Personal Journey

That Entirely Legal Thing I Did to Celebrate My One Year Brain Surgery Anniversary

In college, I was into modern dance, which was my introduction to the green room, to theatre, and to the adrenaline rush of performing. I loved the jack-hammering of my heart as I stood in the dark wings. I loved the blinding lights and the one or two dancers whose epic fits would make the rest of us feel so poised. Confession: I loved the attention. As a young person, I was an attention junky, and I wasn’t picky about the sort I got. Bad. Good. Legal. Illegal. Here I am, notice me. was the mantra of my life. But with dancing, I was part of a team or a duo. Even if I was dancing a solo, I was a cog in a machine, and we were making something lovely.

Ever after, when I would watch a play, I’d be crazy-jealous of the cast members. They seemed to be having so much fun. But I sing as well as a cat in heat, and I’ve never acted before. As much as I missed the stage, as an adult it wasn’t happening for me.

The one attribute I bring to the theatrical table is my willingness to look stupid, especially at church. If we can’t mess up there, where can we? (That may be an upside-down perspective for those who think church is for the perfectly put together.) Enter, Heaven’s Gates & Hell’s Flames, a mind-blowing spiritual drama that explores what happens the second after we die. Seneca said, “The day which we fear is our last is but the birthday of eternity.” Audiences come to be entertained, but they come away with much to think about. Isn’t that the point of art—to shine a spotlight and shatter dogmas?

So I told the insecure miscreant who lives inside my head and comes out whenever there’s a hard and/or uncomfortable thing to do…I told her to shut up, and I went and read the script. I got a little part, and I—with God’s help—performed. I got to be a cog again. This time, making something lasting. And I hope, lovely. A performance to make people stop and think about what they believe.

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Personal Journey

Happy Brain Surgery Anniversary to Me

April 6th, 2018. It was the Cleveland Indians’ home opener. I was at University Hospital having an opener of my own. Brain surgery.

Kumquats: Joanna Kosinska

A year later the skin on my head is still tight. I often run my fingers along the dents in my skull. They can’t be seen because my superhero surgeon managed to extract a kumquat-sized tumor without shaving my hair. My jog pace is three minutes slower and hurts worse. I mess up numbers and dates with freakish consistency (just ask my students). But thank you, God. I can write. And teach. And hug. And walk. I can have coffee with my grown daughters, watch my son graduate high school, watch my teenager swim. I live with a new perspective: life isn’t forever. Don’t waste.

Carpe diem, we’re told. Seize the day. I am a Jedi-Master at day-seizing. I climb volcanos. I sled head-first and backward. I slide down the hot metal handrail in swanky pools. I dance the Stanky Leg stone sober and the YMCA without regard for which way the “C” goes. I rock the high dive, the low dive, and any balcony or roof within ten feet of a pool.

Professional day-seizer, right? Au contraire mon frère. That is thrill seeking. To carpe diem is to hug tightly, to look someone square in the eyes, to hold hands like they’re welded together. To carpe diem is to write love letters, make meatloaf, be interruptable, do dishes, leave the dishes, serve a meal, smile, cry, all of it without vanity.

When things go south—not just hiccup south, but kamikaze-nose-dive south—God takes over. It’s magnificent.

But first comes poverty. Blessed are the poor in spirit. I remember going to church and wanting to stop my ears at the upbeat worship songs. I wanted to scream, I had this piano dropped on me! Why are we all singing like it’s standard ops? Where are the thunderclouds? Where is Mozart’s Requiem? I could not sing. Those words weren’t for me. Are you kidding me? Poor? I was destitute in my spirit.

We think we deserve a smooth road. We pray for asphalt, lay down good habits and programs to assure a wrinkle-free trip; we buy apps, sign up for accountability groups. Sometimes we sin for a toll road. And when a root trips us or a bridge is out—don’t we just howl in indignation? How could you, God? How DARE you! Fact is, the Awful with-a-capital-A moment has to come in order for the After to come. Like Jesus. His Awful was the cross. We live in his After. I’m glad he went through with it. He had a choice.

When you know something is very wrong with you, but you don’t know exactly what, or you can’t fix it with diet and exercise…you are meek. You’re at the mercy of your broken body, of doctors, nurses, health insurance policies, lab techs, maintenance personnel (did they sanitize the instruments?), high-tech computers, the unbroken flow of electricity during your surgery. You feel at the mercy of gobs of stuff. But that’s a lie. You’re at the mercy of only one thing: God.

There are no promises of healing. Only: blessed are the meek. This I experienced. I am blessed by the fact that my brain surgery was a success, but even beforehand I was blessed by the way I felt…held is the best word for it. Not alone. Not forsaken. Not punished. I was exactly where God wanted me to be. For other people, the place to be was the baseball home opener. I cannot compare myself to others. Do you think it’s possible I wasn’t jealous of those hotdog-eating fans with their perfect health? I wasn’t. That was my miracle.

In the face of no guarantees, here is my takeaway:

Love.

Love however it looks for you. Maybe it means speaking up. Or shutting up. Love can be as easy as smiling at a stranger. But it’s more fun when it’s kissing my husband. Bob taught me what love under duress looks like. The mention of 2018 gives him the willies, but I have fond memories of his arm around me, his hand in mine, his Oscar-worthy declarations of you’ll-be-fine. And he was right. Ever the optimist is my husband. He’s trying to get me to see things that way. It’s less painful to be an optimist. But see, Bob would have said, “It’s more pleasant to be an optimist.” I still have halfway to go. 😉

Today I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to try. (It’s scary and exciting and entirely legal.) What is it, you ask? I’ll let you know if I actually go through with it.

Cheers! And happy brain surgery anniversary to me.

 

 

 

 

on writing, Personal Journey

Coffee Confession Query Update

I wish the coffee would stay hot, even down to those last few sips. When it’s first brewed I put my face in the mug and pull the aroma into my nose. Those gloriously warm first sips are the best. Then it gets mindless. I’m in the world of my manuscript, slugging down the caffeine for its properties and not for the flavor anymore. By the end and especially if I’ve forgotten the mug for a bit, those cold shots are all willpower. The will to not waste.

If we were having coffee, I’d tell you I’m still waiting to hear from agents who have my full manuscript. Have I ever mentioned what a patient person I am? No? Exactly. The customary wait time before it’s polite to nudge an agent is 90 days. 90! Jesus was in the desert for 40. Meanwhile, I’m all over the place as far as my manuscript goes. I believe in it. I love it. But I also wonder if I’m about to sustain another round of near-knockout punches from which I’ll have to rise. And I will. Rise. I’ve fed myself author stories about overcoming. One writer had over a hundred rejections a year for three years before landing an agent. Same book, mind you. I thought a hundred was high. Here’s where I’m at as of today:

55 queries sent since June, 2018

4 full requests; 1 rejection, 3 still out

43 rejections or no answer (which means the same thing)

8 recently sent and not yet rejected (my goal is to have 7 always in the hopeful queue)

I have to tell you, it felt like more than 43 rejections. At rejection 26 (November 2018) I revamped my query letter with the help of Query Shark, and I received my first requests for fulls. Ah…the validation. But what is validated? My ability to entice an agent. Check. My ability to write fifty good pages. Check. But do I have what it takes to write the full monty? I now believe the ability to finish doesn’t rest on my current level of talent but on my constant level of persistence. Unless a book is in such a shamble that it cannot be fixed (think flattened roadkill), there is hope. I will continue revising. Until I’m agented. Until I’m published.

That is what it means to be a writer. Grit. Rejection. Revising. Some would say that in order to have the audacity to create an entire world with words alone, one must possess a cyclopean ego, its one bulging eye fixed on fandom. And to temper the writer’s god complex is the querying process. Confession: I have never felt my ego was large enough for this industry. If anyone has ideas on how to bulk up the ego at any stage of a manuscript, please share. I do pray though. And I find that if I stop looking at myself (oh poor little me and my homeless manuscript…) I’m happier.

Meanwhile, I use every opportunity to better myself. I listen to podcasts on writing and follow people who are in the querying trenches. This month I applied for a mentor at Author Mentor Match. I should hear any day now. I also entered Trespass in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. It was exciting for me to enter because last year at this time I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to have surgery. I was unable to focus on anything but loving my family and friends. I missed the deadline.

I hunt down beta readers and join writing groups.  All these things I do to keep moving toward my goal, the most important being to put my butt in the chair and work on my 2nd manuscript, 19,233 words in, but who’s counting? Today I managed 588 words. A thousand is a good day, but I am a slow creator and a rabid revisor.

Thanks for sticking with my update! Hope the coffee didn’t get too cold for you. 🙂

Many thanks to Eclectic Ali for getting the coffee brewing and the conversation started. Ali describes her casual posting plan: Weekend Coffee Share is a time for us to take a break out of our lives and enjoy some time catching up with friends (old and new)! Grab a cup of coffee and share with us! What’s been going on in your life? What are your weekend plans? Is there a topic you’ve just been ruminating on that you want to talk about?

Personal Journey

Coffee Confession from USC

Today for coffee we could head over to the Starbucks at the University of South Carolina. Luke is applying to colleges, and we’re all dreaming of what’s in store for his future. While we haven’t heard back from many of his hopefuls yet, USC accepted him into their honors college and invited us to visit. It was 30° when we left Cleveland. Our walking tour yesterday was 70°, and I was feeling my long sleeves. Not complaining, though. The birds were singing. My skin wasn’t getting frostbit. Students were dressed in shorts. Everyone refers to us as y’all in that southern accent that’s as sweet as their tea.

I have managed to embarrass my son already. They keep throwing us into soirees, the kind where you walk into a room full of clusters of people already engaged in deep, robust conversation, and you must figure out how to pry your way in gracefully. I am not known for my spontaneous verbal grace. One of the many reasons I prefer writing: the backspace key.

We enjoyed breakfast at the top of the Capstone House, a revolving room 18 floors high with floor-to-ceiling windows. I was introduced to the concept of shrimp and grits from a distance and had the most delicious chocolate cheesecake. Cheesecake for breakfast. Oh, and I had it last night for dessert too. I’d do well to walk back to Ohio.

As I type this Luke is in his interview. They play it super low key. My kind of people. The director of admissions joked to a room of scholar-nerds and their nerd-parents that yoga keeps her out of prison. I could definitely have coffee with a gal like that. She and I talked a bit about Pat Conroy, whose books are often set here in Columbia and in Charleston. I am in the middle of Beach Music (a volume so thick you could jack your car on it), and there are scenes that take place on the campus. I got to see the Horseshoe, a beautiful green I just read about, as well as the student union where Conroy has a Vietnam demonstration take place. Very cool.

I’ll tell you though. Even with the 15° temperature, nothing beats home. Looking forward to sharing coffee with you from my beloved Keurig, next time.

 

 

 

 

 

Personal Journey

A (True) Love Story

photo credit: Israel Palacio

Once upon 1982, I stood on a stage with a few girls who actually had talent and choked out the Christmas carol, “Silver Bells.” I did not know this would be one of the defining moments of my life.

Weeks before, I crashed the hand-picked ensemble simply by showing up to the practice. Our music teacher, a Mr. Komenski, had exactly zero penchant for conflict, even with the eleven-year-old tuneless neophyte who lived a few rows down from his own trailer and when bored, would shut off his electric at the main. (All the boxes were together in a central location behind the trailers, easily reachable. Duh.) My friend said singing in the little group was fun and I should come. So I did. It never occurred to either of us that Mr. Komenski had a say in it.

This is how (true) love stories begin. WIth a girl who can’t sing, a friend who can’t discern, and a music teacher who can’t say no.

Besides my unlikely moment in the spotlight, another rare incident played a part in this (true) love story: a teacher strike. I can thank a savvy administrator, who funneled two elementary schools into one, for dodging a district-wide shutdown and guiding me to my date with destiny.

I didn’t get bussed to a different elementary school, but my friend Tony did. He lived in the trailer behind mine, and together we often cut off Mr. Komenski’s electricity. Tony was in the audience on the day of the concert. Because of the teacher strike, he’d made many new friends. One of them was the intensely blue-eyed, exquisitely chiseled Bob—Bobby. BOBBY Griffiths. No one calls him that now, but this was 1982.

Bob’ll tell the story that he and Tony sat on crowded benches in the darkened auditorium, that Bob’s breath caught, that he was completely enchanted. He’ll allege there was a beautiful creature on the stage with a few other girls singing “Silver Bells.” Bobby thought perhaps his new friend Tony would know the girl, so he leaned in and asked.

“Oh that’s just Kelly Seyer,” Tony dismissed me with a wave. To Tony, I was a guy in a girl’s body before it was fashionable, before gender dysphoria. I was a tomboy when tomboys still existed. And Tony was unimpressed. But Bob would not be swayed by Tony’s (at best) 3-star rating of Kelly Seyer. Something happened to Bob that day, the soul-quickening poets try to capture in verse. To hear Bob tell it, he loved me at first sight.

I sang my Christmas song, unaware.

When shutting off Mr. Komenski’s electric became blasé, Tony and I moved on to other pursuits, one of which was finding “dates” for each other. I found the lovely Janet for him, and Tony remembered I’d somehow hypnotized Bobby at the Christmas concert. Tony’s mom drove the four of us to the mall for the afternoon. This is how I met my husband: all nerves and angst and…and we were crushed in the backseat of a wee little car. I remember that.

I remember his blond, curly hair and the red bandana around his wrist. And his veins in relief against his skin. We shared a banana split at Friendly’s. We fell into a wormhole and for three years were Bobby&Kelly. Just before tenth grade, I moved to Ohio. We wrote and called, and when I could make the seven-hour drive to Allentown, I’d visit him, even if it was just a quick lunch. When we were together, it was as if no time had passed. We talked about everything. I told him I had no friends at my new school. He couldn’t believe it. He told me his mom had cancer. I will never forget hearing that news.

Bobby became Robert. I became Mrs. Somebody Else. No fortune teller worth her salt would prophesy the us we are today. But (true) love stories are prickly mazes. Love is patient, says the Bible. The Bible means that a would-be lover ought to be patient with his beloved, but I mean that for us, Love was patient. To us, Love has been kind. Not perfect, but kind. After I moved to Ohio, we did life as best friends, worlds apart. For eight years, actually.

January 2020 is our 25th wedding anniversary, and I still think of Bob as my very best friend, my fun friend, the friend who-WILL-dance-with-me, the strong arms I fall into, the smile I crave. How did I get so blessed, you ask? How did we go from childhood sweethearts to far-away friends to Mr. & Mrs. Griffiths? That is a long story, a post for another day…

Decorating Easter eggs together 1985
Bob ran my first 5K with me 1985
Days before my craniotomy 2018
My favorite chef – Thanksgiving 2018
Personal Journey

Coffee Confession

If we were having coffee, I’d ask if you’d like to expand your caffeine horizons with some dark roast & coconut oil whirled at high speed. That’s what produced this cup of foamy, bitter love. I often put powdered collagen in as well, although only in my first cup of the day. How many cups are there in a day? I try to cut myself off at three and drink the last one before 3PM.

I’m slowly getting into my new WIP. I don’t know why I get so full of angst when I sit down to a white page and have to put something there. In the writing world, the first draft is called a crappy first draft (or another name for poo, but you get the drift). We’re supposed to throw words out there, get them down, don’t stifle the flow with grammar and eloquence and all that—which I try not to do, but it hurts my eyes, this crappy first draft. Oh, a sentence or turn of phrase here and there makes me smile, but argh!…if this isn’t a slog. I’m sharing my work as I go, something I said I wouldn’t do and that the great Stephen King advises against, but I have this lovely group of women who are kind enough to visit every two weeks, and I must have an offering. So I have to truck out the garbage and let them smell it. Keeps me humble.

Another thing that humbles/makes-me-insane: waiting on my manuscript. It’s never far from my mind that agents (or their interns) are reading Trespass. I stalk other bloggers who are in a similar position. I pray that the right agent (not just any agent) will love it and that I’ll have the grit to accept rejection. My husband calls me the trojan horse because I want to sneak inside people by way of a thrilling story and unleash my kool-aid on them. Isn’t that what Harriet Beecher Stowe did? And C.S. Lewis? And every great writer? What’s the point if we don’t have something deeper to communicate? And don’t say Marvel. Or DC Comics. Or millions of dollars. I’m still starry-eyed about writing. I hope to die that way. Just, not too soon.

My son had a swim meet Sunday, and he placed 1st in all his events, two of which were relays. Mountaintop moment! After that we spent the Superbowl with friends, which was a good thing since the game and commercials were meh. I’m slowly recovering from the flu. I thought it was a cold, but it unexpectedly turned and trampled me last week. I look forward to smelling again someday. Although I did read that you can lose your sense of smell permanently from the flu. You’re welcome.

Thanks to Eclectic Alli for getting the coffee and conversation brewing.

on writing, Personal Journey

Weekend Coffee Share: Things to Say Yay! About

If we were having coffee I’d be smiling enormously. Two weeks ago today an agent requested my full manuscript. My reaction: eeeeeeeeck! Then another agent requested my manuscript. And…holy-too-good-to-be-true Batman! A THIRD AGENT REQUESTED MY FULL MANUSCRIPT. For my non-writer friends, this is like winning the lottery three times in a row. I’ve spilled my coffee all over myself with my Italian arm-waving at this point, I’m so dang excited.

I withdrew my query letter from Query Shark, the site that taught me how to craft a query. At first I was hesitant to withdraw it because I so wanted Janet’s perspective, but I know that the query itself is doing its job. At three requests I can’t in fairness ask her to critique it. If you have a completed manuscript and want to make sure agents actually read your first pages, read Janet’s entire site. That’s what I did. She says over and over that the key is reading the entire site, and it’s true. There is no substitute, no short cut or hack. It’s hours and hours and hours of work, I’m not going to lie. But it’s fun too. Janet’s witty as all get out.

Now I’m waiting. The idea that agents are looking at my story…chills, I tell you. So I’m doing the next right thing (besides checking my email a thousand times a day), which is beginning my second novel. It took about a week for me to not dread showing up at the blank screen. Now that the story’s rolling, I’m completely digging it.

Meanwhile, my husband and I have had some lovely walks, some nights by the fire, and lots of time to chat at Gabe’s swim meets. Love watching swim meets, even for six+ hours. When Gabe isn’t competing (99% of the time), I read or prepare for a class I teach. Or throw down a Starbucks and wiggle and squirm on the bleacher seats until the caffeine works its way through my bloodstream.

Today everything was closed because of the big storm. Abbott did not like how the snow ticked his belly when he went out to do his business. He whimpered and ran back to the door. I sternly told him to man up (a very unpopular directive in these Gillette times), but he can’t understand me anyway. He got my tone, got back in the drifts and did what he had to do…

Later, Luke and Anna played with him. He decided he very much likes the deep snow. Just like anything new, he just had to give it a chance. Thanks to Eclectic Ali for the Weekend Coffee Share. 🙂

And here he is, Abbott, my rockstar dog.