Lists

We gather in someone’s living room on the third Wednesday of every month. Laurel. Charlene. Kim. Lexi. Rina. The members of my writing group.

In May, Laurel hosts. I take a seat on the floor, cross-legged beside her coffee table. I’ve brought along my bag of things that make me legitimate. Two half-filled notebooks. A sharpened pencil. One old memoir that needs overhauling.

I’m eager to be seen tonight, heard by kindred spirits who know what it means to face blank pages. Nowhere else am I surrounded by people who so deeply understand this part of my interior life:

The hopes and disappointments. The thrill that accompanies a small success.

We set fresh goals and admit where we have fallen short. But look at what you have accomplished, we point out. It is something. You created something.

We commiserate. We meditate. Complete writing prompts and share the resulting pieces out loud. Each month, the topic is random. Tonight’s is the following:

“List Ten Reasons Why You Should Not Write Your Life’s Story.”

My gut twists. I’ve grown weary of list-style essays, of posts with titles featuring numbers.

Seven Secrets of a Summer Slacker.

Fourteen Clues You’re the Mother of Boys.

Twenty One Questions to Ask Your Tween Daughter.

The appeal of these posts is obvious, with their easily-digestible advice, white space, cute photos. They are short, often clever, and oh-so pinnable. But my issues are too complicated for a simple list. And I don’t have a Pinterest account.

I remain (singularly, it seems) dispinterested.

Tempted to compose Forty Two Clues You Might Be A Dinosaur, I tackle the assigned prompt. Longhand. In my notebook. With a No. 2 pencil.

Before our meeting, I receive a critique of my most recent manuscript from another friend.

“I knew while I was reading what kind of mindset you’ve been in. This story was sad. Sad sad sad,” she told me. “And then, a little more sad.”

I do not want to be sad.

But lately, when I’m excavating words (digging deep, aiming for authentic) what I dust off is dark. All around me, people are suffering and their pain takes its toll.

“How can I help?” I ask, although I feel completely helpless. What can I offer besides my love? What good does “love” do when someone is unemployed or sick or hurt beyond repair?

List Ten People You Care About Who Are Struggling. 

Ten may not be enough.

—-

The next day, I sit at the computer in my sweatpants, a bowl of oatmeal in my lap. Jack and Karly are almost done with another school year and I must revise my sad, sad story.

Distracting me are these thoughts: Time is short. I am lucky. There are big dreams still to achieve. More sentences to write and paragraphs. Chapters. Entire manuscripts. Then query letters. Synopses. My mind races but I am paralyzed.

If I do nothing, I cannot be rejected.

Failure by default.

Eight Signs You Are Ready to Quit!

I step away and fold the laundry.

On Saturday, I attend a graduation party for the son of a lifelong friend. Soon, he’ll be off to college. It’s a time of great joy and nostalgia. Celebrating with the graduate are his proud parents, other family members and friends.

Smiles abound. Smalltalk and hugs. Reminders that life is good.

Monday, procrastinating at my computer, I’m wearing sweatpants again and eating a sandwich. On Facebook, yet more lists. I cannot find a blog post that isn’t numbered. What am I doing here?

Do I even belong?

Will I ever be worthy?

In my head, my own list now. It is brief and to the point.

Five Strategies For Julie:

Keep going.

Keep going.

Keep going.

Keep going.

Keep going.

I set down my sandwich and get to work.

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For Jackie

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We sat together on the couch in our hotel room sipping red wine and whispering. My sister Nancy napped in an adjoining room. Four others of our group were in the lobby wandering through gift shops and purchasing tickets for a comedy show that night. It was late afternoon, the space dimly lit. A re-run of Friends flickered on the television screen.

Heads bent close, we spoke about our daughters born just two months apart. We spoke about marriage and step-parenting. The future. All our futures. And although its presence loomed over all these topics, cancer was not a part of our conversation.

What more was there to say?

Jackie had cancer. For the second time.

In 2012, it had reoccurred in her right breast and then metastasized. Liver. Bone. Still, she remained strong and hopeful, her tether to this world so very tight. She had lost some battles but every one of us believed she would win the war. We wanted to believe. We had to.

That trip was in November, 2014, and although we didn’t know it yet, everything we have done this past year was the last we would share with Jackie.

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Last Labor Day concert in the park.

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The last Vegas trip.

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The last Christmas.

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Last New Year’s Eve.

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The last Super Bowl.

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Her last birthday party, a surprise for our beautiful friend.

Jackie’s years of fighting were drawing to a close, the months, weeks, days accelerating faster than anyone could predict.

People flew in from Iowa. New York. England. Switzerland. We loved her fiercely. Trimmed her nails. Rubbed her feet. Changed her pajamas. We brought her mangoes and daffodils, mashed potatoes and soup. We sat at her bedside with chardonnay on ice toasting to friendship. To love. To hope.

Back in March, a small group of us had attended a dinner hosted by Jackie’s best friend, Laura. Also at the restaurant were Jackie’s mother Hilda and her mother-in-law Mary; her husband Jeff and daughter Jessi; Jessi’s boyfriend Alex. I was lucky to be included and sat at one end of the table with Jen, Rowena, Gail, and Suzie.

People call us The Karate Moms since our children trained together. It’s how we came to be. But over the past three years, our relationship has become much more than that. We’re a unit now. Smiles and tears. Sorrow and joy. We are cherished memories. Forever friends.

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Driving home from the restaurant that night, the other five of us laughed and cried. We raged at the universe a little. We were, all of us, angry and afraid of losing our girl too soon. Eventually, the talk turned to how we had come together in the first place, the six of us so different from each other, yet somehow deeply connected.

What we have in common, I realize now, is Jackie. Hers was the home with the always-open door, the family who not only allowed us in but welcomed everyone.

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 Jackie with her beloved daughter and husband.

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In her final days, we were there to share our support.

This support continues now in her memory.

On May 16th, we will be participating in the Relay for Life as Jackie’s Sole-diers. So will our daughters and sons, our husbands and friends, all of us honoring this woman we will always adore. Jackie herself joined the Relay several times. And the Avon Walk in Santa Barbara. Now we, her soldiers, will continue the fight. We won’t give up.

Jackie never did.

In her honor, we will walk for 24 hours. We will hold hands and cry and hug each other.  Together, we will prove on that day and on every day after, that love is stronger than death.

If you would like to make a donation to our team, click here. And on that morning, if you would, please think of us.

Remember her.

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We love you, Jackie.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis: Book Review and Giveaway

Fear is among the most potent of human emotions, capable of manipulating not only our thoughts but our bodies. A rush of adrenaline causes sweat on the brow. Trembling limbs. A quiver in the voice. In extreme cases, an internal crisis can lead to unexplained physical symptoms.

This condition is known as Conversion Disorder.

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Keija Parssinen’s The Unraveling of Mercy Louis explores this phenomenon, tracing the physical deterioration of a group of teenage girls spurred on by psychological stressors in their small town.

Set in Southeast Texas during the final six months of the 20th century, Parssinen’s novel opens with a grim discovery in the dumpster outside a local market. Already on edge after a refinery disaster left their town blighted, the people of Port Sabine leap into action pledging to locate and prosecute the party responsible for this crime.

What follows is a veritable witch hunt where girls are found guilty simply by virtue of their being female. Otherwise promising young women are goaded into purity ceremonies, shamed publicly when evidence of their sexuality is uncovered.

No mercy.

In Parssinen’s title, I recognized the allusion to the Salem witch trials and Arthur Miller’s play,   The Crucible. Other comparisons followed, not only in the characters (Annie Putnam; Marilee Warren; Abby Williams; Pastor Parris; Lucille Cloud, like Tituba, an outcast who serves as scapegoat) but also in the novel’s dark themes:

Sexual repression. Jealousy and competition. Religious fanaticism. Greed. Corruption.

The summer is a character itself; hot and reckless. Fertile. Fearsome.

Almost everyone in Port Sabine is terrified by their desires.

– Evelia Boudreaux, Mercy’s grandmother, longs for her reunion with God on the eve of Y2K.

– Illa Stark longs for connection, both with Mercy and her own maimed mother.

– Mercy Louis, the lonely basketball prodigy, longs for love. Spiritual. Physical. Maternal.

When her soul’s salvation is pitted against the fitful urges of her body, her unraveling is, perhaps, inevitable.

Parssinen’s language is rich with imagery, by turns elegant and colloquial; timeless yet contemporary. Mercy’s story remains fraught with urgency, revealing both the ugliness and the beauty of which the modern world is capable.

I found both pessimism here and hope. We are, none of us, immune to the conflicts given life in Keija Parssinen’s book.

Its official release is March 10th, but you can preorder  a copy here and purchase Keija’s first novel, The Ruins of Us, here.

Leave a comment below sharing the title of a book you are reading and one of you will be picked to receive a free copy of The Unraveling of Mercy Louis.

For more opportunities to win, check out Greta’s review at gfunkified and follow the blog tour that continues tomorrow at Rita Aren’s Surrender Dorothy.

In earth science, we learned that the sky isn’t actually blue, its color a trick of light scattering as it passes through the atmosphere. Sometimes science ruins things. I try to forget what I learn, but it’s impossible. Once a mystery is gone, it’s gone.”

*I received an advance copy of The Unraveling of Mercy Louis in exchange for an honest review. The opinions here are mine alone.

My Last Christmas Poem Was Better, But…

…they can’t all be home runs.

So, hooray for MEDIOCRITY! We’re excellent at it!

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‘Twas nine days before Christmas; I woke in a fog.

“Hey, I should write something! Don’t I have a blog?”

My website is lonely; my laundry list, too;

So little time and so dang much to do!

There’s sleeping and eating, not taking a shower,

Counting each second, each minute, each hour

I sit at my desk stringing verbs up with nouns;

The days in my circus are filled up with clowns.

I don’t mean my family. Okay. Yes, I do.

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We’re goofballs and you should all know that it’s true.

Jack’s with his girlfriend, Bill’s gone for a run;

Karly’s binge-watching our NetFlix for fun.

I’m busy mopping and scrubbing and such.

Just kidding. That’s housework! I don’t do too much.

Our dogs are still lazy, undisciplined pups;

They eat from our plates and they drink from our cups.

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But life is too short so we choose not to worry.

(We might be outwitted by those who are furry.)

As for your choices, the dumb and the smart,

I hope your year’s great to the end from the start.

And since I skipped last year, my list is extensive.

Get ready. I’m eager, loquacious and pensive:

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(Also, windswept on the Potomac.) 

May your leopard-spots shift while your owls stay wise;

May your heart, like the Grinch’s, grows three times in size.

May your heels be kicked up and your waistbands unbuttoned,

May your gravy be good and your chops all be muttoned.

And just on the off chance I’ve caught you in time,

I’m fitting this grammar tip into my rhyme:

When sending out cards with your family’s name,

Try The Gardners not Gardner’s.

(No. It’s not the same.)

Still, I welcome the different, the weird and the strange;

Let’s embrace less complaining and more seeking change.

Stop blaming who’s left and who’s right and who’s wrong;

Hear your own drumbeat and sing your own song.

Succeed with humility, fail with aplomb,

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And never miss chances for a photobomb.

There’s already darkness and plenty of fear,

So let’s choose to celebrate, headline and cheer

The light that surrounds us for all that it’s worth.

Find big joys to trumpet!  Spread peace here on earth!

From my home to yours, it is warmth that I share

As the swift hands of time labor on without care.

We want them to slow but they’re ticking. They tock.

Whether or not someone stops to take stock.

So if you have big needs, I wish them for you,

Along with a dream you thought couldn’t come true.

I promise to share with you mine, someday soon.

For now, just imagine me singing this tune:

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I am still lucky now,

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I was lucky before.

And in my life, I love you more.

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Forever and everywhere. Even at the West Wing.

(I guess 2014 wasn’t ALL mediocre.)

The End.

Inside Out

I am a writer. I use my words.

I find it easy to describe my feelings.

Ravenous? Joyful? Discombobulated? (I am often discombobulated.)

But when my daughter is sad or overwhelmed, feeling awkward, she doesn’t speak her discomfort (or scream or cry or act out). She comes to me, puts her head on my shoulder and says, “I’m tired.”

Quietly. So no one else hears.

Occasionally, it’s My ear is sore.  Or My palms won’t stop itching.

“Have you washed your hands this week?”

“Mom.” Deadpan look. “You’re so not funny.”

Perhaps. But I’d be lying if I told you I never laugh.

Karly has complained about tiny injuries for her entire fifteen years. A litany of aches and pains attacking body parts I have no name for.

“My foot is bothering me.”

“Your heel?”

“No.”

“The ball?”

“No.”

“Ankle? Toe? Achilles tendon?”

She shakes her head. “The part in between.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable.”

I offer Advil. No. Band Aid? Neosporin? Should we go to Urgent Care?

No.

I sigh. Then I guess I can’t help you.

I sit on the couch and she slides onto the cushion next to me, limbs draped over mine. Tugging up the legs of her sweatpants, she exposes her pale skin.

“Tickle me?”

Again? I think. Can’t I ever just sit?

Still, I rub her calves and we watch TV together. She shifts, shoves an arm in my direction. I know what’s coming next.

“My elbow’s been hurting.”

“For how long?” I ask.

She shrugs. I try not to roll my eyes but I can’t help myself.

“It’s always something with you, isn’t it?”

I hear it, then answer my own dumb question (because apparently, a house needs to fall on me).

Yes. It’s always something.

Of course it is.

Don’t we all have somethings? All the time?

Life is a series of somethings. Different people simply handle them differently.

We yell. Issue silent treatments. There might be cursing or slammed doors.

Some people act out.

Karly acts in.

She wears her heart on her elbow. So to speak.

I count myself lucky that my teenaged daughter is not dramatic. She doesn’t have tantrums, pitch fits or claim to hate me. She pulls in on herself and her emotional pain manifests on the outside.

When she is happy, she lights up the world. Laughter. Jokes. Stories. So many words.

“Mom! It was so funny!”

But she tucks the sadness away, lets it settle and disperse until she forgets that the “part in between ” was hurting.

Does this way of coping serve her well? I often worry that it doesn’t. But my attempts to coax her out have been largely unsuccessful. She prefers not to share the negative. At least not in words.

So.

I stroke her elbow. Or her knee. Her neck. Let her rest her head on my shoulder.

“I feel tired,” she’ll say.

And I hope hope hope she also feels my love.

Karly and Bella

The Heavy Bag

My sister Nancy tells the story about a time when her boys were under two years old and, as mothers of young children often do to keep from going insane, she visited a friend.

Besides her two sons, Nancy brought along with her a backpack she carried in lieu of a diaper bag.   It featured many convenient compartments and was not covered in ducklings or whales as were most diaper bags in the late nineties.

So, Nancy had this backpack and it was heavy. Like, monumentally heavy. And she was at the home of a friend we’ll call Kristin because that is her name. And Kristin’s children were older, so she didn’t need a diaper bag or even a backpack anymore. Gone were her days of baby wipes and fishy crackers and teething rings and nursing pads and sippy cups and pull-ups and nasal aspirators.

For better or worse.

When the time came for my sister to leave Kristin’s house, she put her enormous baby on her hip (no really, he was enormous) and asked her toddler to hold her hand and then she heaved the monstrous backpack onto her shoulder.

She slumped a little under the weight.

And her friend named Kristin looked at her with kind eyes.  “Your bag won’t always be this heavy.”

Now, I happen to know Kristin. She is not only kind, she’s also super smart; and I suspect that while her statement was a literal fact, she meant it in a much bigger way.

Your bag won’t always be this heavy.

Kristin was right.

Today, Nancy’s kids are 17 and 19. For more than a decade, they have carried their own bags (sports, groceries, school).

And while I wish I could report that my sister’s days of heavy lifting are over, metaphors are tricky sons of bitches. Nancy has got other bags to carry now. They’ve simply taken on different shapes.

Don’t we all drop one burden only to pick up several more?

Children bring baggage. But so do jobs. Or spouses. Dear friends even, and extended family. Financial worries. Health issues. Loss. Grief. Pain.

Eventually, everyone feels the weight of a monumentally heavy bag.

What we don’t feel is surrounded by Kristins, with calm eyes and wonderful bag-related metaphors.

Or perhaps we do have a Kristin or two, but we think we can’t reach out for one reason or another. Or these Kristins reach out on their own and we tell them

No, thanks. It’s okay. I am fine

even as we slump under the weight.

Why is accepting help so difficult for us? Guilt, maybe. Or pride.  The fear that if we admit to one crack in our shell the whole damn egg will be destroyed. Nobody wants to be Humpty Dumpty.

So we tell everyone we’re all right even when we’re not.

But here’s the problem:

When our bags are too heavy, we do stupid things to alleviate the slump. Perhaps we sleep too little or drink too much. We might yell at our kids or curse the dog or stop trying, hoping, dreaming.

We end up hurting ourselves. And worse, we hurt the ones we love.

It’s so silly, really, when help is all around us. Sometimes we slump too far, though, and forget.

When our burdens become too great to bear, we should welcome any support that’s offered to us. Let someone else who cares disperse the weight.

(Like me, for example. I’m pretty strong when I’m not too busy being weak.)

Wherever you are right now, please consider the bag you carry alone. Maybe there’s more than one. You might be staggering under the pressure.

Then say after me:

My bag will not always be this heavy.

(You can do this in the mirror but if you’re anything like me, you haven’t showered yet or brushed your teeth and poor self-image is a compartmentalized backpack all by itself.)

Now. Say it again. Louder.

My bag will not always be this heavy.

This time try to believe it. Then reach out to your Kristin.

I promise she’ll need help with her own backpack someday, too.

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Provisional

In the first year of this blog, I wrote two of my favorite posts celebrating the birthdays of my son and daughter. Birthday posts can be indulgent, of interest to immediate family only.

But I love them and the children they freeze in words, even as time continues to march on.

My babies in 2000

A few weeks ago, my son turned 17. My daughter Karly is 15 today.

I’m on the tail end of their living under my roof and I still feel like I’m faking my way through parenthood. In two blinks, they will be gone.

(Unless they’re like me and move back home after college and stay until their father gently ‘encourages’ them to leave.)

So. When will I begin to feel like a real adult?

On July 1st, my son hit a milestone, having been a licensed driver for a full year.

His provisional license has been converted to …umm…I am not sure what it’s called now. Besides scary. The rules and regulations governing a BRAND NEW DRIVER have been lifted. Jack can legally squire others in a car and he’s been freed by law from a driving curfew.

These luxuries were prohibited in his first twelve months behind the wheel. Lawmakers, in their wisdom, knew that becoming a licensed driver is a life and death responsibility. So, they made the boy ease into it.

This got me thinking about the roles I’ve taken on or had thrust upon me over the years – important roles like Teacher, Wife, Mother.

One day I was not teaching, wife-ing or parenting. The next day, I was.

Without a twelve-month probationary period.

Perhaps this is why I still feel provisional…as a person.

Before jumping into our pool, my nephew Riley would stand, toes at the edge, and shout, “Best way to get used to it!” before hurling his entire body into the deep end.

I, on the other hand, lingered on the steps, the water’s chill raising goose bumps on my skin. To this day, I need time to adjust, to wade slowly into a fresh change of environment.

Hot to cold, dry to wet. Alone to….crowded.

Sometimes, however, we cannot inch into our circumstances.

The principal hands you keys to a new classroom. An officiate hands you a marriage license. A doctor hands you an infant.

Good luck. Goodbye.

Baby Jack was wailing as we left the hospital and I remember thinking, “They won’t let us go! It’s obvious I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Ha.

The nurse wheeled me and my squalling newborn out the door, sending us both on our way. No practice. No restrictions. I simply had to do it.

Every day. Hour by hour. And when the minutes dragged, I cursed our  lying clock.

Best way to get used to it!

I’ve been married for almost 18 years. Parenting for 17. Writing since I could hold a crayon. Isn’t it time to stop believing I’m provisional?

Even Pinocchio became flesh and blood, eventually.

I am a wife. A mother. A writer.

Stumbling and staggering to my feet, again and again, I wait for the day when all of this feels real.

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On Having to Write

I write because I have to.

HAVE to.

Hmmmm.

As someone with many writer friends, someone who reads countless articles about or by writers, who longs to embrace the writing life, I frequently come across this phase or something similar to it.

I am sure that, for some people, the sentiment rings true.

But I’m throwing off my Artist Cloak, right here, right now, and admitting to everyone that I, Julie C. Gardner, do not have to write.

Not even a little bit.

Sure, when I was a toddler, I scribbled in my baby book pretending to write stories.

Later, I kept journals and dreamed of becoming an author. (Elementary school diary entries reveal my desperate desire to trade places with Judy Blume and to marry Shaun Cassidy. Spoiler alert: neither one seemed interested in these opportunities.)

As an adult, I left a career with a steady paycheck to toss my hat into the literary ring, hoping it wouldn’t be trampled by a stampede of faceless rejection.

In short, I began writing with crayons and still write, forty years later, with a computer.       In my personal experience, Effort + Success – Failure =  Reality.

And reality sometimes bites, right Ethan Hawke?  Practically. Psychologically. A lot.

So why keep at it?

Good question.

Occasionally, I stumble across a poorly-written book and think, “If this guy can be in print, so can I!” Unfortunately, these experiences are more frustrating than tempting, as the siren’s call of someone else’s LOW BAR has proven to sustain me for brief bursts of time.

Eventually, I read something that is beautiful, smart, transcendent.  A real work of genius. That’s when I consider giving up. (By ‘eventually’ I mean every single day of my life.)

For some inexplicable reason, however, I wake up the next morning and greet the page again. In the face of other people’s brilliance. At the risk of my own failure. I march on.

(Believe me. I’m as surprised by this as you are.)

I limp along, persevering, although I do not have to. I wish I did. Being compelled to write by some undeniable force might make tackling the goal a little easier.

Because it’s hard to subject yourself to the emotional toll exacted by endless attempts; especially when conventional wisdom suggests you won’t succeed, or at least not in the ways you once imagined.

And it’s even harder to continue when your gut does not whisper this: “Psst……Julie….. Writing is life! The air you breathe! The passion in your heart and better half of your soul!”

My gut whispers, “Cheetos might be tasty. Or Fritos if that’s what’s left in the variety pack.”

So where does this confession leave me? Doomed to remain uninspired? Unmotivated?

With orange cheese dust on my fingers?

Maybe I am lucky that I do not have to write.

I write because I think I’m good at it and I’ve been encouraged from a young age to do so. Also, I enjoy the aftermath of having composed something decent.

Sometimes, I even want to write. But not even that often, if I’m being honest. 

If this makes me an outsider in the writer-world, so be it.

Either way, I keep stringing words together. One at a time.

Despite an inner-voice that dares me I to quit, I continue to make writing a major focus of my life. And along the way, I’ve  created a blog I love. Met friends who share my dream. (About writing. Not Shaun Cassidy. I think.)

I’ve completed three book-length manuscripts and have been published (more than once) and paid (more than once) for the words I write.

The process is painful and messy, joyous and hard; especially because, at the end of the day, I do not have to write.

But at the beginning of each day, I’m so glad that I can.

Goldilocks and the House Fire

It’s the first week of December and I sit on our couch while my family staggers through the front door with an 8-foot noble fir that will be this year’s Christmas tree.

My head aches. My throat nurtures a lump. I’m mad at myself for not being happier.

Just be happy, Julie.

But the last time a Christmas tree stood in our family room, the space still reeked of smoke and the dim light of spring filtered through filthy sliding glass doors. It was March and our tree was a corpse.

Shriveled and dusty, its naked branches hung at a steep angle of defeat, robbed of our collection of personalized ornaments.

Baby’s First Christmas, 1997. The Gardners: Bill, Julie, Jack and Karly.

Some had been sent to a restoration facility in the hopes they could be saved by an ozone treatment. Others, too fragile to survive, had been stuffed by strangers into blue biohazard bags and tossed out with the casualties of January’s house fire.

We’d had to walk away from everything we owned, surrendering our things to the will of salvage experts.

The tree was last to go. I still don’t know why.

It had taken a week for the towing company to haul away the ruins of my car. When it exploded in the driveway – the heat from the flames in the garage igniting its engine – there were still groceries in the back I hadn’t yet unloaded.

For days, people driving past the burned-out shell of my Toyota Sequoia knew I’d bought bagels that day. And grapes. Red Gatorade.

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By then we were living in a hotel, traveling through our days like tourists visiting our own lives.

Each morning, we had plenty of clean towels and enough free shampoo to lather, rinse and repeat. Bill and I sipped cheap wine in the lobby most nights at six o’ clock while Jack and Karly perused the complimentary salad bar.

They ate iceberg lettuce coated in Thousand Island dressing. They really liked the endless bowl of croutons.

But we had to suspend our carpool because the Residence Inn was too far from our neighborhood; and since my teenaged kids were sharing a bed, Jack often slept on the floor without a blanket.

We missed our dogs. We missed normalcy. We missed home.

So our insurance adjuster arranged a six-month lease on a rental house and I prepared to solve all my family’s problems. Maybe I hadn’t been able to stop the flames from swallowing our garage, but surely I could make this house into a home.

I held my breath as a company delivered loaner furniture and housewares – forks, sheets, toothbrush-holders, pillows – everything a family of four (plus their two dogs) might need.  And just like that, I would make everything better.

I puttered around unfamiliar corners rearranging empty picture frames on borrowed dressers. I stowed a half-dozen fake silk plants in an empty linen cabinet to gather dust.

We didn’t have extra linens anymore.

Once everything was in its place, I stood in the living room alone, fidgeting nervously.

When the kids come home from school, will they feel it, too?

The rooms were furnished but they still seemed vacant to me, a solitary trespasser in an oversized dollhouse with nothing familiar to anchor her. I cooked dinner in a stranger’s kitchen. Jack and Karly sat down to eat at someone else’s table.

Gobble it up, quickly, I thought. Before the real people come back!

I was Goldilocks, except none of the porridge or chairs or beds felt just right.

Tears stung my eyes and my insides roiled.

We are lucky. We are together. What’s the problem?

I’d been quick to tell people (or they told me in an awkward rush) that what we’d lost in the fire was ‘just stuff’ that could be replaced. But I couldn’t replace Jack and Karly’s certainty that my love would always be enough to protect them.

fire 15

I didn’t know I had to pull the pin from the fire-extinguisher to make it work. And as for the trickle of water that had been too weak to stop the fire? Well.

I couldn’t panic and unkink a hose at the same time.

So I got the kids out of the house and went back for the dogs. I chose not to go in a third time for my computer or car keys. No, not even for the guinea pig.

I told Jack to call 911 and I tried to slow the flames. But I failed.

If Daddy had been home, he would have saved the day.

The thought teased my brain. It teases me still, a year later, as my family wheels a fresh Christmas tree inside our home. What was burned has been rebuilt. Repainted. Restored.

But everything is different.

I now have concrete proof (along with drywall-proof and roof and garage-door and car-proof) that I’m a mother but I won’t always save the day. I can’t.

No matter how hard I may try.

My kids know this now, too.

For months, Karly slept on the floor beside our bed because she couldn’t escape the fear that some other terrible thing might happen. I couldn’t tell her otherwise with any confidence.

After eight years of training, Jack quit going to karate preferring to be with us in the evenings instead of at the studio. Just in case.

We have a couch and a family room again. But what we no longer have – what can never be returned to us – is the sense of total safety we used to feel here. I’ve learned now that I can’t put out even the figurative fires that haunt us. At least not always.

Jack and Karly have learned that lesson, too.

But I’m their mother. So I’ll still try. And fail. Then try again.

I will help my children hang ornaments on this year’s tree.

Decorating the tree

A version of this post was the piece I read for Listen to Your Mother, the nationwide show created by the amazing Ann Imig.

I wanted to share it here with those who could not be there and to thank you, as always, for your love and support.

On Being Heard

I spend many of my waking hours in silence.

Eight of them, in fact. Every day.

Unless I have some kind of appointment (which is rare) or take a phone call (which is rarer), I do not speak a single word between “Have a great day!” when my kids leave for school and “So, how was your day?” upon their return.

For those who know me well, this fact must be nearly impossible to believe.

When I was a child, my nickname was Motor Mouth. I loved chatting with everyone. Family. Neighbors. Strangers in the grocery store. I probably talked to myself a fair bit, too.

More than anything else, I wanted to be heard. (And to marry Shaun Cassidy. Obviously.)

During my years teaching high school English, I talked all day long. To hundreds of people. Or at them. Students. Colleagues. Friends.

And I was loud.

Rumor has it my voice would boom out of the classroom, down our hall, across an entire two-story building.

Shakespeare warrants volume, after all.

But now, the blank page is my audience. A blinking cursor. The buzz of silence.

Tick tock. Tick. Eight hours.

So. How was your day, kids?

Sure, if you get me in a room full of people with whom I’m already comfortable, I don’t shut up.

Just ask my book club.

When it comes to the masses, however, I prefer invisibility. I take comfort in anonymity, this degree of separation afforded by a strictly digital relationship.

I love to share my words.  These private thoughts. My guts on a page. But please do not call me on the phone and expect me to answer.

I can’t. I won’t.

I mean it.

Which is precisely why I auditioned for the Listen To Your Mother show.

As scared as I was – as awkward as it is for me to speak (voluntarily) the words of my heart in front of others I know barely or not at all – I simply had to.

I used to sing on stage and play the piano. I even took a stab at acting in plays, although I was truly terrible. Still. I loved performing and was rarely nervous in the spotlight.

Deep breaths. Steady hands. Go.

Jitters? Nerves? Tears?

Ha!

Now, the prospect of being publicly vulnerable makes me tremble. More than a little.

Here, at my computer, I am safe. I type these words. You read them. Perhaps you comment. “I understand completely,” you might say.

But there is distance between us here. This is not ME, looking at YOU and risking failure. Face to face.

Alone in my silent house, I face no fears of unraveling. Or of falling apart. One word at a time. I am at my desk, now, nowhere near the Listen To Your Mother stage. In front of everyone.

So. Will there be jitters at the show? Nerves? Tears?

Yes.

Still, I am doing it.  At four o’clock on April 27th at The Ebell Theater in Santa Ana.

I will sit beside a dozen wonderful women and wait until it’s my turn to take the microphone and turn myself inside out.

On that day, my words won’t be seen and read.

I will be heard.

Grab the code!

If you are interested in attending the show, you can purchase tickets here and a portion of the proceeds will go to WISEplace, a community of housing and hope for women in crisis.

 

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Julie


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