Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Armed for 2016

With the end of the year comes thoughts of new beginnings. Everyone is making resolutions and reflecting on how they want 2016 to be different. Personally, there are many ways I would like 2016 to differ from 2015.

First and foremost, I want to be more deliberate making time to write. I let so many things get in the way that it's almost laughable to call myself a writer anymore. With two jobs, my volunteer commitments, and a child with an active social life who counts me as her chauffeur, there's not a lot of time or energy left in the day for writing. By the time I pull out my laptop, my brain is spent and the crap that comes out of me is hardly worth the ink it would take to print it. Yes, I know that the worse thing I write is better than anything I don't write, but as a perfectionist, I can't accept writing poorly, it aggravates me.

Having spent so much time and money on an MFA in writing, I feel like it's imperative that I write on some sort of regular basis, or it was all for naught. Writing brings me pleasure. It puts me in a better mood. Many times I am proud of what I write, even if I never share it. Despite all these positives, I have not made writing a priority. By writing, I mean new content, not revising. I did a ton of that in 2015. I hope to do more revising in 2016 because it means that perhaps I have another book that could potentially be sold. But, I also want to work on one of the many stories that I've started over the years. I believe in all of them, even though I wouldn't share all of them with my agent. They are all bits of me in one way or another. I need to find the time to feed them so they meet their fullest potential.


When I think about my schedule, I find pockets where I can write. Somehow, though I ended up filling those pockets with other stuff that put writing on the back burner. I can't continue to do that and think that I can still build a career out of writing. That doesn't make sense. Like any art, writing gets better with practice. The more I know myself as a writer, the better I can create stories, develop characters and map out plots that make readers want to read on and on. I've relied on writing in pockets of time in that past, but that isn't enough. Sustained success doesn't come in bursts. It comes steady, builds as you work at it. I'm failing myself when I don't do what it takes to achieve it.

Sadly, I know what it takes. I pushed writing into a predominant task while in school. For those two years it was not optional. I made choices that allowed me to have time to write at least every other day. I made time for reading so I could see writing techniques in action. Today I am lucky if I squeeze in a chapter before my eyelids close the night.

"Write every day" sounds so simple. There are so many things we make time for every day. Why can't writing be one of them? I can list over one hundred reasons, but I won't. That's not a favor to you, it's something that I am telling myself I won't accept. While I make it a point to write this blog every week, I need to make it just as imperative that I write creatively on a regular basis, too. This is not a resolution. It is a challenge to myself. So if you see me out and about, tell me to go write. 


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Time for Christmas

As a child on Christmas day, I recall running to the tree first thing in the morning, hoping for Barbie accessories, books and whatever cool new toy was constantly being advertised at the time. I looked forward to spending the day playing with everything I got, and ending it curled up with a new book. 

As I got older and started saving birthday money to buy my family presents, I would think long and hard about what they would like that fit within my meager budget. I enjoyed coming up with the perfect gift idea, and then trying to find a way to get it without them knowing, especially my parents who were my means of transportation. When I got old enough to get a job and ride the bus, I loved going Christmas shopping for my family. I couldn't wait for them to open what I got them.

That excitement for giving hasn't left me. What has left is the desire to open gifts for myself. There is nothing materialistic I want that I can't go out and buy for myself. Knowing how hard my family works, I don't want them to spend their money on me. I would much rather have them use it for the things they need. However, asking them to refrain means that I take away their chance at the joy of giving. It is a selfish request, even though it is a thought that is fully about them.

What I want for Christmas isn't found at the mall or on Amazon. It can't be put on a credit card. Yet, it might be the hardest to give. 

My Christmas would be made if I got the gift of time. I am often running from job to job, meeting to meeting, one event to the other for myself or my daughter. There are days when I am up at 5:45AM making dinner for that evening so we can scarf it down in the fifteen minutes between getting from commitment A to commitment B. It leaves me very little quality time to spend with my daughter, or get a minute to myself. An ideal gift would be an invitation to share dinner so I don't have to wake up before the sun to ensure a warm meal twelve hours later. It would come with the additional gift of sleep.


In the days of a dual parent household I could escape to do something I wanted to do, like see an art exhibit without rushing because my child is bored and ready to leave, or shop for items I need, like winter gloves. I didn't have to hurry back in time for a sitter because Warren wanted that time with our daughter. They made memories and enjoyed each other's company. It allowed me the peace of mind to take my time, maybe even sneak in a chai tea and catch up on a magazine in one of my favorite coffee shops. Those days are gone. I have to take my daughter with me pretty much everywhere I go, while she usually prefers to be anywhere else and lets me know. She wants to be with her friends, or on the couch watching Netflix, not going from store to store comparing prices, or sitting silently through meetings. It stresses me out when I know I have someone in tow who would rather not be. It is not enjoyable for either of us. Even though I try to squeeze in conversations with her, it isn't exactly quality time.

Since losing her dad, my daughter revels in being around other families. She loves me, but I am just one person. She used to be surrounded by two people loving her. Try as I may, I cannot make up for that. I catch her staring longingly at families of 2+ when we go out. She misses sitting between us at the movies, holding both our hands as we walk, and having an audience of more than me to cheer her on. Giving her the gift of spending time with her is a gift to me, too. It gives me alone time, but more importantly, it reminds my daughter that we're not in this alone. It reinforces to her that she has a supportive network of people who love her and want to be with her. Whenever she comes back from spending time with others who love her she has a little more pep in her step. She smiles more and laughs more easily. It revives her and makes me happy in the process. 

Sometimes the time we need isn't to be apart. It is nice to have our house filled with voices and laughter that is not our own. We love hosting others - formally or informally. It is something I am getting back into after a few years of not being able to bear too much life in my home. We miss getting unexpected visitors stopping by to say hi. It used to happen a lot more when Warren was alive. It happened a bit after his passing, but today it is rare. Our house feels warmer and more like  a home when we share it. Share of your time with a visit. I promise it will be a gift to all of us that will create laughter and lasting memories for all of us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Doing for Others

For the past three years I have led the Christmas Eve dinner at my church. I am a member of a church in one of the poorer areas of Des Moines, where it astounded me to see young children walk in by themselves on Christmas Eve. Some of them had working parents who were not home to share a meal. Others are being raised by elderly grandparents on a fixed income who cannot afford to provide three meals a day. Serving meals to the neighborhood is nothing new to my church. They serve free breakfast and dinner six days a week, along with various other free services and programs. 

The church is one of the few left in an area that used to have a church on nearly every corner. It serves a multilingual congregation that worships together every Sunday. 

They are a community near and dear to my heart. They were the first place I volunteered when I moved to Des Moines. I woke up at 4:30AM to prepare and serve breakfast before work. I donated books and coats on various occasions, and helped interpret when they hosted events for their Spanish-speaking neighbors. They are like a second family to me. My pastor was at my house, praying with me less than two hours after Warren's death. As the day wore on, church members stopped by throughout the day, bringing breakfast, lunch and dinner as my house filled with family and friends who came to pay their respects. Today they remember him with me, and include his photo on the alter every year for the Day of the Dead service.

Aside from filling my soul through serving, organizing the Christmas Eve meal is a wonderful way to show my daughter that giving to others is the best gift we can give. She comes with me and spends nearly twelve hours alongside all the other volunteers making sure our dinner guests feel welcome, get enough to eat, and have a lovely evening. I have never had to force her to serve with me. Every year she has wanted to do it and looks forward to it enthusiastically. I am proud of her for having a kind heart that wants to share her time and talent. It reminds me how much of her dad lives on in her.

2014 Christmas Eve Meal

Volunteers & donations make the Christmas Eve meal possible
I look forward to organizing the Christmas Eve meal. I began the year after Warren died because I wanted a distraction from grieving his loss during the holidays. The first Christmas without him was tougher than I imagined. I couldn't believe that his smile wouldn't light up our house as we welcomed family for Thanksgiving, decorated the house for Christmas, and planned our date night for New Year's Eve. He loved family time so he was nearly always smiling from November through the new year. Without him I didn't feel like doing any of the holiday traditions we'd started. If it wasn't for my daughter, parents, siblings, niece and nephews, I wouldn't have participated in Thanksgiving dinner. Had it not been for my mother, Ariana wouldn't have had a Christmas tree or festive lights in the house. I don't have any recollection of what I did for New Year's that year, perhaps it involved sleep.

When the chance to plan the meal came up, I jumped at it. I wanted the holidays to mean something else. Making it about others seemed perfect. It would allow me to get active, plan something that did not revolve around family time that held a gaping hole of loss. Also, serving others is the best way I know that I can honor Warren's legacy. Plus, it was something that I could invite others to do with me if they chose, and spread the gift of giving among those I know and love.

Families enjoy a free Christmas Eve meal

200+ 2014 Christmas Eve dinner guests enjoy a free meal
As I head into my third year leading this effort, it is getting easier. I am working out the kinks of last minute plans falling through; better understanding what it takes to cook and serve 200+ people; managing volunteers so that two rounds of meals and clean up can happen in a condensed amount of time; and making a new tradition that I share with my daughter. Over the years, my parents, friends and siblings have joined in to help, and it's become a family affair. Their support is a reminder that I have wonderful examples of givers within my bloodline who are also living up to Warren's ideals. In this time of giving, I am grateful that I can give of my time, talents and resources in a way that is consistent with the precedents my parents have set, and those that Warren lived by. It is an honor I hope everyone can experience this season and beyond.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Elitist?

The other day someone called me an elitist. The person wasn't trying to be mean, but pointed out that I have very distinct expectations of how things should be. At first I had a negative thought about said person that began with one of my favorite 4-letter words. I refrained from expressing that and thought about the word elitist. 

According to Dictionary.com:
As an adjective, the word means: (of a person or class of persons) considered superior by others or by themselves, as in intellect, talent, power, wealth, or position in society

As a noun, it means: a person having, thought to have, or professing superior intellect or talent, power, wealth, or membership in the upper echelons of society

For the record, I do not think of myself as superior in any way. The word, as stated above does not fit me. I dug a little more, and prefer Urban Dictionary's description:
A person who holds him or herself to higher standards than those of lesser beings because he or she is naturally more honorable, intelligent, funny, good-looking, and awesome than the rest. Elitists are usually well-groomed and well-dressed, although this is a not one of their defining qualities. Also, elitists have the right to look down upon others but often don't for the sake of saving the time and effort needed to criticize those of lesser abilities. 
 Elitists exercise often and eat healthily to keep their bodies fit and desirable-looking. In addition, elitists are too smart to do drugs. 
Elitists have stimulating conversations that keep their minds fresh and their lives active.
Elitists are proud of being elitists but are secretive at the same time; for instance, the elitist code used by elitists to facilitate their advanced conversations is a well known phenomenon for those who associate with elitists; however, only elitists will ever know this code. 
This definition made me laugh, and made the label a little more tolerable. In all seriousness, I still do not feel it is an adequate representation of me. However, I do believe I have high expectations and definite ideas that I'm not afraid to share. This has been the case for as long as I can remember. Part of it I blame on my reading habits.

As a child, I read avidly and by the end of the book, everything usually worked out for the best. The protagonists made the right choices and all was right in their world. That was how I wanted my life to be. I wanted everything to fit and make sense. My greatest desire was for outcomes that made everyone happy. Unfortunately, the world doesn't work like that. Life is messy and unpredictable. There is pain, war, rejection, sadness, loss and disappointment. While characters I read about faced all these things, I knew they would be OK in the end. There are no such guarantees in real life, but that doesn't stop me from trying.

Growing up in a place that held danger beyond my control, I tried to control as much as I could. I still try. It is not a feeling of being superior that I struggle with, it is creating superiority. I want to create those happy endings; make outcomes better than they might otherwise be. The only thing within my control towards that end is living my life from examples that are positive, or do things in a way that makes their life better, and extends that for others.

Within that thought process, I am elitist when it comes to expectations of others. I have high expectations of those I surround myself with because I firmly believe that if you expect nothing from someone, that is exactly what you get. But no one wants to be nothing. Everyone wants to be important, valuable, feel like their existence matters. Expecting a lot from someone gives them the gift of value. My goal isn't to make anyone feel like they are less than me if they don't meet my expectations, but rather for them to know that someone believes they are capable. I hope it empowers them. In doing so, I sometimes come off as harsh, abrasive and according to some, an elitist. If I am an elitist for wanting to be surrounded by the best, I can live with that. Perhaps I should embrace it. - After all, there are worse things I can be called.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Life is a Competition

I am an extremely competitive person. That might sound strange coming from someone who considers herself very much a non-athlete, but it's true. There are many ways to compete, and I do so every day. I don't do it on a court or a field, I mostly do it in my head.

Not sure if it's because of my type-A personality, because I'm a Scorpio, or because I'm the offspring of an athlete. Whatever the case, if you spend some time in my head, it would sound very much like you were at a sporting event. 

Sometimes I cheer myself on. If I've consistently run four miles my last few runs, on mile four I might tell myself, You got this! What's one more mile? The same can be said when I'm writing. YAY! You wrote 1,000 words. You can totally crank out another 500 - GO! That positive reinforcement is great and often works to get me to the next level. On days when I'm feeling sluggish, it's not enough. 



On those days, I need something more potent than cheerleading. That's when I become a drill sergeant. When I'm moping around in the evening in one of my moods, I'll yell at myself (in my head) to take my butt to bed and stop wasting valuable resting time. I say it in not so nice terms and it works. It's like when I was a little girl and my mom would yell at me to get to bed. When I'm lifting halfheartedly I berate myself internally, telling myself that I'm not doing anything for my body if I'm not focused so I need to shape up, or leave the gym. When I write a shitty line or scene, the voice gets loud, reminding me that I paid big bucks to learn how to write, and I need to stop messing around or I'll never get my ROI on that investment. The voice is usually deeper than my every day voice, yet not quite masculine. 

The best is when I challenge myself. Most of the time it's against my own accomplishments. If I do three reps, I challenge myself to do four. If I can lift 35lbs, I challenge myself to increase it by five. If I can write one chapter, why not two? Other times it is a challenge based on someone else. When others succeed in something I admire, I ask myself why I can't do that, or better yet, when will I surpass it? It gets the gears churning in my head about how I can do better than what exists. It has been the driving force in my life. I'm not some snob trying to be better than anyone else. When I see something in others that I know I can replicate, it doesn't seem like enough to emulate it, I want to put my own spin on it. 

This competitive nature has gotten me to where I am today. It's not to say that my parents and other influences aren't a huge element of my achievements, because they are. Part of the challenge to myself has always been to make them proud. Doing better than expected is how I chose to do that most of the time. It has made me push harder when I didn't think I had it in me, and go above and beyond when I knew I could. It has served me well in life, so I'm glad that I treat myself like a star athlete, even if only in my mind.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Markings with Meaning

On this eve of giving thanks I am reflective of all there is to be thankful for. Two mementos that bring on feelings of thanks are inked on my body, and I am often asked about them. My tattoos remind me that I am fulfilling my dream of seeing the world, and that I know eternal love. 

I got my first tattoo in Auckland, New Zealand. I was fortunate enough to travel there with a wonderful group of Iowans through Rotary International. It was phenomenal and one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I had never been that far from home before, and it was empowering to have been chosen to participate in that exchange. 

At the end of my four weeks there I felt as though I had conquered something. While the trip offered many adventures, there wasn't one thing I could pinpoint that I had overcome, but overall I felt different having had the experience. I wanted to commemorate that feeling. I wanted something that I could turn to when I needed that sentiment renewed. It had to be more than a souvenir. A t-shirt or stuffed kiwi wouldn't do. I had wanted a tattoo for a while, but didn't know what it should be, or where to put it. Inking something permanently onto my body was a huge commitment, but it seemed like the perfect commemorative token of what that trip meant.

The moment the needle touched down for the 1st time
The Maori culture was fascinating to me from the moment I learned I was going to New Zealand. They are the original inhabitants of the land. They have fought, and continue to do so to preserve their language and culture. Much like indigenous peoples of all lands, they have been persecuted, enslaved, and treated as less than human. Only in the last few decades have they been regarded as an asset to the region. Their traditions, like the Haka, made famous by their national rugby team, are becoming something the country is known for. Although most people think of people who look like Lucy Lawless when they think of New Zealanders, the Maori come in an array of beautiful brown shades. I was often mistaken for one when I was there. Maori children would come up to me and speak to me in Maori. The language sounds a lot like Spanish. I picked up enough of it to be able to tell them I could not speak Maori, and that I was an American. They are an island people, linked to the sea. It reminded me of the Tainos who were native to Puerto Rico. I felt a connection to the Maori people.

Once I decided that I wanted a tattoo, the design took almost no thought. I chose the Matau, AKA Maori fish hook. It is symbolic of prosperity, abundance, good health, power, authority, and respect for the sea. It is also believed to provide good luck and safety while traveling over water.

The meaning resonated with me. It made me think of my ancestors who were fishermen, and my dad, who loves to fish and passed that down to my brother. It was a little bit of my history entwined with the exhilaration of the present, and my excitement for the future, which I hoped involved many trips over water and near the sea. The colors in the design represent the inside of a seashell, a delicate yet vital part of our eco-landscape. I put it on the back of my right foot so it will be part of all my forward movement.

Some people believe that tattoos are addictive, that no one can stop at one. I didn't believe that because I was satisfied with my first round of ink. However, after my second tattoo, I think there is some truth in that statement. 

My second design was almost a no-brainer as well. At Warren's funeral one of the pastors who is a dear friend, presented an analogy during the children's message that stuck with me. She told the story of waterbugs and dragonflies.

According to the story by Doris Stickney, waterbugs living at the bottom of a pond wondered why when their friends and family climbed up the stem of a pond lily they disappeared forever. What they didn't know was that they became dragonflies when they left the water. As dragonflies, they changed form and were no longer able to survive below water. Because of their new form, even if the water bugs saw them flying above the surface of the water, the dragonflies would be unrecognizable as the waterbugs they once knew.

This was a way to explain how Warren was gone, but not far. He would be waiting for his loved ones to get their wings and join him in their new form. At the time, and many times since, I have been eager to get my wings and see him again. The dragonfly became a symbol of comfort to me. To this day I notice them more than I ever did.

On the second anniversary of Warren's death, I inked some wings, along with two hearts and the infinity symbol on my left wrist. I wanted it to be in a place where I could see it often. I chose to keep it simple and colorless so that nothing would dilute its meaning and message. I look at it daily and I love it as much now as I did the day it was made a permanent part of my body.

Tattoos aren't for everyone, but for me, they are constant reminders that I have a lot to be thankful for, and I am proud to live a life I can venerate through art I will enjoy forever.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

In a Year

I started this blog a year ago. A lot has happened in that time. Lots of it I've written about in past entries. Lots happened off here, too. Most of the time I am an open book to those who know me, and my blog has been a way to open up even more. It's good practice as I prepare for the scrutiny of publication. Speaking of publishing, I'll start there.

I shared about my agent in a post last November. I am still represented by Adriana Dominguez of Full Circle Literary. Under her guidance I have turned in what feels like forty million revisions, along with buckets of sweat and tears. I just turned in the strongest version of my novel that I have ever written. When I hit send, I felt as though I had completed a marathon. Even if it goes nowhere, I am proud of the writing and I still love the story I created. It is the one I want to tell, with characters I still love. It was therapeutic in many ways.

I started writing the novel five months after Warren died. It involves mixed martial arts. At the time, I had never seen a match, and didn't know anything about the sport. Many people asked me why I chose to write about violence. I thought it just came to me. Over time, I realized that it wasn't random. It was a way to digest my pain. I was feeling pain I had no words to describe. It was intense and I couldn't escape it, cure it, or understand its depths. But, I knew how to control physical pain. I knew broken bones and bruises could be mended. Bleeding can't last forever so I wrote about pain I could discern. That is why no matter what happens with publication, this story will forever be part of the saving grace that was born at the darkest point in my life. 

Today, Adriana is presenting my story to a select group of editors. They will love it, hate it or anything in between. I am thankful that the holidays are here and I will be distracted from the waiting game that is the submission process. I am also grateful that I have Adriana to go through this process with me because I know she believes in my story as much as I do. My family, friends and writing tribe have been supportive every step of the way: providing child care when I needed quiet time to write; encouraging me to keep going; offering advice along the way; calming my fears and easing my doubts. They are a huge part of why this novel was able to be written, and rewritten, and revised and revised some more. Without them, I can't imagine where it would be.

Without the people in my life there is a lot that would be different today. I wouldn't have been able to travel to New York, Denver or Korea. Each trip helped me grow as a person and a writer. They offered me a feeling of accomplishment when I thought the days of travel and world exploration were behind me. It is a love that has been reinvigorated in me, and I look forward to more trips. 



Speaking of love, I have found someone who has renewed by belief in genuine love. There was a time when I didn't think it was possible to find it twice in one lifetime, although I very much wanted to be wrong. When I witnessed the remarriage of a widower and friend, it opened my eyes to the possibility of love in my life. I am learning to love again in a way that is different than it has ever been, with a man who is kind, understanding and honors my past.

Every day we're together I learn something about my new self, and the way I love him doesn't change the quality or quantity of love I have for Warren and what we had. This new love is something entirely unique to Nate and I. It is not a replacement, or a place holder. What we share is a new beginning for both of us. It is a chance for me to apply the lessons about love that I learned from loving Warren, and being loved by him. Nate makes me laugh more than I thought I ever would. He tells me I'm beautiful with a sincerity I trust. He offers me a hand even when he knows I can do it myself. His companionship and acceptance of me as I am is a gift I didn't expect. 

It hasn't come without its critics. I have been told, "It's weird seeing you with someone else," and "He's just not Warren." Nate is not Warren. No one will ever be him. I knew better than to look for that.  Warren set a high standard when it came to being someone's partner, and I won't settle for someone who doesn't make me feel as valued as I did when I was with him. Feeling that again is an amazing discovery. Many close to me have seen the joy Nate brings and are happy for me. They support this new turn my life has taken, and I am moved by their acceptance.

I take it a day at a time, because there's no way to tell when you're ready for love. It found me and I'm taking a risk pursuing it. Nate makes me happy in ways that once seemed impossible. Whatever happens in a month, or a year from now will be valuable in shaping my new identity and helping me understand a new perspective on  the mysteries of love. It has already changed me and taught me a lot about my capacity to trust, love and hope again.

Loving Nate hasn't dulled my love for Warren, although it has made me see it in a new light. I still think about the "what if's" and feel cheated out of them. The third year anniversary of his death was one of the toughest yet. I felt an anger so deep that at times I thought it was cutting off my oxygen supply. The shock and sadness were secondary to feeling that I had been robbed of so many "could have beens" and "should have beens". Having another man in my life doesn't change those feelings. It is a pain and injustice I will carry forever, but I keep taking steps to help me cope so that it doesn't eat me from the inside.

My fitness journey has been a huge part of weathering those negative feelings. I continue to work out four to six days a week. I love pushing my muscles and seeing them form. I feel sexiest when I'm red and sweaty, huffing and puffing during a run, hitting bags, or doing reps with a weight that is heavier than I could handle a month ago. When I feel physically strong it makes me feel powerful inside, like I can handle anything, including the feelings of grief that often gnaw at my soul and remind me of all that was lost that horrible day in February. My workout time is sacred because it has given me more than a toned physique. It has given me an outlook on life that is all natural and healing in multiple ways.


It has been a year of challenges, triumphs, laughs, tears, changes and unexpected surprises. Through it all I have been lucky to have love, support and feel enlivened through the people who have been part of my life, and those of you who read about it via this blog. I am excited for what next year will bring, and will keep writing about it as it unfolds. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Spoke Too Soon

Last week I blogged about how much I enjoy speaking to large groups. That is still very true. However, between posts I learned something about myself and speaking: When it comes to speaking about Warren, everything changes.

I was asked to accept an award on his behalf by a local chapter of a national organization. Anyone who knows our story knows that it isn't the first time I have had to accept an award in his honor. However, something about this time felt different.

I was asked to speak for no longer than two minutes, which is not a big deal. They also wanted a photo that showed his personality, and some facts about him for his introduction.

For some reason, knowing that I was going to hear about him and see his photo before speaking about him made me feel like I couldn't do it without becoming a mess of tears in front of everyone. Breaking down was absolutely unacceptable to me. I hate to cry, even more so in public. At least half that room knew him in some capacity and that affected me, too. They had an image of him that they were bringing to the experience and it made me nervous in a way that felt foreign to me.

I wrote and re-wrote my speech. My words felt inadequate. The delete button became the most used key on my keyboard and it was frustrating. My usual writing techniques were not helpful in this case. I felt stuck. I almost cancelled. Looking at photos took me back to happier times when I thought I had so many things figured out. Times when I felt excited about the future and secure in the present. Seeing his smile in exotic places we visited frequently brought the sad realization that my life is so different now than it was then. From the outside looking in, it may seem like it's not because I got to travel to Korea, or because it's been almost four years. Sometimes in my day to day I trick myself into thinking that his absence is due to a business trip, or a late night at the office, even though my heart knows otherwise. I know it's a coping mechanism, but flipping through photo after photo was like reminder after reminder that those thoughts are futile, silly and over simplifies my reality. 

Each photo felt like it mocked me, piercing me with the reality that I'll never accompany him on a business trip to exciting locations. I would never again peek into a conference room and see how he owned it as he articulated his passion for his work. Gone were the days of being at his side while he worked a room or event. It's not the first time I've realized these thruths, but they hit me harder last week as I tried to think about a way to present him that hadn't already been shared. 

I hate to say, I think I failed. I did not share a photo that captured his personality. I chose a photo that appears when you Google him. It would be easier for me to see right before speaking (which became a non-issue since they never showed the photo). I wrote a 2 minute speech that began with a quote that always makes me think of him. It included an example of how his work changed the community and those living in it. I didn't go into all that. Instead, I thanked the group for continuing to honor his memory, and challenged them to do what is right, even when it's not the popular thing to do. The whole thing maybe took fifteen seconds. 



When I walked off stage, the first thought I had was, "Did I just de-value his work and his memory? Why did I cut it short?" He deserved every one of my words and more.



I was disappointed in myself and felt like I had let him down. After thinking about it some more, I realized that I did what Warren wold have preferred. Warren didn't do anything for recognition, so he wouldn't have cared to hear about himself for two minutes. To him, that would have seemed like an uncomfortable eternity. He would have been bright red and hoping for the two minutes to end. The thought of his humble and modest reaction made me smile. It brought me peace. I left feeling like I did what he would have wanted - kept it short and sweet and made it about those who remembered him, those working to build on his vision. 

Looking back on the evening I wonder what he would have done if the tables were turned. He also felt comfortable speaking in front of crowds, so I don't think he would have been nervous. I smile because I think we would have had the same reaction. I think initially he would have felt like two minutes was not enough, but in the end would have realized that the award wasn't about the recipient, but about what it can inspire in others. And he would have kept it short and sweet.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sharing My Story

I was shy as a child but somewhere along the way I lost that quality. It's a good thing, too because it has allowed me to discover a talent that has helped me in many ways. While most people are terrified of public speaking, I really enjoy it. 

I don't know at what point I began feeling like I had something worthwhile to say, but once I did, I had no problem sharing it publicly. I remember being interviewed on camera when I was in middle school and not feeling nervous. In high school I did presentations to donors of the scholarship that allowed me to attend my private school. I don't recall being nervous sharing my gratitude about the opportunity the scholarship provided, or how I planned to make the most of my education. In college I traveled throughout Iowa speaking alongside Dr. Jischke, the university president at the time. It was pretty cool getting to know him while flying from city to city in the school's private plane. Sometimes we spoke at small intimate dinners, other times it was an auditorium full of people. 

Every career I've pursued has included public speaking in various forms, from presentations to training others, to managing media as the company spokesperson. Along the way I'm often asked how I can get up in front of strangers and speak as though it's a room full of friends. The truth is, I don't know how I do it. All I know is that I rarely get nervous, and don't think about it as a room full of strangers. I think of it as oral story telling, which I love. I've been pretty lucky that I've gotten to speak about topics I have researched and am very familiar with, or something I am passionate about.

Two weeks ago I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at a local insurance company. The audience consisted of about 65 or so middle school girls and their mentors, made up of women from the company, including some high-level VPs. 

Sharing my story
The girls were excited to be there, and I was delighted to share my story with them. They wanted to know my path to writing a novel, and asked great questions about the process of writing. I had forty-five minutes for the presentation and answering questions. Their questions were so good, I could have stayed an extra ten minutes to answer them all, but we ran out of time so I left business cards and invited them to contact me. I really hope they do.

When I was done, I got a lovely thank you email telling me that, "[t]here was positive feedback from the students, and the staff were mesmerized." I was all smiles at the word "mesmerized." Not only do I appreciated a strong adjective, but knowing that my story resonated with the crowd is encouraging. I worked hard to make it as age appropriate as possible, knowing the audience would be mostly young girls my daughter's age. I spent time on the Internet looking for images and downloading photos so that they'd have some visual aids as I went along. The night before I rehearsed in front of my daughter and got her feedback, plus I practiced some more in front of the mirror and in the car on my way there. I wanted it to be comfortable - like a dialogue. My goal was that the girls would feel like they were hearing from someone who cared, because I do. They are not only an age I enjoy, they are my future readers. 

So relieved that no one fell asleep!
I shared the challenges and fears I have that they won't want to read my work, or that I would insult their intelligence and capabilities by not writing to their level. They shared their favorite Harry Potter characters with me and took notes as I spoke. It was a lot of fun, and I loved doing it. It made me think that I'd love to one day make a career of speaking, along with writing. So if you're ever in the market for a keynote speaker... ;-)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I'm a Poser, Just Like Everyone Else

If you believe my Facebook timeline, I have my ducks in a row, always find the bright side of life, and I smile more than I cry. I have a confession: That's mostly bull shit. 


I'm a story teller and Facebook is a story telling tool. I don't purposely try to tell a fictional account of my life, but when I look through my timeline, I often wish I lived that portrayal every day. I feel confident in saying that most people feel this way about their digital image. I would guess that we put our best selves forward on social media, showing a very limited side of our selves. We show what paints us in the most positive light, our most impressive selves.

This is nothing new. Even before Instagram gave us the opportunity to showcase the gourmet meals we cook all the time, we have been chasing our ideal selves and presenting them as truth. Our fear of what others think keeps us from showcasing ourselves as we most truly are. As a writer, this becomes detrimental when we develop characters because we can miss their dark sides in our effort to make the reader like them. That darkness is what makes them authentic. 

The best characters are flawed, as are the most interesting humans. They have bad days, and think mean thoughts for no reason. We do the same, yet our public images don't show that. When we are brave enough to post that side of our selves, we often cushion it with jokes or quotes to soften the blow. 

When we develop characters, it's easiest to make them joyful, lovable, popular, moral, intelligent, talented and revered. After all, they are our star. We created them and we're proud of them. We want our readers to love them as much as we do. But, that isn't a real picture of the human experience. Pretending it is the norm cheats our readers of a genuine connection with our characters. How is a moody thirteen year-old reader supposed to relate to a character who lives and breathes sunshine 24/7? Why would a sad teen cheer for a protagonist who has everything handed to him, and always comes out ahead? Who wants to read about main characters who easily save the day all the time?

Just as we face challenges and find ways to overcome them, so must our characters. We have to put them in situations that make us uncomfortable. We have to show their vulnerability, their disdains and misgivings. This is what shows our reader what our characters are really made of, and in essence, what they too are capable of. When a character can still be loved with all their flaws and imperfections, we tell the reader that they can be loved as well, even though they are not perfect. This is so vital to young readers, particularly girls.


Raising a daughter with healthy self-esteem is difficult. They are constantly being told that they aren't pretty, thin, blonde, or white enough. Media tells them that their worth is in their appearance, and that it is better to be cute, than brave or smart. I consider myself to be a progressive mom, a mom who exposes her daughter to strong female role models who excel in various areas, yet my daughter constantly worries about her looks, her clothes and what her peers think of her. I can only imagine her struggle if I were not the kind of mom who goes out of her way to introduce her to experiences that bring out her strength and talents. But, with that exploration comes failure, disappointment, and getting back up when you want to give up. These are vital parts of life that we need to know how to overcome. Where does that fit in our Facebook personas? Who tells that story? When will we celebrate the fact that we learn from our mistakes and stop expecting perfection from the start? Maybe we can begin by showing more of our true selves every day on social media and beyond, and stop worrying about creating a facade that looks good on a mobile apparatus. Being honest and bold is the best example we can be to the impressionable youth looking at us for guidance on how to navigate their own lives.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Latina Author in my Neck of the Woods

Sonia addresses the crowd in Perry, Iowa

On Sunday afternoon I had the privilege of listening to Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize winning writer of ENRIQUE'S JOURNEY. I read the book back in 2006 or 2007 when it first came out. Warren heard her speak, bought me the book, and had it signed. It has since disappeared (which is weird because I'm fiercely protective of my books, especially those signed by Latina authors), and I've been meaning to replace it and read it again. It's a fascinating story that chronicles the deadly trip Enrique took, as an unaccompanied eleven year-old from Honduras to the United States. He encountered severe weather conditions, bandits who beat and robbed him, hunger, thirst, fear and the constant threat of falling off the train and being sucked beneath it.

Nazario not only wrote about the experience from interviews, she re-traced Enrique's steps, riding atop the same train cars Enrique rode, referred to as The Beast by migrants because of how dangerous and high risk the ride can be. She endured the breaking points her subject endured. She felt the burning heat that made it hard to hold on to the metal on the train. She nursed the cuts and bruises from branches hitting her in the face as the train moved through the jungle. She shivered during freezing cold nights as the train snaked across the desert at night. As a woman making that journey, she put herself in constant peril as many females are raped during the journey north.

In the process of writing the book, Nazario was changed. She became invested in the stories of these children. She followed the news about how drug cartels took over the trains so that migrants had to fear their threats and violence. They were forced to surrender what little they had to these thugs, most often their clothes, shoes and the phone number of their parents in the United States, who the cartels would call and demand ransom, torturing and killing the kids of those who could not pay.  
How you can learn more and support migrant children.
Nazario made several visits to Honduras, where Enrique began his ordeal. She talked to kids as young as seven who are forced to become drug addicts who have to work for cartels to support their habit. Other kids are forced to be mules and lookouts, even hit men as young as ten. The girls are marked as property for gang members even before their first periods, and they will most likely be raped several times before their QuinceaƱera. These are the lives these kids are fleeing. It is safer to ride atop of a moving train from Central America through Mexico, and walk across a desert to the United States, than stay in their home countries. 

She kept it real. She didn't sugar coat anything. She admitted that as a journalist she shouldn't have become so personally invested. Yet, as a decent human being, how could she not? She was talking to kids who could be brutally murdered at any moment by gang members and drug lords who see no value in human lives - even those of children. She was made aware of her privilege as an American, and it made her want to do more for those who can't even imagine what her life of safety is like.   

Sonia Nazario signs books after her presentation.
The stories and photos she shared were heart-breaking and thought-provoking. I don't know how anyone could listen to them and not be moved to question their own privilege, their humanity and their true heart. This issue is at the forefront of the upcoming presidential election, and on the minds of many, regardless of their political affiliations. She said that her book continues to be updated as new developments happen in Enrique's life as his case to stay in the US progresses. She's written the book over a dozen times, and can probably write twenty more books from the research, experience and accounts she's collected over the years. To my delight (and soon-to-be addition to my bookshelf), Nazario wrote a middle grade version that is often used as part of middle school curriculums.

Sonia signs her latest New York Times cover story
Aside from being an accomplished writer, Nazario is a poised and enthusiatic speaker. Her topic was heavy, yet she inserted humor and lighter fare into her presentation. She shared about her life, and how she got into journalism at a time when they were targeted and killed across Latin America. She brought a guest, a woman who had shared her story with Nazario over fifteen years ago and opened her eyes to the plight of migrant mothers who leave behind children who risk it all to be reunited. It was a great coincidence that the woman, named Carmen, had moved to Iowa and was able to attend the event. Nazario brought Carmen on stage and you could tell that she had the utmost respect, admiration and love for her. That was part of what made Nazario feel so genuine. She's won several awards, degrees and accolades, yet she joked with the kids in the audience, and took her time meeting each person who came through the line to get a book signed or asked for a photo. 

Sonia adds an encouraging message for young readers
As I watched Nazario interact with attendees, I got a warm feeling inside my gut, excitement that one day that could be me. Lately I've been feeling that my writing isn't getting anywhere. That I'm stuck in an endless cycle of revisions that is killing my writing spirit, making me question my dream. Nazario was the shot of reality I needed to reassess my feelings. She didn't get to where she is by letting feelings of frustration and being "stuck" stop her from writing the stories that needed to be told. She kept on, writing version after version of ENRIQUE'S JOURNEY until she had a story that would make it into people's hands. A story that would change the lives of those who learned more about these children, and all they endure to have a safe life with their mothers.

Women from the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines pose with Sonia
While Nazario and I have very different writing styles, as she specializes in adult non-fiction and I in fiction for younger readers, we share the same burden - we want to tell compelling stories that do right by our readers. This is the universal goal of authors who love what they do. I have come to learn that as a writer, you must love it or it will haunt you, drive you crazy because even when doubts and frustrations are high, the need to tell a story is relentless and demands to be honored.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Homesick

I've lived lots of places. Mostly I've stuck to the Midwest, but have also called the East Coast home. Yet, that isn't exactly true. Not that I didn't live there, because I did, but that those places were home. When I hear people say that they are going back home, or that they are home, I often wonder what that feels like. I don't feel like I have a home. I've lived in my house for twelve years. But, Des Moines doesn't feel like home. I lived in Chicago for seventeen years. When I visit it doesn't feel like I'm going back home. I was born in New Jersey. Visiting there doesn't bring those feelings, either. It's frustrating and unsettling. I want a place that I would want to return to again and again, yet I can't think of a place that evokes those feelings. If I left Iowa, I can't imagine wanting to return. When I left Chicago I knew I would never live there again. I have never had the desire to live in New Jersey. 

 

I wish I could say that I've built my home, but it doesn't feel that way. Even when Warren was alive, our home felt comfortable, safe and full of love, but it didn't feel like a final destination. It felt like a stepping stone, a stop along the way to something else. When I was younger, this didn't really bother me. I was fine with this feeling that something else was out there to discover. I knew I was working towards a place that would be home, a place that called me back time and time again. As I age, those feelings are exhausting and cause me more anxiety than excitement. I want to know that I can settle down, relax without wondering what's next. Is that even possible for me? I have no idea. 

The truth is that I don't know what home will feel like. How will I know when I'm home if I've never felt it? Even growing up, I felt that my home was temporary. My goal at a very young age was to get the hell out of Chicago and never look back. When we'd visit New Jersey I was often thankful that my parents moved away from there. While Chicago wasn't perfect, I liked it way more than the East Coast. It makes me wonder, is home a place you create that you want to stay, or is it a place you will always belong? Is home a person who makes you feel like you have the world in them? How do you know when you're home? Is it really about who shares it with you? Over time I hope that life answers these questions and allows me some peace of mind that I am exactly where I should be.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Korea

I love being able to step out of my comfort zone. It's exciting to be in a different culture, seeing ways of life that do not mirror my own. I wish everyone could have that experience several times in their life. It makes you grow in a way that little else can. That's why I love to travel internationally. It's exhilarating and addictive. If I could, I'd visit a different country every six months. 

But, my budget and responsibilities do not allow for this indulgence. As I blogged about earlier, wanderlust is like an incurable disease, and I am grateful that I fed it with a trip to Korea. I was only there 9 days, but I crammed a lot into those days. The friend I went to visit was a wonderful tour guide and hostess and we visited four cities, numerous ancient temples and palaces, beaches, and even found a salsa club. We walked for miles, took tons of photos, and ate foods we didn't know the names of. I drove a moped and we lived to tell about it. We navigated a place where between the two of us, we probably spoke five words in their language, but managed to get to bus terminals and subway stations that got us across the country and back. It was an adventure that I will be forever happy that I got to experience. 

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is eat, so I took lots of photos of the food. I didn't know what all of them were, but I sampled anyway and most were delicious.


















My other joy when I travel is learning about the place I am visiting. I didn't know much about Korea's history, but after having learned how they rebuilt after the Korean war, I am in awe. They pretty much had to rebuild from the rubble that was left after the war. That was only 60 years ago. Today, they are the most developed country in Asia, and one of the most developed in the world. Their success is thanks to a lot of help from the United Nations, but it is still a feat to be where they are after the UN declared that they would need 100 years and a miracle to recover from the war. They did more than recover, they became a global powerhouse. It was evident in their excellent public transportation systems and fast internet speeds, even when I was sharing it with 25 million other people in Seoul.

Aside from driving the moped, my favorite parts of the trip were visiting the temples and the War Memorial of Korea Museum.  Here are some photos from each:





























Of course, I took tons more photos and ate way more food. All in all, it surpassed my expectations and I would highly recommend visiting South Korea. 



The moped!




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