time for us. I’m afraid I didn’t have the energy to be there for anyone...or to let anyone be there for me.”
“Audrey, I’ve already told you there’s no need to apologize. If that’s why you’re here, I’m afraid you wasted a trip.”
She hesitated. “That’s not why I’m here.”
He sat down on his recliner and gestured to the sofa. She sank into it gratefully, only one step ahead of Sunny, who jumped up to sit beside her. “What’s this about?” Jake asked.
“Well, I would like...I want….” She paused, and then looked at him beseechingly. “Oh, Christ, this is hard. I feel like I’m sixteen years old again.”
“Whatever you want to say to me, it can’t be that bad. Like you said, we are friends. Spit it out. I’m listening.”
 “All right, I can do this. Jake, I’d like to spend Christmas with you.”
Nothing could have shocked him more. “What? What about Sara?”
“Actually, it was Sara’s idea. She’s had a lot of great ideas these past few days.”
“But I thought—”
“So did I, but you know what? I’m realizing that people change. My daughter’s grown up a lot, and I know she’ll change her mind about things a million times before she’s twenty, but I won’t.”
“You won’t?”
She shook her head, never dropping her gaze from his. “No. I’ve made my decision.”
He cocked an eyebrow and tried to keep a straight face but didn’t quite make it. “And your decision is…?”
 “You’re a good man. I couldn’t ask for better. I’ve always known we had Jim’s blessing, and now we have my daughter’s. Both of my daughters’,” she amended, smiling through tears. “So I don’t think we should waste another minute, do you?”
“Let me get this straight. You want to go to Duluth with me…”
She nodded. “Sara too.”
“And you both realize that it will be bedlam, with screaming kids and barking dogs and cats desperately bidding for your attention at all times?”
“Sounds wonderful.”
“Are you prepared to eat a ridiculous amount of food for five days straight, never refusing anything that is referred to as a specialty of the house?”
“And you understand that my sister will jump at every opportunity to get you alone and grill you about your intentions toward her baby brother?”
“I’d expect nothing less.”
“And those intentions are?”
She rose from the sofa and walked over to his chair. “I don’t know about you, but I was kind of hoping for happily ever after.”
Jake grinned. “Sounds good to me,” he said. “Sounds damn good to me.”

We're coming to the end of the road. If you've enjoyed this book, please consider making a donation. Any amount, no matter how small, would mean the world to me.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Trusting Your Voice

When I was a teenager, I knew everything about writing. Didn't we all? Isn't it amazing how brilliant everyone is at that age?

I'd made it all the way to the last year of high school without anyone criticizing anything I wrote. Thrilled that I could sling together a sentence with something approximating a style, my teachers merely smiled as they gave me perfect marks. (Let's not talk about my performance in math, which was at the other end of the spectrum.)

Then I met my nemesis. His name was Mr. Dolan, and he was not impressed by my brilliance. He called my efforts at poetry "maudlin" and said the characters in my short stories were more like caricatures.

In today's parlance, he tore me a new one.

I was furious. Obviously Mr. Dolan wouldn't know good writing if it hit him over the head. I was God's Gift to the written word--hadn't he got the memo? What was wrong with him?

But once my anger subsided long enough for me to stop arguing, some of his criticism began to sink in. Maybe that poem was a tad sappy. Maybe that character could have been fleshed out a little.

As time went on, I was shocked to discover that Mr. Dolan didn't think I sucked as a writer. He actually thought I had promise. And by pushing me, he did what no easy marker before him ever had--he made my writing better.

By the time I hit college, I was well aware that I didn't know everything about writing, but I still felt I knew more than most people my age. What a surprise, then, that my next critic was a classmate my own age who'd done far less writing than I had. For whatever reason, the guy had an eye for making my work better. Thankfully, I'd learned a thing or two since high school, and I shut up and listened to what he had to say. (Most of the time.) And just like with Mr. Dolan, my writing improved.

Fast forward many years and many books later. I am besieged with doubt. At any moment, I can tell myself I absolutely suck, that I don't know a thing about writing, and I'll believe it.

Last week I received feedback from two people I respect and admire. They've read my work before, and whenever they point out a problem, they're usually right.

But this time, I was sure they were wrong. At first.

The self-doubt began to creep in. The self-doubt that was never there in high school. What if you're wrong? it whispered. They know more about writing than you do.

I tortured myself. The feedback was wrong for my story, my novel--I knew it. And yet, these people were so smart, so great at making my writing better. Perhaps I should listen to them.

Writers will get tons of feedback over the years. Some will be helpful and some won't be, and the trick is to know the difference--to trust your own voice. Some of your critics may be older, and more experienced, and smarter than you--maybe they're even better writers than you.

But will they know your story better than you? Not likely.

I'm not saying we should stop listening to the feedback that will make our writing stronger. But I am saying that once you've been in this game for a while and you've stopped making all the dumb mistakes you made in the past, you have the power to decide what's worthwhile feedback and what isn't.

Just because someone is smarter doesn't mean they're smarter about your story.

Sometimes you need to channel your inner teenager. Remember, you are God's Gift to the written word, and what's wrong with that beta reader anyway?

Have you ever received feedback from a trusted source that seemed like it came from the left field? Have you ever doubted yourself when you've disagreed with a critic? How did you learn to trust your own voice? 

The Insecure Writer's Support Group's purpose is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It's a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!