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Pitching to Agents Part 3: Turning Negative into Positive

After the tough go-round with the last two agents, we talked for at least an hour. I called my mom, Maddie’s biggest fan, and tried to get ahold of my husband, who got back to me after we left the hotel room. But mostly, I tried to bolster my young co-writer’s confidence.

Still, I was shocked when the time came for us to return to Governor 4. She marched right in there, and she sat at the same table we practiced at the night before, and she stared into the blue eyes of this petite, smiling lady and launched right into her pitch. I let her go for a couple minutes, and then I took over. I shortened five paragraphs into about two, and the whole time, the agent we were speaking to had an inquisitive, intelligent, gentle look about her. After a few minutes, she grabbed one of her business cards and started to scribble notes on it. “I want the manuscript, double-spaced, one-inch margins . . .”

“You want the full manuscript?”

The agent’s blue eyes glinted and she gave us both one of those smiles that starts at the eyes and keeps going. “Yes.”

We chatted a few minutes more, and then our time was up. This was the only agent Maddie and I would pitch to “back to back,” so before Maddie actually stood up, I said, “Well, it’s my turn, uh Maddie, you wanna hang out here or—”

“—I’ll stay.” Maddie smiled at me, and I laughed aloud.

It felt completely different to pitch Off Grid with my daughter at my side. I was relaxed. And so was the agent. She waited for Maddie and I to get ourselves sorted out—as usual, we were talking about the million and one little things that mothers and daughters talk about. I have no idea what we said to one another exactly, just that we were talking to one another almost privately, but in front of the same agent I had to pitch to—and the agent was, if anything, charmed by our interplay. After all, we are extremely close, Maddie and I are. We talk, we write, we walk—together. And all of that comes through when we’re around one another I think.

I didn’t have to work hard to pitch my book. But when I got to the final scene and said that the book ends on a cliffhanger, the agent frowned. First frown yet. “Cliffhanger? Would you be willing to change that?”

“Yeah Mom, it’s awful, I never liked the ending either, I don’t like any books that end on cliffhangers, it’s cheap, it’s not right . . .” Maddie entered the fray.

I laughed and reflected on what I was hearing, and detected in them and in then in myself an acknowledgment of the truth they were speaking. “Well, now that you mention it, yeah, it might not have been my best choice, I have no problem changing it.”

“It’s just that if you end the book on a cliffhanger, and it doesn’t sell as well as you expect it, and you don’t get to put book 2 out, all your readers are disappointed,” explained the agent. “Would you be open to changing the ending?” She gave me a sharp look that was both honest and decent—more intelligent than critical.

“Yeah, I’d be willing.”

“Good, then I’ll take your manuscript too,” she said.

“You’ll take my full manuscript?”

“Yes.” She smiled at us. “The two of you are kinda amazing, it’s been a pleasure, you have all the details written on the back of her business card.”

“I do,” I said, and I smiled, and we said our goodbyes.

But not for too long. At dinner, the agent found us. She and her family were eating dinner one table over, to our right, and she spent at least fifteen minutes talking to us. She introduced us to her twin girls and to her lovely husband, and I genuinely truly just plain liked her. I think she liked us too, and I’m hopeful that she will read the book we wrote together and send me an email that says something like, “The book has a lot of potential. Are you open to editing suggestions? If so, I can take it on.”

Because we are. We both have been looking at scenes that need to be trimmed. Our word count (131K) is about 5-7K too high, but we both know how to make the book better. And we both feel that we would be at home with this particular agent . . . so now we wait to see if she feels the same way.

In the meantime, there is a neat postscript. Maddie had one more pitch. This one was with the Christian Fiction lady I liked so much. And she was absolutely wonderful to Maddie. She listened. She smiled. She asked lots of questions, and she gave many compliments. She also offered to read the first ten pages of the Third Eye of Cain—so Maddie left Governor 4 on a cloud.

The next morning, in fact, we ran into the Christian fiction lady in the lobby. We actually hugged one another, and she even offered to give us a lift to the airport. I declined, saying, “Aw gosh, that’s the nicest thing, but I think it would cause you too much stress,” and we smiled at one another and wished each other the best. She gave Maddie an extra smile and more kind words.

We did hear back from this treasure of a woman. She read both our samples, and wrote a long email in which she gave suggestions, thoughtful and helpful critique, and her best wishes. “Your books really aren’t meant for the Christian market,” she said, “But they should do well in the mainstream fiction market. I hope to run across your paths someday.”

I wrote her back actually, which I worried was pushing the limits of politeness but nonetheless I sent her a simple thank you because it felt right to send such a note.

And we bought one of her books. It’s got a hopeful message and both of us took the time to read it, and while reading it, I mostly just thought with gratitude about the people in the publishing industry who try to do their best and help others to reach their best.

That’s the message I reckon I choose to take from our first Writer’s Conference. Remember the good people, and keep on trying to get your own good words, your messages, your work out to others. And in the meantime, be kind to whoever you can be kind to, not because it might help you, but because it might help them.

After all, it’s a hard world we live in. But that doesn’t mean we gotta turn hard too. We just gotta keep heading where we’re supposed to go, and hopefully we won’t have to make our journey alone, or without the kindness of strangers and loved ones along the way.

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Pitching to Agents, The Throat Punching Aspects, Part 2

As I wrote last week, Maddie and I attended a writing conference where we pitched our books to ten agents. I thought long and hard about how much to share about our personal life, as well as the conference we attended and the people I met. I struck a balance on privacy: I am not revealing the names of any of the agents we pitched to, nor am I sharing the names of any of the writers we met–no matter how much I liked them. As far as our privacy, I decided that anyone who’s considering the whole pitching and querying process, or the one-on-one pitching writers do at conferences, may draw some benefit from seeing an inside and unvarnished look at how two writers, a mother and daughter team, worked through a hard day–together. The second part of the story picks up where Part One leaves off: the first pitch Maddie has to make.

Maddie’s first pitch was to a sweet lady who specializes in YA. I knew going into the pitch that we were sort of trying to fit a circle into a square hole. The Third Eye of Cain is not directed at the YA market alone. Although several of the POVs we write through in the novel are teenagers, a few other leading character-narrators are adults. Just to explain for non-writers, novels can be written through three different perspectives: first person; third person; and, omniscient. Maddie and I both write mostly through third person, and we like to go with third person shifting POV, which means that when a scene changes, a different character is followed, and the reader only sees the world through their eyes. Shifting third person POV is very effective because it allows you to paint different facets of your fictional world. This approach has plenty of fans and it is not revolutionary. However, the YA world apparently doesn’t like writers to shift POVs. Or so we found out during this pitch.

As another aside, I have the same issue with Off Grid: it shifts POV from teens to adults. Which means the audience for the book could be adults, but it could also be teens or young adults. To me, this an interesting but not overly big issue, but some agents do’t feel the same way.  And plenty of readers, not to mention agents, say they’re open to books that cross over between or bend genres, so to speak, but some agents, as well as readers, prefer to remain immersed in one genre at a time, and the YA genre is distinct from the adult genre. In addition, the YA genre has different protocols or accepted stylistic approaches, and one of these is that shifting POVs is or may be a negative against a book.

Once I introduced us, Maddie settled in and got through several paragraphs of her pitch uninterrupted. The agent was young, with long dark hair and a pretty way about her. She said several complimentary things. For one thing, she raised her eyebrow and asked Maddie, “Wow, did you memorize all that? That’s pretty impressive stuff, you did a great job,” and her words didn’t seem insincere. We talked some more, and then got to what I call the denouement. The pregnant moment, where an agent says, “Yes, no or maybe.” The agent raised her issue with the book: she said that in the YA market, books sell better if they follow one POV alone. All the same, she asked us to send her three chapters. We thanked her and headed outside, me to prepare for my third pitch, and Maddie, to make friends with a trim, well-dressed older lady who would end up talking to and eventually exchanging emails with Madeline by the end of the day.

My third pitch was with an editor (rather than an agent) who I can best characterize as sharp, fair but tough. She even had, as do I, a last name that was Polish or Russian. She was attractive, with blonde hair and a well-ironed pants suit. Overall, she looked well kempt and well educated–but tough. And she went right for the jugular as far as analyzing my book: she asked me what my climax was. I knew from talking to another writer that this question was coming, so I handled it just fine. Then the tough editor asked the standard questions about market and writing background. I felt like I was before a stern but reasonable judge or answering questions from a senior lawyer—which is not an uncomfortable place for me. After I worked through all her interrogative words, she came back with a yes of sorts. “Well,” she concluded, “Your novel comes down to voice, and I can only assess it if I read it, go ahead and send me three chapters.”

Once again, I went off in search of Maddie, and we spent the next hour or so chatting with other writers, particularly the older lady Maddie had befriended. We observed writers walking in and out of classrooms. We noticed what folks were wearing and overheard snippets of strange but ordinary writer talk. All writers are, Maddie always says, a little strange, and I defer to her conclusion with a chuckle. I at least fall into this category, I fully admit.

My fourth pitch and final one before lunch was with this lovely human being. I am not going to name any of the agents I met with because I don’t think it’s respectful, but I respected and loved this woman. She’s the same agent who complimented Maddie’s dress, and that alone would be enough to form a judgment as to her character. But she’s got a tremendous resume: she’s had her own radio show, she is a leader among the Christian fiction world, and she has published many well-reviewed books of her own. She’s of middling age, and she has an appearance that I can best describe as friendly and maternal. This kind lady listened to my pitch with actual interest. She leaned forward, her eyes lit up when I spoke, and later in the day I came to the conclusion that she treats everyone like that, because I observed her throughout the afternoon, talking to everyone she came across with the same light in her eyes and interest in the human sitting across the table from her. Anyway, agent #4 said basically the following to me: “Fascinating concept. I don’t take on many novels, but please send me a few pages, and who knows? Maybe I’ll fall in love with it or I can pass it along to someone who will and will want to work with it.”

It’s funny, how kindness is such a gift in a profession that can be so hard. I talked with Maddie a lot about this kind agent as we shared a turkey sandwich at lunch. “She really does do Christian fic,” I said, “So I’m not sure we’re a fit for her, but I am sure she’ll be awfully kind to you, and she’s your final agent to pitch to, so we have two to look forward to,” and I kept going over her pitch as we shared lunch. I was exhausted. I knew Maddie was too. But, I thought to myself as we walked back to the Intercontinental, I’d gotten through a hard morning.

I felt like my day was almost over, and hers was just starting. I felt like we were going to be okay, if not great, as far as that elusive thing we were searching for: a home for our books, or someone who would like our work enough to take it on professionally. I was cautiously optimistic, and that’s about as good as I do when facing the obstacles that come with trying to bring a book to market via the traditional gatekeeper method. I try to keep my chin up, and remind myself that though my books are different, they will be wanted and are of value.

I simply wasn’t prepared for just how hard Governor 4 could be, until we got back from lunch and were sitting in front of Maddie’s second pitch recipient: the benevolent Canadian man wearing the hat. Right off the bat, I could tell he was just waiting for our ten minutes to pass. He had his hand on his chin, almost covering his mouth, and his body language spoke of disinterest. He listened, more or less, to Maddie’s pitch, which was rough, and it’s because she was reading all the same things I was reading in our listener. When I tried to take over and handle my share of the pitch, market analysis, he interrupted and said, “That’s not necessary, I know the market, I’m an expert on it,” but I’m hard sometimes too. I kept going. I would and did discuss the market–at least for thirty seconds or so, and then we got to the point where he simply said, “You’re welcome to drop me a line, but this probably isn’t for me.”

Maddie looked drained, and I summoned all the energy I had left to buttress both of us. After all, we had the tough editor in twenty minutes. And we couldn’t sit there, like beaten dogs, but we both felt the pressure at this point. It was almost two, and neither one of us had a full manuscript request. I was thinking about everything, from the price of the hotel room, to the cost of the conference, to the potential audience for The Third Eye of Cain, to how much more my co-writer could take. “Don’t worry,” I said, “This next lady is tough but she’s fair, it will be fine.”

But from the moment we sat in front of the tough but fair blonde editor, I realized things were far from fine. This pitch occurred in the middle of the room, where the noise was at its highest decibel rating. This meant that the now tired editor (after all, she had thirty authors or so on her schedule) had to work harder to hear us. From a simple physical standpoint, the editor couldn’t hear Maddie very well, and Maddie’s voice was quieter than usual. Because the editor couldn’t hear Maddie, she kept interrupting and asking questions. On top of that, she had no interest in following Maddie’s memorized spiel. If anything, she was annoyed at the very thought of a memorized spiel, and she took her annoyance out on this newbie, seemingly soft-spoken first-time writer. She asked questions that interrupted her own questions, and throughout all this, Maddie’s voice grew even softer.

Indeed, at this moment I was realizing Maddie was at risk of losing her voice altogether. She’d been swallowing cough drops all morning. She’s not used to talking all day. Unlike me, Maddie has never taken a full jury trial or deposed witnesses for hours on end. She speaks well, and she’s improving constantly at public speaking (indeed, facing the right circumstances, she is a damn good orator, and will became a consistently good speaker as she grows), but she was facing a hard crowd of one. On top of that, and also in contrast to me, Maddie is a classic introvert. She really just wants to write—all day, if possible. Whereas I can talk all day. After the editor got to her climax of her annoyance, she started to lecture us, her eyes fixed on Maddie. “Look, you need to have an elevator pitch, a one sentence summary of your book, not some long canned spiel.”

I should have interrupted then and there, because of course we have an elevator pitch. Here it is, for sake of posterity:

Three thousand years in the future, a technologically advanced dictator controls the world, and the only hope for humanity is nine Chosen humans, who are the personified elements of nature.

It’s one of the first things we wrote while we worked on the synopsis and on rewrites about three drafts ago, this summer. But I couldn’t get a word in, nor did I feel like begging or explaining or apologizing. If anything, I wanted to argue, but this wouldn’t do us any good. And I realized that the editor needed for some reason to vent. So I did what I could: I tried to explain the book and why it had a market, but the time was flying past, and I knew that nothing I said was gonna sway her. She did finish the sentence with a halfhearted, “Congratulations on finishing your first novel,” and we got up and left the room, both of us blushing.

“Oh my god,” Maddie mouthed to me.

“Yeah, um, let’s go upstairs and talk,” I murmured. We took the elevator almost in silence.

Once we got in the room, Maddie exploded in anger. “Did she need to be such a bitch?”

“No,” I said. And then I talked at length. I said I was sorry it went like that, and a lot of other things. Then I asked my co-writer, “Do you want to do your last two pitches, or should I take over?”

Maddie shook her head. “I’m doing them.”

Please stay tuned for the next installment, which talks about how we finished strong.




When Red Tape Blocks Neighbors from Helping the Homeless

The community I live in, Front Royal, Virginia, has a large problem with homelessness. And with the record cold temperatures we’ve been facing over the past few weeks, the non-profits who work the problem of homelessness as well as several local churches met on Thursday to discuss a simple solution to a horrific problem: how do we get the 75-100 homeless citizens of Front Royal out of the freezing temperatures during the night. As reported by the Royal Examiner,

The first Thermal Shelter meeting was held Thursday evening, Jan. 11 at New Hope Bible Church, to discuss the serious need for a temporary thermal shelter in Warren County.

The Royal Examiner’s take was that the Thermal Shelter meeting had a strong turnout, and the Mayor of Front Royal, Hollis Tharpe, “was in attendance and was able to help answer a variety of questions.” In addition, the Royal Examiner emphasized several positive results. For one thing, the community united to address a serious problem. In addition, the meeting successfully accomplished something: several churches in attendance volunteered to hold week-long thermal shelters from 7 PM to 7 AM, starting immediately.

The Gazebo, where in good weather homeless try to find shelter
Photo Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

The article (which did a great job quickly summarizing the specifics of what occurred that evening) did not mention an additional positive aspect of the meeting. Pastor Marc Roberson of Riverton United Methodist Church spoke about the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS). As one of the founders of WATTS, Pastor Marc knows how to run a Thermal Shelter. Pastor Marc went over the practicalities, the resources and volunteers needed for conducting Thermal Shelters. He also discussed how to train volunteers and how to set up a strong structure that would ensure that the Thermal Shelters ran smoothly. Pastor Marc also explained that churches should figure out how to integrate housing the homeless with safely running activities that involve children and teenagers—which again is a concern that churches must and can resolve. For example, churches can ensure that the homeless guests arrive an hour after all activities end and leave an hour before morning activities commence in the mornings. WATTS, for the record, is now well funded, with paid workers, but it started off as a volunteer organization organized in a time of great need.

Kathy Leonard (l), Vicki Davies, Michelle Smeltzer, Pam Williams and Roni Evans.
Photo Credit: Jen Avery

Nonetheless, none of this can legally happen right now, which leads me to express my take on this first meeting. First, I’m grateful to the news organizations that covered the meeting, particularly Jen Avery from the Royal Examiner. Naturally, I’m grateful to the folks from the churches and non-profits that came and volunteered their time and support to help solve a public emergency.

Moreover, I’m grateful to the organizers of the event: Pastor Bobby Stepp of New Hope Bible Church; Kathy Leonard, Homeless Liaison for Front Royal and facilitator of the evening; Vicki Davies of St. Luke Clinic, Michelle Smeltzer, with House of Hope and the Department of Social Services; Pam Williams, from The Potter’s House; and Roni Evans. Every single organizer there realized that as a community we must do something, and now, to get our brothers and sisters, off the streets.

After all, people die in the cold, and as Pastor Bobby Stepp said in his opening prayer when he quoted from the Bible:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:35-40.

All or almost all of the attendees present, no matter their religious affiliation, agree that a community should help shelter the homeless. The eight or more churches who volunteered their time and resources follow the axiomatic principle that being a good citizen means you do not allow your neighbors to freeze in the cold. We have neighbors who are freezing tonight. There’s just no way around this truth.

Hollis Tharpe, Town Mayor
Photo Credit: Jen Avery

Unfortunately, as the meeting progressed, truth and emergent need ran into a massive roadblock: bureaucratic red tape. Mayor Tharpe explained that before a church could legally host a Thermal Shelter, it would have to go through a sixty to ninety day process that would include no less than four town hall meetings as well as a visit from a Fire Safety Inspector. The tone in the room changed dramatically after Mayor Tharpe spoke. He in fact, did not speak of red tape; in fact, he said that “he would move the process along as fast as he could.” And when asked for comment afterward, Mayor Tharpe said that he didn’t understand why a permit was needed in the first place and he would check on the situation and the legal stance of the town on Tuesday. “I’m on the little guy’s side.” In truth, Mayor Tharpe hardly comes across as an obstructionist to the cause of homelessness. Nonetheless, the issue of bureaucratic red tape changed the tone of the meeting.

Indeed, an air of civil disobedience arose. It was palpable and it was alive. I was part of this wave of people who muttered, “This will not do,” which was quickly followed by several suggestions. “We can hold a slumber party,” exclaimed one church leader. “Or a lock-in,” cried another church leader or church goer. “Or we can build an underground resistance movement and ask forgiveness not permission,” murmured a member of one of the non-profits in attendance.

Stevi Robinson, the Chair for Fundraising from Warren County’s Habitat for Humanity, who was in attendance at the meeting along with Vice President Kim Taylor Jones stated afterwards:

A 2007 Habitat for Humanity construction site in the United States
Photo Credit: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia

There are many hurdles to overcome in addressing the rising homelessness crisis in Front Royal/Warren County. While it was wonderful to see such a great outpouring of community support last Thursday, the need is still outweighing the current response. There is much work to do still, and I encourage everyone that attended last weeks meeting to bring a friend or neighbor to the next meeting.

My grandmother Hazel used to always say, “never look someone in the face and not see your own.”  Anyone of us given the right circumstances could end up homeless. We as a community have the ability to help everyone have a healthy experience at life. We need to stop turning a blind eye to the tragic living conditions that currently exist for some of our community members.

If the Town and County can’t be motivated by the human factor, Studies show that communities that take a housing first approach enjoy roughly $1.78 return for every $1 spent on such programs. (University of New Mexico ISR). The time to act is now.

The non-profit I serve on as secretary, ROTH of FR (Roof Over Their Heads) has a simple mission statement:

ROTH of Front Royal aims to end homelessness in Warren County, VA by providing housing and supportive services to members in our community through non-judgmental and non-discriminatory assistance.

Five of us from ROTH sat in the front row, and we observed the frustration on the faces of facilitators like Vicki Davis of St. Luke Community Clinic. She has nurses lined up to volunteer their care to homeless men and women who need medical treatment—and could receive it while finding a safe and warm place to sleep at a Thermal Shelter. And now Vicki is being told that her nurses may as well stay home. I haven’t spoken to Vicki, but I can speak on behalf of ROTH. We must help get the homeless off the street when the temperatures drop into the teens. Over the past year, our 501(c)(3) has helped at least one hundred homeless or almost homeless citizens of Front Royal and the surrounding areas in Warren County, but one homeless citizen suffering in sub-freezing temperatures is one too many.

And while I will not quote any of the church leaders in attendance, I am certain that a church should not be told it cannot follow its guiding principles, but should bow to the insanity of a bureaucratic process that will ensure one and only one thing: the homeless will freeze tonight and tomorrow night, until all the formalities and senseless legalities are followed by a legion of would be angels.

There must and should be a better way. And something tells me, based on a question asked of Mayor Tharpe, that if we proceed with this Thermal Shelter idea without going through a 90-day approval process, we will not be thrown in prison for fulfilling our civic and/or religious duty. There is a time to help. And that time is now.

 




An Ice Storm that Can’t Kill 10,000 Hours

Ice glistened on the slabs that rose out of the front yard. The driveway was wet but not slippery because we put salt down in the afternoon, but we couldn’t salt the rocks, so they bore the marks of the cold, cold water that fell on them. When I pulled into the high school, I glanced into the rear view mirror and the grass was grey, laden with the remnants of the storm that brewed yesterday. I wondered how green can turn grey in a certain light, and I thought about the seasons which change like we do. Going back and then forth and back again, the way a road curves around and around a steep incline until it hits the summit, the apex of a place in time. For even summits and mountains alter over time, just at a different pace than the shifting of the solstices.

When we drove down the mountain this morning, a silver Crown Vic in front of us crept down the road. We were in first gear, and I explained to the kids that you gotta let the engine brake for you. None of them was happy with how slow we were going, and I tried to teach them; I asked, “Who drives well in the ice?” Two of the kids piped up, “Stoney does,” and I laughed and said, “The correct answer is no one does, not even him, he’s just done it more, he knows it better and he knows what he can and can’t do, there’s no secret formula, there’s just going slow, don’t be mad at the Crown Vic, they’re doing what they’re ‘sposed to do.”

The kids didn’t have a response for this, so I said, “Find us something happy to listen to,” and Madeline pulled up one of her favorite singers. His stage name is Macklemore, and his real name is Benjamin Hammond Haggerty. Just as an aside, I like people named Benjamin pretty much on instinct.

“What category is he in Mom?”

“I dunno. He could be rap like Twenty Pilots is rap, or he could be R&B.”

“Or alternative,” Madeline said.

“Yeah,” I said.

So we drove about fifteen miles an hour, slower around Kitty Corner and the other steep turns, and we listened to music and no one said much more.

Macklemore. By Drew of The Come Up Show (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another one of Macklemore’s songs came on after we listened to “Same Love.” The song after “Same Love” is called “Ten Thousand Hours,” and it’s about how hard an artist works before he or she makes it to the big time. There’s this:

A life lived for art is never a life wasted

Ten thousand

And then there’s the hook, where he repeats the following:

Ten thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands

Ten thousand hands, they carry me.

It’s here she asked me what the song was about, and I explained that you gotta put an immense amount of time into any skill or talent until you mature enough to be considered great. After all, Macklemore writes,

You see I studied art

The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint

The greats were great cause they paint a lot . . .

I repeated those lyrics back to her and she said, “Have I written ten thousand hours yet?”

I considered it as I watched the line of cars ahead of us. They looked like metal parts of a snake doing the mamba, but at a distance from one another. “See,” I said, “They’re giving each other a lot of distance, why are they doing that?”

“In case one loses control it won’t hit the ones in front,” she said.

“Right, they’re being smart,” and I thought about how close her birth father rides her, and how this pushes her out of control, like a race car taps the back of the bumper of the car in front and spins it, that’s how close he takes the curves that constitute her world with her. It’s like he pushes and pushes until she’s in full panic mode, just like she was last night after they held one of those parallel conversations where she says one thing and he answers as if they’re talking about a completely different topic, one she’ll never understand because it’s beyond her. After talking to someone like this, who’s in what psychologists call gas-lighting mode, you decide maybe you’re crazy and your heart starts racing and you wanna vomit because the lack of clarity takes an acridity on in your mouth, and you hand your phone to your mother and ask her to make sense of it all.

But I said nothing of this to her; instead, I said, “That’s right, that’s good. You’ve written maybe five thousand hours, you’re really good—“

“—But I’m in school, it slows me down.”

“Macklemore was in school too, but he worked on his music when he wasn’t all the time like you work on your books, by the end of high school you’ll be at ten thousand hours, by the end of college you’ll be a better writer than me.”

“Better?”

“Better.”

I didn’t say more because Macklemore sang the rest of what I had to say, or almost all of it. I want her to write freely of and for herself, but she writes only in third person. Sometimes we struggle over this, and then I come to my senses and I back the car up and follow her from a distance that feels safer to her fragile artistic self. She doesn’t write like I do. She doesn’t tell her story, at least not directly. Instead, she’s created a Tolkien-esque world that’s dominated by kick-ass women who lead a fight to restore freedom in a land ruled by the hand of Cain. It’s a biblical reference, one the character himself chose, because her characters are so real, they do things like choose their own names, their own destinies, their own friends—but even they are stuck with their own birth fathers.

Her world is lush and real, complex and populated by good and evil. Cain resembles someone of course, but that’s the author’s reality intruding in a way that’s subtle. What isn’t subtle in The Third Eye of Cain is the way the patriarchy is crushed. But the women don’t rule as a matriarchy. The author, mind you, says everyone has a place at her table in her world. And then I realize that she doesn’t think she has a place at the table of her own world; she feels like she doesn’t have a voice she can use.

“When we write Redone Strand, are we going with shifting third person POV?” I asked.

“Yeah, I can’t do first person,” she said.

“Can’t?” I glanced over and noticed the windshield was starting to freeze up, so I turned the knob to defrost.

“It’s never comfortable.”

I nodded. This isn’t an argument we can have now. I can’t make her take on first person in her fictional world when she can’t find the words to express her wishes in the here and now. Turning into the parking lot, I was mad for a moment, but not at her. You don’t get mad at daughters who have panic attacks after they try to talk to their birth dads. You just try to figure things out. Being you, you’re always trying to figure things out, both for you and for her, artistically and otherwise. Like you had this idea for her a couple months back. You pitched it to her of course:

Hey you could write about your life in high school, you could write a deep and funny book, a real world type thing, and you could talk about him, about your conversations, about how you play your clarinet and he tells you to go into the basement so he can hear his new wife play the piano, or how he notices all the notes you don’t hit and all the ones your brother does hit, or you could talk about the popular kids who make out in the hallways, or the teachers who don’t like Columbus Day, or the football players who yell at you when your soccer ball dribbles into their court, or the cheerleaders who show off their Brazilian shave jobs, it would be the greatest of books, I know we could get it picked up.

And she gives me this shy smile and I know it’s my dream for her in that moment and I close my eyes and tell myself, “Let her have her own dreams, in art and in life, she’s made this world, no one else builds entire worlds and writes about them, this is what she’s doing, let her follow her path and she’ll fulfill her dharma.”

All of which is right. I’m her mother and I’m her co-writer and I’m her manager and I’m in her soul family too, and I want her to use her voice to write about her troubles in these times, these hard teenage times, the ones that will pass so fast and yet so slow, from equinox to solstice and on, until she’s no longer under my care. She should create as she will and she should use her art however it feels right. But there’s the issue of her voice, the one that would speak of the thousand shreds that burn like molten rock inside when the pain of him gets caught in her throat and she can’t get any air into her thorax. I want to fix it. I want her to speak of it. Talking helps clear the “can’t breathe” air bubble constriction.

But she can’t and won’t yet. All of these things coalesce and then congeal and then when it gets too hard the ice bridge that’s building in her heart shatters and a sliver stabs her in that special place that she would find a better name for in some ancient language, maybe “whakaraerae,” which means “vulnerable” in Maori. She searches for better words in diverse places, checks with me to make sure she isn’t misappropriating other cultures (to which I smile and tell her no, she’s respecting and honoring them) and then she moves them (the words, the customs, the beliefs) to her world, populating it, always, with things from the past that connect our present to the future. She weaves a tapestry of time and place, and her way of rebelling, of speaking up for herself, is indirect and subtle and beautiful.

But now there’s an ice storm raging inside and she’s building her ten thousand hours and he doesn’t even know that her world is an escape from his reality, or her reality with him.

I don’t have all the answers but I keep hearing something hopeful.

I make my living off of words

And do what I love for work.

Macklemore’s got it figured out. In a way, so does my daughter, because no matter what, she keeps writing. And I keep trying to get an agent to take a look at her world. It’s a good one, where kick-ass women fight for equality and freedom for all. And men fight at their sides. Call it utopian. Or just call it her reality.

Sometimes reality blooms out of a story, just like a flower blooms out of a seed.

Ten thousand hours.




My First Friend on the Mountain

Some people can walk up to other people and with the childlike confidence or perhaps innocence make a new friend. Like when we were in elementary school and landed on the ground after jumping down from the monkey bars. We see another kid, they smile at us, or we smile at them, and one of us says, “Hi, I’m so and so, will you be my friend?” Or you’re seated at a table of four in third grade and the boy next to you writes you a note: “Hey, wanna be friends?” Honestly, it never really happened this easily for me, even when I was in first grade, but I’ve seen other kids do it. And as an adult, I’ve watched with genuine astonishment, with something akin to envy but closer to respect, as other adults make friends with social grace and ease.

When I moved up to the mountain, I was in a brand new absolutely alien spot. The mountain was new; I was as new to it as the roaming packs of deer were to me. I was unprepared for stinkbugs and ladybird swarms; I didn’t know the difference between a copperhead and an eastern rat snake. I also wasn’t used to the new me: single mom, on my own with three kids—getting a fresh start, no less, all alone and knowing no one on my mountain.

For the first month or six weeks or so, I continued not knowing anyone. On my walks alone or with the kids, I would wave to everyone, and almost everyone would wave back. I chatted with a groundskeeper one day. He rented a home on the bottom of the mountain and performed maintenance work. He was friendly but we only talked for a few minutes. I ran into some other folks on one of my walks. I liked their dogs, and we talked about how cute their dogs were for a few minutes. But that was it. I had my kids, and I had my friends who lived far away.

Sometimes I was all alone on the weekends, but usually at least my daughter would be at home with me. On the rare weekends when all three kids went on their biweekly visits with their father, I would kinda lose my mind. The mountainside with its cliffs and its dense fogs sometimes seemed alive, but aloof and unfriendly. At those times, I would text or call my best friend and I’d whine. It would go something like this:

“OMG, I’m lonely, I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve written 3,000 words, I’ve gone for a hike, no this time I didn’t get lost, now I’ve made dinner and I don’t know what else to do.”

“You need to meet people.”

“Meet people?”

“Yeah, go introduce yourself to someone or join a charity or something.”

“Ugh.”

“El, you like charities.”

“I know.”

“What about the coffee shop?”

“Guess I could bring my laptop and hide behind it while I drink a latte,” I mused.

“No. Don’t bring your laptop and hide.”

“Ugh, why can’t you move next door?”

“From across the country?” Her voice was edged with disbelief.

“Yes, it’s a really good idea.”

“You need people near you, someone you can play cards with.”

“But I’d have to meet them first.”

“Yes, if you want to play cards with someone you need to meet them first.”

“I know.”

“Or you could pay attention to the opposite sex, you know, think about dating,” she said.

“Argh.”

“Well, yes. Now go out and meet someone, I gotta go.”

I never did muster out to meet anyone. But one weekend, after living in our chalet for about six weeks, I was out for a walk with Ben. He was jumping from the edge of the ravine to the road, searching for rocks, all bundled up in his blue jacket against the cold of an October morning. And a voice with an eastern European accent called out to me, “Hi, good morning, how are you?”

I looked around until I spotted the curly blonde-haired owner of the voice. She was standing in the driveway of a barnhouse style cabin, with a view of the mountains behind her and a stack of firewood that was at least six or seven feet tall. She was middle-aged and a youthful fifty. Her cheeks were rosy; her eyes, wide set. She stood about five-five and her entire countenance spoke of health and the outdoors. With sparkling blue eyes, she could have walked out of a Susi Chapstick commercial. She’d have been one of the tour guides or the skiing instructors.

I swiveled around and took her in, and I couldn’t help smiling. “Hello there,” I said.

“Saw you walking the other day, you have such beautiful children.” She smiled at Ben, whose dirt-encrusted jeans bore rips in both knees.

“Thank you.” I smiled and tried not to look silly. “We’re living in Singh’s chalet for a few months until we can get something more permanent. My name’s El, it’s nice to meet you.”

She walked towards me with her hand out. “I’m Katya.”

After we shook hands, I smiled again.

Katya smiled back.

“I think I saw you too, have you been here long?”

“Ten years.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I moved up here after my divorce.” Then Katya began to talk, and I forgot about feeling shy or silly. I just listened for several minutes as she relayed her story. She still loves her husband very much. They were, in fact, soulmates, or something close to that. They sailed around the world together. Had a “beautiful” daughter. Had a “beautiful life” together, which all began when she was living in her native country Russia and “Will” was visiting from America. Katya hardly spoke English; Will, broken Russian. Yet they fell in love, and in time, Katya married Will and they lived happily ever after. Until they got divorced.

Katya skipped over the exact reasons for why she split with Will. She went on to say that they got along “beautifully,” and then she told me that she started in Front Royal with almost nothing to her name. But she had guts and smarts, not to mention a degree in finance. She opened her own consulting company, and with days left before a loan payment came due, she landed her first client. From there, Katya said with a cheerful smile, her business took off, and ever since, she has managed money for what sounded like a wide range of clients.

I took all this in. I listened and was intrigued, charmed and warmed by Katya’s story. Ben hopped in and out of our conversation, and then Katya said, “Would you like to come in and see my home?”

I said, “Sure, I’d love to, come on, Ben, we’re going to see Ms. Katya’s home,” and we followed her down the walkway, up the steps, and into a gorgeous, tidy, wonderful mountain home. She showed us all around, from the top floor to the bottom, and the whole time, we kept talking. Ben kept hopping in and out of the conversation, and two years later, Katya would laugh and remind me about how “Ben rolled around upside down on the floor.”

Katya and I talked about Russian and America; easy choices and not so easy ones; energy and the law of attraction; life and death; birth and rebirth; friends and soulmates; the end and the beginning; the before and the after. I didn’t inveigh on God too much, for we weren’t going to meet there, not exactly, just as we would never meet in the same place on all matters spiritual—and yet, we met, and somewhere in that meeting was this sense of solace that a good conversation brings.

Katya was my first friend on the mountain. She remains my friend to this day. And she is also singlehandedly responsible for finding me the home I now own—but that’s another story. For another day.

How about you? Is it easy for you to make friends? And do you have friends you can walk and talk with, or do you find friendship over long distances or online?




Moving to Front Royal: The Reign of the Stink Bug

Our not so trusty Honda Pilot

The kids and I moved five days after they started in their new schools on August 15, 2015. The move itself was crazy, and done in small and large parts. I began house hunting in a town called Linden, a suburb of Front Royal. A wonderful realtor named Sue Laurence from Re/Max helped us through the entire process. A word about Sue: she was the first person I met in Front Royal, and she’s a special lady. I’ve known and worked with a few realtors. Jim Souvagis was great–he helped us in Northern Virginia. Another lady helped us sell our last home, but she wasn’t like Sue from Front Royal. Sue is one of those genuinely kind humans who treat you well no matter your situation. She was kind to my kids, all of whom are quite outspoken, and who together form a tight triumvirate of friendly yet boisterous noisiness.

Anyway, Sue met us with a smile and treated me as well as a woman could ask to be treated. We viewed several cabin-style homes and eventually settled on a plan to build a new house. The lot I put an offer on had one of those crane-your-neck out the side of a back window views of a tiny lake. After putting down an offer and then talking more with my bank, I realized I wouldn’t qualify for a loan until our house in Northern Virginia sold. And it wasn’t selling, or would it sell for another three months. It looked like I could lose my entire deposit–but I was lucky. The sellers countered with a request that I increase the escrow amount, so this gave me a way out of the contract.

Nonetheless, I had nowhere to move the kids; I had no home, other than the old one that wouldn’t sell. I was in a fix here, and it seemed impassable. I had already signed the kids up for school in Front Royal. I was committed and obdurately set on getting them into their new schools by the start of the year. I didn’t want to put them through the hell of a midyear transition. But still “she persisted,” as the slogan on one of my t-shirts says. School was starting in a week. I had nowhere to live. I couldn’t buy a house, not yet. I’d have to rent.

Sue at this point worked an actual miracle. She knew a guy of Indian descent—an engineer who lived alone in a tiny chalet in the neighborhood I would later buy a house in, but I’ll leave out the name for the sake of my family’s privacy. Sue knew the engineer because she had represented him on his own house purchase. Anyway, this man was about to take a three-month sabbatical, and he would, Sue thought, be happy to rent the chalet out to me while he was pursuing his spiritual enlightenment.

Two days later, we viewed the chalet, and the kids and I fell in love with it. It’s almost impossible to describe the serenity and peace this chalet breathed with its every last molecule. The inside, mind you, was stripped down. The kitchen could’ve been out of a traveler’s mobile home. There was only 1200 square feet, with one bedroom downstairs and two more upstairs. But it didn’t matter. When you stood on the deck and looked outward, you saw over top ash and maples a stunning palette of mountain splendor. The house itself was near the top of the tallest peak in Front Royal, and at night, explained the engineer, the lights of the valley glittered like several thousand dots of brightly-colored candy. A breeze rushed through the wrap-around porch, and you could see for miles in all directions. We could be safe here, and like one of the characters in my book The Unlikely Prophet, when you scanned the horizon, you could spot danger before it got close enough to hurt you.

I found the money to pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent, which was modest. For a week, the kids attended school via a long commute from our old home, and I spent the days hiking Skyline drive and writing in the library while they got accustomed to their new teachers. I also dealt with another not small emergency. The SUV I had purchased nine days earlier collapsed in a loud, thunking unbearable clunk—which is the sound a vehicle makes when its transmission dies. I spent days trying to figure out a better option. The teachers at the elementary school thought I was of woman of substantial means, because I kept driving different cars, including a zippy but tiny blue Mini Cooper. But finally, with a steadfast friend at my side during the three hour negotiation process, I leased a Mazda CX-5. The credit manager took one look at my desperate face after he explained that divorce destroys everyone’s credit, including to my shock my own, and gave me a good interest rate. He “vouched” for me, which was a kindness I would encounter many more times in my journey as a single mom.

Speaking of kindness, the engineer left the chalet furnished, so we didn’t have to undergo an expensive and difficult move. Instead, we borrowed a dear neighbor’s minivan and moved some of our possessions into the chalet. The drive up the mountain to our new home took us on roads that twisted around steep hillsides, and I soon learned the intricacies of driving on nine-degrees grades that took you on S-curves. That first night, we stood on the porch and watched the sun glide down over the edge of our world and then disappear, and each one of us smiled.

Then we began to explore our mountain. I got settled into my writing routine, which consisted of typing on my iMac in the front living area while thirstily gazing out through wall-to-wall windows at the restive landscape that surrounded me. Patches of strawberries and blackberries weaved themselves into the ravine that collided with the back edge of our property. Ash trees and tall grasses, wildflowers and honeysuckle fanned out along the slope below. If you stood on the edge of the porch, especially when the fog rolled in, you felt like you were standing at the stern of a ship gazing out at edge of the world.

When I wasn’t writing or trying to figure out how to pay bills I couldn’t pay, I was wrapped up ever so tightly in the world of my children, just as they were tied to me. We grew closer and closer as the hot days of August gave way to the still steamy days of September. At night, the wind would blow in through our doors and windows, and when we slept, we dreamed to a chorus of crickets that hummed and blurted out ditties none of us understood. In the mornings, we stumbled out the front door, took a look at a sky that would never lose its hint of magic and fairy dust, and settled into the Mazda for a ride on streets that had names that evoked forests and mountain peaks.

In the afternoons, we walked and talked about life, about school, about all the tiny but telling matters that occupy a mother and her three children. The effect of moving to Front Royal was immediate. We saw good augurs everywhere. My daughter made friends the very first day—friends who remain close a few years later. My middle child not only wasn’t ostracized for his long hair but met two other long-haired boys on the first day. And my youngest drew the longest stick in the lottery of teachers: he was assigned to an energetic, positive, just completely wonderful male teacher. The kids, in other words, were flourishing, which was not something that could have been said about their experiences in what is lauded to be one of the best school systems in the country: Fairfax County. To this day, all three Phoenix children are happy here in Warren County.

Meanwhile, we got our first taste of mountain living. I quickly learned it takes strength, fortitude and courage to put down roots in a world where deer and bear and other critters truly own the land you live on. When you drive down the mountain, you had better go slow on the hairpin turns lest you run over wild turkey, a fox, or God help everyone, a skunk. Deer walk up to you and stare at you, which isn’t a bad thing, but bears come onto your porch and snatch apple pies out of your kitchen windows up here on our mountain. More troubling, however, are the creatures who co-inhabit your home with you.

It started with the stink bugs. Also known as the brown marmorated stink bug, these stinky buggers “invade homes in the fall. Thousands can invade a single home. In fact, in one home more than 26,000 stinkbugs were found.”

These beasts entered our chalet by fitting under the wood siding. And they came in through the windows. They trotted in under the doorframes. They fell from the very sky into our front room via the chimney. Any opening big enough to fit through brought in more of them, and our chalet was a holey thing. It lacked weather-stripping and other sophistications you get accustomed to when you live in a suburb. And we didn’t have A/C, so the windows were always open.

Some nights, we’d spend hours hunting the mottled grayish-brown monsters. My daughter retreated to her bedroom often in a panic—only to find a stink bug grinning at her from under her pillow. One night, we had our first and only fight while living in the chalet. It went like this.

“Madeline, you need to practice your clarinet.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“There’s stink bugs in my room, I’m not going.”

“Come on, you need to go practice,” I said.

“Hell no, I’m not going.”

“But you need to sleep tonight too.”

“Not going.”

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

“Not going,” she said.

“Come on, come upstairs with me,” I said.

“No way.”

“Come on, this won’t kill you.”

“Will too, they’re evil.”

“They’re ugly yes, but they don’t harm anyone.”

“Will too.”

“How?”

“Psychological torment,” she said.

This argument went on for quite some time. Like an hour. It grew heated. I yelled, she yelled. Finally I vanquished all stink bugs as well as any sign of any other bug, insect, beetle or living creature in her room. I got Jim to scan the hallway, Ben to survey the upstairs bathroom. Madeline entered her bedroom, and broke out her clarinet. But it wasn’t over. She never did get over the beastly brown monsters.

My sons were stalwart. And I remained brave—until one landed on my upper thigh in the dead of night. I jumped at least ten feet in the air in uncontained shock . . . and then I killed it. And we killed an entire dust buster in a misbegotten attempt to vacuum up the little serenity-robbers. After a month or two, I attained a new Zen state which admittedly resembled more a defeated resignation to our cohabitation.

And that’s when the ladybugs came.

Stay tuned for the next blog for more on life in Front Royal—and the menacing attack of the “Coccinellidae,” or the plural “Coccinellids,” which is the species more popularly known as the ladybug.

 




Is Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” Good?

One of my friends, author Natalie G. Owens, sent me a video of a church choir singing Hozier’s “Take Me To Church.” And she said this was the kinda song my church choir would sing . . . and this got me thinking about the nature of worship, about church life in America, about what does and doesn’t constitute blasphemy.

I also asked myself whether it’s even possible to truly blaspheme or insult the Lord when you’re intending to love on Him and love on your brothers and sisters. My original take was:

This song goes off in some directions maybe I don’t love; all the same, I’d happily sing it at my church and then use it to teach on issues of love, sex, modern marriage, and maybe even what sin really means.

But I kept thinking about it. I asked a few friends if they’d be shocked and annoyed if they were at my church and we rocked this out? Or would they be like, huh, what’s El got to say about this today? Or would they just be like, well, all right, let’s rock this out? Most of the friends I asked just murmured something along the lines of, “Wow, that was hot when he sang it at the Grammy’s.”

Of course I kept thinking about it, and finally I pulled up the song online and read the lyrics again. The song itself starts off with a pretty standard comparison of making love to going to church:

Photo from: http://hozier.com/galleries/grammy-awards/#gallery_image/0

Photo from: http://hozier.com/galleries/grammy-awards/#gallery_image/0

Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

In these words, I see a lot of similarities to how love of God is treated by Sufi and Christian mystics. This could be about loving God. This could be Rumi seeking loss of self in his Beloved’s grasp. Or it could be any of us finding death to self in love, which is not necessarily a terrible thing at all. A great thing about being in love or simply loving greatly and radically—friends or lovers—is that we lose our selfishness, we abandon our selves, and we find union with another spirit or community with another soul.

The line with the knife in it makes me squirm, but love can be painful, right? When we make ourselves vulnerable to others, we form deep connections to other souls, but we also can and do get hurt. Think about the act of lovemaking itself—“it hurts so good” insofar as true ecstasy is almost impossible to bear. Good loving is that intense.

But before I get to what makes for good loving, I wanna look at a few more lines of Hozier’s song. He sings:

My lover’s got humour
She’s the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody’s disapproval
I should’ve worshipped her sooner
If the Heavens ever did speak
She is the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week
‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it
My church offers no absolutes
"Hozier Troubadour West Hollywood" by Neon Tommy/Katie Buenneke - https://www.flickr.com/photos/neontommy/14236956841/in/photostream/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hozier_Troubadour_West_Hollywood.jpg#/media/File:Hozier_Troubadour_West_Hollywood.jpg

“Hozier Troubadour West Hollywood” by Neon Tommy/Katie Buenneke – https://www.flickr.com/photos/neontommy/14236956841/in/photostream/ https://commons.wikimedia.org

Next, Hozier says his lover is the only one who speaks the truth, and obviously I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but maybe she’s the only one who feels authentic to Hozier; maybe she’s the only one who speaks truth TO Hozier. Then there’s this line about how bad modern church is, and I gotta say this honestly: I agree with Hozier. I’m not condemning your church experience in anyway, not if it’s giving you spiritual sustenance, but most American churches don’t offer you much in terms of teaching you anything substantial about God.

Take the typical hour-long church experience. How much time is spent actually reading from the scriptures? Thirty seconds? Maybe? Maybe one minute. And that’s atrocious really. I mean, there are thousands upon thousands of great stories and poems in the Bible, not to mention the Mahabharata and the Masnavi, but priests and ministers alike do not share the Word.

What they do give you is some business announcements. Several hymns. Some more business announcements. And then a sermon, and sermons are totally hit and miss and they often do not teach you much of spiritual value. The better preachers help you out (maybe) with some parenting issues; the worse preachers scare the crap out of you with some fear-based, human-created political or social commentary that lacks even a hint of God’s DNA.

I don’t understand why churches don’t teach more. I don’t get it. When I go to worship, I want to better understand the God I’m worshiping; instead, I hear a lot of treacle mixed with rules piled on more rules, and maybe with some grape juice tossed in to wash it down—if I go up for Communion. And I’m not a big believer in the wisdom of eating God. After all, Jesus meant that metaphorically. Just as Isaiah wrote of eating the word, just as he wrote of swallowing the scroll and receiving wisdom, just so did Jesus intend that his words be taken as spiritual rather than physical sustenance.

Give me the Word, and a lot more of it—please give me spiritual sustenance and stop telling me I’m a sinner going to hell. Like Hozier said, don’t teach me I’m sick; don’t teach me absolutes . . . because the only absolute I really believe in is love. That’s the true spiritual sustenance we all need and it’s what I wanna get on Sundays.

Guess I’m still okay with Hozier. But hey, there are some lines he’s written that do trip me up a little, so let me quote those to you.

 

If I’m a pagan of the good times
Photo Credit: Brian Douglas, http://hozier.com/gallery/#gallery_image/6

Photo Credit: Brian Douglas, http://hozier.com/gallery/#gallery_image/6

My lover’s the sunlight
To keep the Goddess on my side
She demands a sacrifice
To drain the whole sea
Get something shiny
Something meaty for the main course
That’s a fine looking high horse
What you got in the stable?
We’ve a lot of starving faithful
That looks tasty
That looks plenty
This is hungry work

Wow, as someone raised in the Christian tradition, I have a kneejerk reaction to the word, ‘pagan’, and I’m just now realizing that. Ha! Isn’t it funny how we’re conditioned to dislike certain things without really contemplating why we feel that way?

As far as paganism, and as far as sacrifices, let me get this out of the way: human sacrifice is disgusting, and I do not like religions which distort God’s word by instituting such gross and inhumane practices. I also am a little uncomfortable with any form of blood sacrifice. I don’t love the prior use of animals in the Judaic religion, or in the Hindu religion (or in just about any of the older religions) but it does make a certain amount of sense, I reckon, for those living in agrarian or tribal societies to perhaps use a dying animal to feed others and offer up the meat given to feed the priests and holy teachers (who in the Jewish faith were not allowed to even own property) as part of their worship. Animal sacrifice done respectfully and used to feed those who do not earn a living yet serve the community is something I can wrap my mind around. No matter what, we can all agree that hurting children is an abomination and it’s evil in the eyes of the Lord.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,

But that’s not what Hozier is talking about here. He mentions something about a “high horse” yet obviously he’s talking about himself, and again, the sacrifice is metaphorical. He’s talking about offering up a sacrifice to a goddess, or a female version of god. And the rest of the verse is about offering up his body to her in the act of lovemaking he’s wanting to get involved in—maybe when he’s done inducing her swoon with his words. As far as worshiping the divine female, I do believe Mrs. God exists, so I see nothing wrong with this. And if the Bible doesn’t speak of Mrs. God, maybe that’s because it wasn’t time yet to talk about her. Maybe the prophets of that time weren’t ready to hear about her either; after all, they were writing in a male-dominated time, when it was not at all unusual for a man to have more than one wife or even to have sex slaves as his own.

Without belaboring the sacrifice issue too much, one way to think of sacrifices is the collection baskets they pass around at church. Or as the Qur’an teaches, the best religions ensure that orphans and widows, the poor and the afflicted—are all supported by means of charitable contributions from other members of society. All religions, actually, teach this point: sacrifice some of your own wealth and take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. And historically churches have been the institutions that took care of these poor souls.

So to sacrifice at church is a good thing that ensures that no one goes hungry. And sacrificing at church is good for the giver too. It’s good for souls to give to others, and all the prophets and saints and great teachers agree on this. Give. And in return, you do get a lot. Hozier is not really talking about giving to the poor in “Take Me to Church” but the issue of sacrifice is all about taking care of others and being a good soul in the process. Sacrifice is absolutely of spiritual value.

The next issue that Hozier’s song gives me is this: is he celebrating carnal pleasures, or the pursuit of empty and mindless sexuality, which I don’t think is good for the soul, or is he celebrating deep and connected lovemaking? I don’t know if there’s any way to really answer that, but the fact that he compares the bedroom to a church suggests in and of itself that the sexual union that occurs there must be a holy one. Unless the act is meant to be holy, after all, why compare sex to church? Why not compare it to something else altogether?

Of course if Hozier is celebrating mere bland empty sex I wouldn’t like the song. I’d feel a strong distaste for it, just as I feel a painful aversion to most pornography. Modern porn really emphasizes physicality, and maybe that’s because we as a culture have lost our understanding of what must exist in all sexual unions for those unions to be good for our souls: deep and meaningful intimacy. The basis for such intimacy, quite simply, is connection. We must connect to our own selves, and the best of those souls, in order to connect with another soul. And for two souls to connect with one another, each must be awake and connected with his or her higher self. Otherwise, the sex between them has no spiritual component and it is about as exciting as white bread and peanut butter.

What does great, connected sex feel like? Well, here’s what Hozier says:

No masters or kings when the ritual begins
Photo Credit: Jessica Gale

Photo Credit: Jessica Gale

There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am human
Only then I am clean

In other words, neither the female nor the male rules over the other. The lovemaking can be intense, but there is nothing harsh or really sinful about it: that would be Hozier’s ‘gentle sin’. Indeed, the physical joining together feels like “sweet innocence”—it washes away our pain, our aloneness, our sense of disconnectedness. When we make love fully awake and fully as humans, the love feels ecstatic. It removes the grime and sadness, the sickness and the pain all humans feel while they’re here.

Once we view sex as a holy act, pure and beautiful, as pure and beautiful as church, we can reach an exalted and wonderful place emotionally and spiritually. Love, after all, is real. It’s tangible and it’s powerful, and when we find love in the arms of another soul, we find the best in us too. When we connect with ourselves and connect during spiritual lovemaking, our pain goes away. And in place of the pain is the purest and most beautiful piece of us: the light within our soul. And that, the soul within our soul, as Rumi called it, is the best of what makes us human.

So would I sing “Take Me to Church” at my church? After thinking about it, the answer is clear: yes. And I’d smile a lot too.




Stop Feeling Shame

There’s nothing helpful or useful or beneficial about shame. Nothing. If you did something you regret, fix it to the best of your ability and move forward. If you drank too much or smoked too much or ate too much, so what? Let it go. If you hurt someone you loved, apologize, make it right, and if still that’s not enough, let it go. Move forward. There’s nothing that makes you or the situation better when you engage in self-blaming, self-flagellating, self-hating. Nothing. So stop doing it. And know that nothing you do or say can take away the light that shines on inside you. Nothing.

You are a beautiful soul who belongs here, who is worthy, and who is loved. It’s really that simple. And nothing you do or say will change that. Not now and not ever.

***

When I posted this last night on Facebook, a friend wrote back, “Very well said. Just make your wrongs… right. However how do you make all the wrongs that were done to you right? That is a very difficult one that let’s just say I deal with on a daily basis but I still keep my sense of humor.

My response to this was as follows.

I know that issue very well dear friend. What God told me very clearly was that He had seen it all. I was in a therapy session and was floating toward Home and then I froze and started to think God wouldn’t take me because of all the rapes committed against me. Then God said, “I saw it all–I saw it already, and I’m still here, waiting for you to come to me.”El_closeup_white
I said, “You saw it and forgave it?”

He said, “There was nothing to forgive, dear El. But I already saw it and I am still here, my love.”

***

I talked about it more with a friend over private message–not about God or about how to let go of shame for things done to you, but how to let go of shame for mistakes you’ve made. The issue was whether or not he should smoke, actually, but I sort of was laughing about the whole smoking question. Not in a mean way mind you, but all I had to say about whether someone should smoke, drink, use drugs, eat chocolate, or whatever, amounted to this:

Basically, when I was called to serve, God had to heal me first. There was a lot to heal, and much of what He had to heal (or more importantly, give me the tools to heal myself) was self-inflicted. After all, I had chosen to hold onto the pain and the shame of all that I’d done after being abused. And yeah, I’d abused the hell out of myself to try and hide the pain and the shame and just manage it, you know?

And what God told me when He held me was that He’d seen it all and forgiven it, that nothing I did mattered, that nothing DONE TO ME mattered.

And truly, it doesn’t matter if we imbibed or toked up or swallowed or inhaled. That’s silly. I mean, sure it matters here, in this lifetime, on this earth, if we make bad decisions, it affects us, it affects our families, it affects our self-worth . . . but it doesn’t matter in the long run. It doesn’t hurt our souls, in other words, if we smoke too much or toke up or make love to this person or that person . . . we don’t take on all the mistakes we make as permanent marks against our souls. We don’t go to hell for smoking weed! We don’t suffer in eternal damnation for sleeping with a few too many men or women (and no, it doesn’t matter if we sleep with the same sex, my gosh!).

God is not full of wrath and anger. He’s not sitting there staring down at us, counting up our mistakes. We’re the ones doing that to ourselves, and in order to stop it, we need to just–STOP IT. Like Bob Newhart taught in that funny clip: if it’s bad for you, just STOP IT. Here’s the clip if you need a laugh this morning.

 

On a fundamental and deep level, the question of sin is not nearly as difficult or scary as we make it out to be, or as so many fear-based religions make it out to be. Even for our serious mistakes, we receive no benefit from sitting and basking in the mistake after we make it. One of the most painful mistakes I have made over the years is using cruel words to those I love. I hate when I do this, I really do. But holding on to that regret, even that intense anger at myself–serves no good.

I used to think that if I showed the soul I hurt how badly I felt for hurting him or her, it would help them, but it doesn’t, not really. It doesn’t help the soul I hurt to hold on to pain or shame or regret. And I also used to think I could somehow repent or make up for my mistakes by punishing myself for whatever I’d done, particularly for using harsh words with points–but I was wrong. I realize now that once I say something I shouldn’t have said, I can’t retrieve what was spoken. I can atone by asking forgiveness and by moving forward . . . so that’s what I do now. I say I’m sorry, I cry a little (maybe a lot) and then I keep moving forward. I try to be a better soul. Next time.

It’s that simple. In the long run, what we’ve done is done. It’s over. And if we made a mistake, we can’t undo it, but we can try to do better moving forward. But to do better, we must drop any shred of shame we might be tempted to carry with us as we tread this rock-strewn path of life. We need to drop it and we need to stop carrying anything that slows us down or hurts us in anyway.




Skating with Molotov: Portland Renegade Roller Derby

Last week, after I wrote a post that referred to my own elbow-throwing, competitive propensities, a woman who skates by the name of Molotov approached me on my Facebook Page, Running from Hell with El, to see if I was interested in sponsoring a growing derby league, Portland Renegade Roller Derby. We started talking, and this Q&A is what resulted. Oh, and my answer is yes, hell yes I want to help support this league of hardy souls!rollerderby521293_320380494737815_1774815638_n
_____________

El: I just think roller derby is the coolest, most fascinating thing!

Molotov: It is pretty great. And seeing how it can bring a community of women together is kinda amazing too. My league is a renegade league, which means we broke off from a bigger league here in our town.

El: Ahhh–I was wondering what the renegade meant. I mean, I see renegade and I automatically smile!

Molotov: It was too big and micro managed and became for profit and lost a lot of its community feel. What they are doing is great for a lot of people, but we just wanted something different. So it thus has became a lot of hard work starting a league and team from the ground up!

El: Grinning. How long have you been playing roller derby (is “playing” the right word?)?

Molotov: I’ve been skating most of my life, but only have been skating derby since November.

El: So it’s called “skating” derby?

Molotov: Most of our coaches and base teammates have been playing for four to six years. It’s called “bouting.” Once I made the mistake of calling it a “game” the first time I went to a bout. And I was very embarrassed.

El: LOL–I can imagine.

 Molotov: But we say skate usually.

 El: you’ve been skating most your life? Hockey or ice skating?rollerderbytwo54333_308446725931192_1930708213_o

 Molotov: Just roller skating and blading.

El: This is fascinating! And you were a runner before?

Molotov: Yes, since I was 18. I still want to run again. I haven’t really since last June.

El: I don’t think we ever lose that desire. Did you suffer an injury?

Molotov: I have anemia and it was too much. I was getting out of breath and really sick. My 7 year old beat me in the last 5k we did together.

El: Shaking head–that’s rough.

Molotov: So I knew something must be wrong then.

El: Yes for sure. How did you find derby?

Molotov: I wanted to play derby for a long time. My kids and I watched Whip It back when it came out.

El: That was awesome!

Molotov: My best friend is involved in another derby group in our town.

El: That’s the main league right?

Molotov: she has been skating with them for years and still not on a team. I went with her to a bout a couple of years ago and met the person who is now the ringleader of our group.

El: The ringleader–is that the league commissioner of the renegade league?

Molotov: Yes, our president. I just call her ringleader to be silly.

El: LOL! What does roller derby do for you?

Molotov: I always wanted to do derby, but always thought it was too expensive, too much time, I didn’t deserve to spend then time on myself, etc etc. I was in a very unpleasant marriage up until just a few years ago and never would have been doing this if I was still married.

El: I’m so glad you’re out of that marriage hun! I was talking about derby tonight with my husband, and he grinned at me.

“You know Cutie, if you were younger . . .”

 ” . . . Yep. I’d do it for sure! Nothing more fun than throwing elbows and hitting people, lol.” I replied.

^^^

© Earl McGehee

© Earl McGehee

does that sound familiar?

Molotov: Lol! Totally.

El: Grinning. I thought so!

Molotov: We have people of all ages.

El: What’s the range?

Molotov: 23-43, currently.

El: How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking?

Molotov: I’m 32.

El: Oh you’re just a kid!

Molotov: Ugh–wish I felt like just a kid.

El: Are you kidding me? 32?! You’re in your athletic prime!

Molotov: So I met this crazy, fun, positive, happy gal at a bout. Her name is Julie Locktress and a year later (last November) she invited me to be part of what we are calling the Renegade movement. At first I thought I was too weak and tired to even skate because of my anemia. I hadn’t ran since June or May. I hadn’t been on skates in two years, since I had taken a fall and hurt my tailbone. But I was depressed and anxious and needed a cause for myself other then just raising my kids and carting them around to their sporting events and working 50 hours a week to keep a roof over their heads I don’t get any child support from their father and am basically on my own.

El: Oh man–50 hours a week and no child support? And hun, we all need something greater than ourselves, you know?

Molotov: Yes, exactly. So I figured at least I could help with the admin part of it.

El: (nodding)

Molotov: But then I started taking derby classes and I went broke and ate Top rRmen and oatmeal packets for lunch to buy skates and gear

El: that is *awesome* good on you!

 Molotov: And I’ve beePortlandrenegades29544_308788379230360_644203395_nn working ferociously to get better and stronger and raise awareness and get sponsors and skaters. I got in touch with a friend I had not seen for 10 years and now she is going to skate with us. And she brought another girl, who also brought a friend and so on and so on.

 El: Right!

Molotov: So we have a mix of new skaters and older experienced skaters. we are from all walks of life

El: Like what careers?

Molotov: One is a Native American and she is a licensed Drug and alcohol counselor.

Locktress is a hairdresser.

El: grinning.

Molotov: We have a waitress/model, a graduate student, a nurse, a logistics worker/liberal arts major.

El: A nurse!? LOL!

Molotov: Yep . . . and a construction/flooring sales personrenegades

El: And what’s your 50-hour week job?

Molotov: I work in shipping/receiving/inventory control for a laser test equipment company. I was a full time student too up until a couple of years ago . . . I’m hoping to get back to school one day.

El: (nodding) I hear ya.

 Molotov: Yes . . . no time to be sad or feel sorry for myself. When I am not busy that is when I start to fade. So I work hard, love hard, play hard.

 El: Seriously I get that. And don’t think too hard or too much (that’s my problem lol).

 Molotov: Mine too.

El: Yeah.

Molotov: I wanted to be a philosophy major.

El: And that’s where sports and competition help me. Who is your favorite philosopher?

Molotov: Tolstoy.

El: Loved War and Peace. Why Tolstoy?

Molotov: His writings on women and love really speak to me for some reason. I like a lot of the less known ones too… like Karl Marx. Economics and philosophy are very closely related.

El: So as a philosopher, what does derby signify to you?

Molotov: Oh wow . . . that is very deep . . .

El: that’s where I abide lol!

Molotov: I suppose it lies in the theory that we must make today count . . . and each moment . . . and I want to inspire and help others the way that I have been inspired and helped by so many. If I had know that my life could be as good as it is now, I would have chosen a different path very long ago. But it matters not now, because here I am and I am what I do with it. I got a tattoo on my back a year ago that reads ” take the pieces and build them up to the sky” its a line from my favorite song and summarizes the journey of my life.

El: Beautiful. What song is it?TwoNorthWestJammers

Molotov: It’s a most beautiful song . . .

El: Biffy Clyro?

Molotov: YES. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0q2iXlsKNA

El: Listening now. OMG if I were building a soundtrack for Ripple this would be in it. It’s profoundly moving to me, in ways I can hardly explain. There’s a scene in Ripple when Phoebe, the rape victim, is falling apart, but her friend talks to her, helps hold her together, and this song, it could be playing.

Molotov: I’ve had a lot of people who have helped hold me together . . . so yes.

El: Same here. This song, the one tattooed on your back–is this what derby kind of means to you?

Molotov: I think what derby means to me . . . is a dream that I had given up on coming true. And an exciting journey just beginning. One I am so honored and proud to be a part of.

El: That makes me so happy to hear, almost happy tears, you know? Because we should all find those dreams and take part in those journeys.

Molotov: It’s easy to find excuses not to follow our dreams. The hard part is doing what we really want.
________________

To support these great women, please follow them on Facebook. If you’re interested in sponsoring them, as I sure am, please contact them here:

portlandrenegaderollerderby@gmail.com. Sponsorship packages start for as low as $50.




Gah! I’m an Adult Now: Self-Publishing Fears and Related Woes

I’m thinking too much, too fast, too much, too fast.  Damnit.  What if it’s a really really bad idea to self-publish Ripple?  Should I have kissed many more asses?  Why didn’t I kiss more asses?  Who do I ask to do my advance reviews?  Is it any good?  I know it’s good.  But there are millions of would-be writers out there.  Am I just like the rest of them?  Am I really a loser?  A wanna-be, would be, could be but can never will never be?

Should I go back and try to be nice to the people I’ve been ignoring?  What about all of the pages that I’ve not been talking to because I’m talking to other pages and writers?  Should I be trying harder?  Should I be on my knees groveling, or at least gladhanding?  I have stopped interacting with so many pages and blogs and it’s all a kaleidoscopic mishmash of should-dos and can’t and won’ts and I have no fucking clue how to sort it all out.  Why do I have to be the one to handle this?

The real question is why do I need to be the adult here?  I don’t feel like an adult.  I don’t feel like I’m in control.  Not I.  Or not me, depending on how the rest of the sentence goes . . . no.  Not I.  Funny.  I never really studied grammar that much or even wanted to learn it.  I was above the rules but the real truth is that I always sensed, nay feared, that the rules were above me.

There.  That’s the truth.  Icky ugly truth.  I play this whole act, this “Your rules not mine” rebel act long and hard but you know what I’m hiding?  This deep fear that if I play by the same rules, throw the football on the same exact field with the precise dimensions and markings that all other writers obey, everyone will find out (who is everyone) that my writing just isn’t good enough.

Yep.nomagicpotions

That’s my icky ugly inner fear.  It’s fucking debilitating.  Should I stop cussing?  Just an aside, but is it?  Last night I made this poster, and I consciously went with the word “ass” as in “work your ass off,” because it was authentic.  But I also know that a lot of my inspirational friends won’t share anything that has a cuss word in it, and while 10,820 fans is plenty, every new fan equals a potential reader.  Then again, my freakin’ name has a curse word in it, so does that make me ineligible for being shared by the goody two-shoes of pages?

Not that there’s anything wrong with goody-goodies.  Oh my gosh.  Part of me wants to be a good girl and part of me wants to be a badass and those two sides of me will forever lay siege to one another!  Right?

And should I put one space or two after a period?  Am I the only old-school holdover who still goes with two spaces?  I like two spaces, not one, but I don’t wanna stand out, stick out, or run alone.

Or do I?

As far as the cussing thing, my characters cuss, and so do I but I’m also a born-again Christian and I need those fans—the moral majority (giggle) too.  I need as many fans and readers as I can get because hell, I’m trying to sell books, right?  But what’s the point of selling anything if I have to change who I am to make a sale?  How boring, stupid, phony, cruddy, pointless . . . is it to change who you are just to make a few extra bucks?

Speaking of a few bucks, what the hell am I doing self-publishing Ripple?  Seriously, what the hell am I doing?  Did I decide to ignore the traditional publishing houses for a reason other than I’ve been telling everyone?  Was it simply because I was scared Ripple wasn’t good enough?  Did I think that the rejection of everything that I am and want to be would be so awfully soul-crushing that I couldn’t chance it?  God help me if I have to face the exact same pain that every other writer faces.

Yep.  Maybe it always comes back to God.  And needing His help.  I’m scared, and I’m about to jump off a big limb that’s hanging over a muddy bank and into these swirling waters, and as much as I love crazy adventures and especially swirling waters, I’m so afraid that I’ll smash into unseen rocks and end up all bloodied and concussed and broken-hearted.

This is one of those times I wish I could call my mom.  But I can’t and I won’t but I will . . .

jump anyway.




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