Friday, November 30, 2012

Seven Quick Takes

1.)  My novel!  I finished the Letters from Anne novel on November 27th after writing 65,347 words.  I'm pleased with it.  I will let it sit for a few months and then begin the whole tedious revision process.  I don't know if it will ever make it to print, but it was a fun endeavor and I enjoyed writing it.  I think it was even a bit therapeutic for me.

2) I attempted two new recipes this month.  The first one, "The Unsloppy Joe," which I noted on-line and decided to try, turned out to be a very, very sloppy joe.  It was basically sloppy joe meat mixture, crammed with cheese into a Grands biscuit.  The tough part was the cramming.  I ended up with messy fingers, a messy counter and very messy-looking pastries.  They DID taste good, but I'll never try it again because it was a disaster to put together.  They have another easier recipe which cooks in a muffin pan.  I think I'll try that next time.

3)The second recipe I searched for on the Internet because I had a can of sweetened condensed milk that was nearing its out date.  I discovered a recipe for truffles and also had some dark chocolate chips which needed to be used up soon, so the recipe seemed perfect.  Once again, the actual making turned out to be messy and very unattractive.  In fact, they look like poop chunks.  But, the end result was still tasty.  I'm guessing there won't be any left by the time my family comes for their visit at the end of the coming month.

4) I have been desperate to capture a photo of us, or at least the kids, for a Christmas card this year, but it seems like the fates are against me.  Two weeks back, I had everyone dress up and told them that after church we would ask someone to take our photo.  It was only while I was sitting in the pew that I realized that I had forgotten to bring my camera along.  Groan.  The following week (last Sunday), I remembered the camera and we asked the pastor's wife to take the photo.  When she tried with my camera, all she could get were blurry pictures (darn this camera for not having image stabilization).  So, she offered to take them on her more professional camera and e-mail me. I still haven't heard a word. I know she's busy so I feel bad asking about when she's going to send them.  So far, these are the best photos of the boys that I could come up with:

5) Plus, my sister took this lovely photo of me when she came for a visit and we took a walk on our property. 

6) During the walk, we chanced upon the dying body of a small cat (almost a kitten, really).  It was quite sad.  We had noticed the little black cat near our front porch on Sunday morning.  Then, Monday morning, Bryce called just after leaving for school (he's driving himself to school these days) to say that there was a cat in the garage.  John and I went out to see if we could shoo it out. It had pooped and peed in the garage - urgh!  The poop was green and John realized that the cat had eaten the poison that he had put out for a mouse that is in the garage.  Poor thing finally ran out of the garage and into the woods.  When my sister and I chanced upon it later, it was still breathing, but frozen with its eyes open.  So sad and I don't even like cats.

7) I snagged this lovely photo from Facebook.  The two sisters are my nieces.  Beautiful women!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tightroping Between the Law and Grace

It is hard to believe it was a whole year ago that I left off with my life-coaching for a spell.  When I left it, I still had three paid sessions available to me and I told my life-coach that I would get back to him when I needed them.  Then, things conspired to cause me to feel the need of them several weeks back.

Having just finished the novel I began at the beginning of November (the Letters from Anne novel, about a girl trying to make her way to forgiveness for her father after he has done something that impacted her life deeply), I am still deep in thoughts of forgiveness and grace.  In the novel, at one point, I explore the idea of the importance of extending grace to oneself.  I am so in need of this personally.

In my last session, my life-coach challenged my view of God and my view of my responsibilities to Him.  He said that my view of God has been tarnished by Christianity which places all kinds of caveats on the love of God. He emphasized that God's love for us is unconditional.  God loves the homosexual while he/she is involved in the act of homosexuality.  God loves the alcoholic on a binge.  God loves the thief while they are stealing. Or I should say, God loves before, during and after.  God's love is not conditional on how we behave.

I get that, when I think about my children.  I tell them all the time that they might do something that makes me sad, or even a little bit angry, but that my love for them remains intact.  But, it is harder to feel that when I feel like I am somehow not deserving of God's love ... that somehow my inability to jump through the right hoops keeps me from His overwhelming love.  Guilt holds a great grip on me.

Plus, I struggle with maintaining balance on this issue.  I believe there is such a thing as right and wrong.  I believe that acting in the right brings peace and the best things for us.  But, I believe we will not always choose the right.  I know I don't always choose the right.  Choosing to do wrong brings consequences.  Consequences are equally an extension of God's love, no?  God's love dictates consequences for choosing the wrong.

If I love my child, I will bring consequences to bear when they make a choice that is harmful for them.  So how does one balance the consequences and the feeling of God's love?  My life lacks a certain feeling of freedom and that seems to stem from bondage to expectations and a fear of getting it wrong.  If I could let go of those expectations and the fear of getting things wrong, I could experience a whole different level of freedom.  But, I'm hung up on the letting go of those expectations.  I live by those expectations.

At this point, I have no answers.  These are all just ideas swirling around in my head.  I keep chewing over God's unconditional love and trying to reconcile it with His desire for me to act according to His will.  It feels like a tightrope and it feels wrong to fall off on one side or the other. If I fall on the side of God's endless love, then what about the law and making the best choice (especially when choices deeply impact others)?  If I fall on the side of the law, then what about a loving God who is there waiting to extend His arms around me, even when I don't deserve it?  Obviously, if I'm going to fall off the tightrope, the preferred side to fall on is the one of unconditional love.  But, I cannot get myself to want to fall.  My toes are clinging to the rope and I'm just trying to get to the other side with my body and soul intact (and to hurt myself and others as little as possible). 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review: The Mermaid Chair

There are some authors who hold you even when you don't particularly appreciate the direction a story is headed.  I'm glad that this was true of Sue Monk Kidd, in The Mermaid Chair, or I might not have given this story a chance.  At the beginning, it seemed like this was going to be a story of adultery just for adultery's sake.  I found myself talking back to the story, saying things like "You can't just abandon a marriage because you see someone and fall in love in an instant," and "isn't that too typical ... a person grows stale in a relationship and thinks that seeking love elsewhere is the answer."  And, I found the thought of a monk engaging in adultery to be a bit more than I could swallow. Thankfully, the lyrical prose which Sue Monk Kidd masterfully weaves kept me listening to this audio book.

I found myself wishing I could write as beautifully as she does. Her similes are creative and fresh.  She evokes images so well and thoroughly plunges the reader into the atmosphere of her story. The further the story went, the deeper I was pulled into this colorful tale. By the end, it was clear, there is significant truth in this story, despite what felt at the beginning to be a glorification of adultery.

Jessie has been summoned to Egret Island, the small island off the coast of South Carolina where she grew up.  In a seemingly senseless act, Jessie's mother has chopped off one of her own fingers.  Although her psychiatrist husband, Hugh, offers to accompany her and help her get to the bottom of things, Jessie insists this is a journey she must make alone.  She has been feeling stagnant in life ever since their only daughter, Dee, went away to college.  She feels she needs to get away to find herself.

In the midst of finding herself, she also falls in love with Brother Thomas, a monk who is about to take his vows.  Brother Thomas has come to the monastery to find shelter and solace after the death of his wife and unborn baby.  He is searching for something spiritual to fill the emptiness within.  He falls in love with Jessie the moment he sees her, as well (I think this is why I was talking back to the book).

Through images of mermaids and saints and intertwining threads, the author carries Jessie through this perplexing journey into her mother's madness and helps her to understand the death of her father more fully.  She begins to realize many things about herself that were set in motion when her father died on a small boat from an explosion thought to be caused by the very pipe Jessie had given him for Father's Day.

She does find herself.  She grows into herself, I should say.  She begins to see herself more clearly and then comes to her senses about what she really wants, which is to stand on her own two feet and make her marriage work.

I think the story could have been told without the adultery.  I think the two characters could have interacted in a way to show their broken lives gaining redemption without plunging into such a moral pit.  But, her writing was, indeed, beautiful.

Here is an example of the author's brilliant prose, taken from the very end of this story:

"Forgiveness was so much harder than being remorseful.  I couldn't imagine the terrible surrender it would take ....  There are things without explanation.  Moments when life will become arranged in such odd ways that you imagine a whole vocabulary of meaning inside them.  The breakfast smell struck me like that.  That was where our marriage had left off, that day back in February.  February 17th.  Ash Wednesday.  The day of ashes and endings.  Hugh had cooked breakfast - sausage and eggs. It had been the final thing before I'd left.  The benediction....

"[I was] afraid I would ruin whatever was about to happen.  The room seemed to hang in the air revolving, deliberate, like a bit of glass lifted to the sun and turned slowly to refract the light....

"There would be no grand absolution, only forgiveness meted out in these precious sips.  It would well up from Hugh's heart in spoonfuls and he would feed it to me and it would be enough."

That's the kind of writing that holds you spellbound and brings you around full circle so that you completely understand the changes the characters have undergone.  That's the kind of writing that makes you end a book wishing you could pick it up again and start all over.  I fully intend to start all over again, with her other bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees.  It is clear why her books are so very popular.  I hope she continues to weave these wonderful webs for readers to follow and perch upon.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book Review: Crunch

Crunch, by Leslie Connor, is a Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee.  And for good reason.  Connor has written a delightful little tale about a family of children strapped at home, trying to run the family business while their mother and father are stranded somewhere else during a fuel shortage.

When fourteen-year-old Dewey Marriss agreed to run his father's bike shop for a week during the summer, he never dreamed that week would stretch on into two or three.  Nobody knew the fuel tanks would dry up while the Marriss parents were away on their big rig.  Thankfully, the Marriss children are resourceful and responsible.  They continue to keep things afloat despite the disappointment of an art class canceled (for the eldest daughter, Lil, who is eighteen), the pressures of a burgeoning bike business (everybody has resorted to this form of transportation), and the complications of a thief in town (stealing bikes and money and anything he can get his hands on, a little bit at a time).

Lil turns her frustration over the cancelled class into motivation to create a stunning work of art on the side of the barn.  Dewey and thirteen-year-old Vince manage to keep the Bike Barn up and running, until it becomes completely overwhelming.  Then, they manage to think up a clever plan to clear the Bike Barn of all the repairs before their dad has a chance to return.  The two five-year-old twins muddle through the difficult emotions caused by their parents' absence.  Together, they even manage to identify the crook (with the help of a little blue paint).

All is restored to normal by the time the parents return.  The kids have proven that even though they can manage to be resourceful and responsible, it's a whole lot more fun to just be a kid.

This was an easy read and very suitable for boys and girls within the 8-12 year range.  The book had a good dose of humor, well-drawn characters and a pleasantly-paced plot.  This is one I'll have to remember to read to the boys in a few years' time.  I'd read it to them now, but I'm a bit afraid that Trevor would expect to do his own mural with spray paint on the side of our barn.  Ha!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Progress in Nanowrimoland

So, I declared that I was dragging my feet.  But really, that seems an unrealistic assessment now.  I have already reached the established goal for Nanowrimo, the coveted 50,000 words of a novel.  My novel is now pushing 53,000 words.  I am plugging away, determined to attempt to finish the whole thing before November ends.  If not, well, that's okay, too.

Although I don't feel as confident about this story line (my head goes back and forth saying, "maybe this character really wouldn't get the position she is trying out for because she is so ostracized... maybe this aspect of the story doesn't fit ... maybe I'm not portraying the conflict in the best possible terms ... maybe I should change the crime that caused all the friction between the main character and her father ... maybe it needs to be something else ... maybe I'm not totally ready to write the forgiveness scene ... etc."), the words are definitely flying onto the page.  When I walk in the morning, new aspects of the story seem to jump into my mind.  I am constantly analyzing it, constantly trying to find the best fit for each of the aspects and characters in my story.

Plus, I am listening to a well-written novel at the same time.  As I hear brilliantly beautiful analogies and similes, I find myself wishing I could laden my own novel with stunning prose like this gifted writer (Sue Monk Kidd).  But, I'm also feeling realistic.  This novel is an exercise.  I am flexing my writing muscles to see what I can achieve.  If this is merely a practice run, it is still of great value.  And, like the philosophy of Nanowrimo, I can always go back after the completed manuscript is done and rework the bits that need further revision.  I will, at least, have a shell to start off with and can further flesh out the details as need be.

So, I'm patting myself on the back for giving this year's challenge a go.  I didn't know if I was prepared to write at all.  I wasn't overly thrilled with my chosen topic (even though I had been all set to write this story a year ago, when a different idea popped into my head one week prior to the start of Nanowrimo).  But, I'm getting it done.  I'm writing with abandon ... and that is progress!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Little Bee

A few years back I ran into a mother of one of Bryce's classmates at the library.  She suggested that if I'm looking for a good read, I should try Little Bee, by Chris Cleave.  I've seen it raved about elsewhere as well.  I know it is an award winner and a New York Times bestseller.  I just didn't like it very much.  I'm not sure why. 

It is well-written.  The author does a superb job of shifting back and forth between two different narrators and weaving it all with expert timing.  The story is interesting and engaging.  The characters were bold and well-developed.  Somehow, none of that seemed to endear me to it as it should have.

Perhaps it is because it is such a sad tale.  Perhaps I wanted something with more sunlight, with more redemption at the end.  Perhaps I just didn't connect well enough with the story.  For whatever reason, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have continued reading if it hadn't been a book club selection.  And even then, I didn't make it to the book club this month because my husband needed me to stay home that evening with the little boys.  So, I don't know how others in my group responded (although all who wrote to say they couldn't make it said it made them profoundly sad).

I don't want to reveal the plot or spoil any surprises for those wanting to read this bestselling novel.  Instead, I will just say that it is a tale which intertwines the lives of two women, one a young Nigerian refugee and the other a British journalist.  The two meet on a horribly fateful day when one is asked to do something unthinkable in order to try to save the other.  They part ways, unsure how the future will pan out for each of them.  Then, two years later, they meet up again and once again attempt to remedy a desperate situation.

The only character I could fully relate to was the young son who refuses to take off his Batman costume and believes he is a superhero.  That fits with my realm of experience.  I couldn't relate to either narrator, even though I tried to really get behind the story.  I just found myself profoundly saddened and desperate for a better resolution than eventually came.  I know the goal was to move the reader.  And I can handle a book with a sad ending, but this just felt like nothing good ever came of the whole scenario.  I want redemption too badly.  I want there to be some value in the tale being told.  Are refugees being treated better because of the publication of this book?  I don't know.  I would hope so, but I'm not so sure.  If I run into a refugee will I be more likely to take notice of their story.  Perhaps.  But then, there are also refugees who are unwilling to go through the legal processes and just want to enter countries to absorb the benefits without following any legitimate steps.  I can't get behind that.

All that to say, go ahead and try the book if you like.  It didn't do much for me, but perhaps you will be enthralled and really moved by what "The New York Times" calls "an affecting story of human triumph."  Perhaps you will find yourself raving about it in a library to another patron.  Who knows.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: Stray Affections

With my mind focused so intensely on the novel I am writing for Nanowrimo, I'm not sure I'll be able to produce a very good review of this book.  I stumbled upon the "Snowglobe Connections" series by Charlene Ann Baumbich quite by accident.  I had noticed a new book by Chris Bohjalian and it reminded me that I have been wanting to read his novel, The Double Bind, because of several good reviews by fellow bloggers who enjoyed the book.  I headed to the shelves and located the book, but also noticed these two novels by Baumbich entitled, Stray Affections and Divine Appointments.

Back in the beginning of November, I picked up Divine Appointments and began to read (because that title and cover hooked me in more for some reason).  However, I quickly discovered that this was the second book in the series (since it referenced a previous character and situation).  I decided it would be better to read the books in order and so left off reading that one and moved on to Stray Affections.

Cassandra Higgins is a daycare provider and mother to four boisterous little boys (are there any other kinds?).  She purchases a snowglobe at a Collector's Convention because the little girl in the globe is surrounded by dogs and looks like a miniature version of herself, a version not unlike the girl she used to be back when she had her own dog as a child.  Sadly, her memories of her dog are tainted by the brutal separation she experienced and she cannot seem to get beyond it to forgive herself (or her mother) and allow herself to open her heart to pets once again. When the characters within the globe disappear, Cassandra is driven to pursue long buried feelings.  What follows is a journey towards forgiveness and redemption (two of my favorite subjects).

It was a simple, easy read.  Both Cassandra and her mother make great strides in recognizing things within themselves which need to shift.  Although it ends with no explanation for the disappearance within the snowglobe, it does end with a happy resolution and paves the way for another book about the snowglobes.  The only minor thing that annoyed me about this book was the constant use of the word "critters" for the dogs.  I'm sure that's just a personal preference, but I would have preferred them to be called "dogs."

The book comes with recipes and discussion questions at the end.  It would be a perfect selection for a Christian book club looking for a light, redemptive read.  I will give the second in this series a go, as well.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dragging My Heels in Nanowrimoland

Yes, yes I am participating.  No, no I'm not feeling very confident about it.  It is not the word count that is shattering my confidence.  No, on day 9, I am already almost 21,000 words into the goal.  It is just that I cannot get a really solid good feeling about the novel I'm writing.  I am experiencing a great deal of self-doubt throughout this endeavor.  The writing is coming.  It isn't that.  It is just that I don't know where the story is going and I don't know how to get the main character where I want her to go, which is to the point of forgiveness.

So what am I writing about?  It is a story about a girl whose father has gone to prison and she refuses to speak to him on the phone or communicate with him in any way.  Something needs to happen to her to get her to the place where she can open her heart back up to her father, but I'm at a total loss as to what it is that is going to happen.  I think in the past, I've always had somewhat of an idea of what brings about the final resolution in my story.  This time, I am flying by the seat of my pants and not liking it one bit.

Plus, there's all this emotional static in my life threatening to distract me.  My sister is going through a particularly difficult time and that is difficult for me to watch or to stand by not knowing where the resolution will come in that situation either.  My niece, who has battled leukemia and been in remission for a long time has a new worrisome spot that must be removed.  In a similar vein, I don't really know much about the details or the prognosis or anything and that leaves me feeling uncomfortable and emotionally stressed.  Then, personally, I'm addressing some issues that have been long-standing and are quite all-consuming in my psyche these days.  I wish I could see the resolution there, as well.

Alas, I am wandering in the dark, trudging on the best I know how and merely filling in the words as they come.  The other stuff ... well, I'll have to take that as it comes, as well.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Review: Any Minute

While searching for another audio book to listen to, I noticed this book, Any Minute, written by Joyce Meyer and Deborah Bedford.  With Joyce Meyer's name on the cover, I knew this would be a Christian book since she is a leading Bible teacher in Christian circles.  I'm sometimes leery of attempting Christian fiction because I anticipate the story being overly-laden with overt messages rather than focused primarily on story.  This book had sufficient story line to carry it along and didn't hammer the reader over the head with its Christian message.

Sarah Harper's co-workers tease her about her fast-paced driving habits.  Her driving habits reflect her living habits.  She has places to go and no time to waste in getting there, even if it means short-changing her family on time.  She has her infant's nanny on surveillance and abandons her son over and over again when they try to make it to a Cubs game.  Her relationship with her husband is at a breaking point, but Sarah doesn't know how to slow life down or even trust others in her relationships.  She harbors bitterness over being her mother's "mistake" and struggles with establishing any kind of positive relationship with her mother.

In one minute, life can change.  For Sarah Harper, that one minute happened when she decided to race the bridge as it opened to allow a boat to pass.  She plunges off the bridge into the icy waters below.  While she is under she is given a Christmas-Carol-style-chance to review her life.  What she sees isn't pretty.

The story was interesting, although a bit cliche (Type A, driven person, begins to reflect and slow their pace of life).  I didn't find it too preachy.  The message was gently interwoven with the story.  I had a hard time swallowing the bit about the Lord providing an angel for the Cubs, but this is probably because I'm not a huge sports fan (although I suppose if ever there were a team that needed divine intervention, it might be the Cubs).  I'd say it was a worthwhile read and especially helpful if you're on the fast track and wanting to reflect and slow down.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Trevor's Origami Yoda Collection

Earlier in the summer, Trevor dropped my camera and jammed the lens open.  Unfortunately, even with the lens open, it wouldn't work, so we had to take it to a shop for repairs.  When we finally got the camera back a few weeks ago, we began to upload the numerous photos we had taken for his blog.  Plus, he's been very busy creating more graffiti pictures lately.

Anyway, one of his other artistic endeavors has been the creation of a whole set of Origami Yoda characters.  They are pretty cute, so I thought I would post them here and provide the link to his blog for his other recent art.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Kudos to my Kids' Teachers

Towards the beginning of the school year, I wrote a post about my dissatisfaction with the stress levels my boys were experiencing in regards to school.  They were not enjoying it and I was defensive, like a mamma bear, on behalf of my cubs.  Thankfully, that initial season waned into a much brighter experience.  I am thrilled with the teachers my two little guys were given this year. 

Although Sean's kindergarten teacher came down hard on his lack-luster coloring efforts, she has really inspired Sean to do his very best work.  More than that, she has sparked his interest for reading (something any teacher will receive my utmost kudos for).  She teaches the letters of the alphabet and the sight words they are learning via songs.  I didn't realize Sean would latch onto this teaching style so thoroughly.  I will hear him off in the bathroom by himself singing the little ditty for "B-L-A-C-K spells black, licorice candy and a witch's hat, I like things that are colored black, B-L-A-C-K," or "At is written, at is written with an A and with a T, " , oh where's my hat, I don't know where it's at ..."  He is constantly asking me to ask him to spell various words to show off his prowess at learning.  Plus, he has taken off with his reading and is constantly begging for more simple readers to try (his favorite: the Dorling-Kindersley series, "Pat the Cat and Friends").

I was thrilled when Sean returned after his first day back at school with his cast on his broken arm and said that his teacher had all the students try to write with their left hands for a while.  They all told him how hard it was.  He gleefully admitted that he must be "ambidextrous" (a word his brother taught him) because he can now write fairly well with his left hand.  Plus, the teacher sent home a wonderful little packet full of drawings and get well sentiments from each of the students in his class last week, when he still couldn't attend school because his arm had to be elevated.  It was so very sweet and thoughtful.

Trevor is also benefitting from a teacher who inspires a love of reading.  His language arts teacher uses a variety of tricks to encourage the students to focus on reading more thoroughly.  He had the entire class in competitive mode trying to see how long they could corporately remain with their heads in a book (without looking up) during silent reading time.  They have worked their time up to 17 minutes now. 

He also gave each student a reading license which indicates what level of books they are allowed to select to read during class reading times.  These levels raise every nine weeks, but keep the children from accessing everything they might want.  You might wonder why I find this appealing, since in essence it is limiting their selection process.  What I have found is that Trevor is desperate to get to the point where he is allowed to read a Goosebumps book that is slightly higher than his reading license allows.  Of course, he can read the book at home because we have so many of the Goosebumps books (a series Bryce actually was interested in collecting back when he was in elementary school).  Say something is off-limits and watch my driven boys try to fight their way into the reading material.  Ha!

At the beginning of October, Trevor came home with a reading log and a challenge to read 300 minutes during the month.  While it is tiresome to have to write down every little thing we read (and sometimes, I just ignore it, since we're in no danger of coming up short - we documented more than double the reading goal), it is still motivating my son to focus on reading.

Trevor's favorite books at the moment are from Tom Angleberger's "Origami Yoda" series (which, no doubt, appeal to his love of 3-dimensional art) and Annie Barrows' "Ivy and Bean" series (about two unlikely best friends who are in the second grade).

Even if my boys get nothing more out of school this year than an increased love of reading, I will be one happy mom.  Of course, they are doing well in math and science, too.  But the language arts focus is near and dear to my heart.