My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

One of my all-time favorite novels is Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which I believe contains one of the most engaging and efficient first chapters I’ve ever read. In it, 38-year-old Amir lives in San Francisco and reflects on an unexpected phone call from Rahim Khan, a family friend in Pakistan who offers Amir “a way to be good again” (2).  Readers don’t know what happened or why, but we are immediately hooked, immediately vested in Amir’s struggle to understand how he “became what [he is] today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975” (1). 

I distinctly remember reading Amir’s story for the first time, shortly after its 2003 publication. A colleague whose reading tastes mirror my own recommended it as a fantastic read. It’s wrenching, she said, but so worth it. I raced through the first several chapters…and then I arrived at the scene she’d referenced. I never throw books. I wanted to throw this book. How could anyone do such a thing? How could anyone betray a friend in such a horrific way? That night, I lay awake on my couch for hours reliving that scene, so distraught I refused to continue reading.

And then I remembered Amir’s realization in chapter one– “It’s wrong what they say about the past…about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. … I knew it wasn’t just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins….There is a way to be good again” (1-2). Okay, Amir, I thought. Grudgingly. I’ll give you another chance to prove yourself.

I finished the rest of the book the next day. Amir did not let me down.

The following spring, I introduced the novel to my AP Lit students. The year after that, I introduced it as a One Book, One Class end of year unit for all of my senior English classes, and I’ve taught it every year since. Every year students ask, When are we reading Kite Runner? When are we flying our kites? They’ve heard about it from their friends and siblings. They want to read this book. After spring break, I say. Promise.

But this year, I worried I might have to break that promise.

*****

In my district, spring break is typically scheduled Good Friday through the week following Easter. Last year, Easter fell the end of April, and, except for a few intermittent rainy days, the weather was perfect for another of my favorites, gardening. Over the ten-day break, I cleaned and prepped my shade and butterfly gardens, dug out and replaced several overgrown shrubs, and outlined my front flower beds with close to fifty purple and yellow violas. Then we mulched, three square yards of rich, dark brown bark that took us all day to spread. Beautiful, our neighbors said as they stopped to chat during their nightly walks.

This year, I could barely even get outside for a walk, let alone chat with neighbors because of Covid restrictions. I spent the first part of the week preparing the guest room and the house for my mother-in-law’s move, the second half lesson planning. When NJ’s governor closed schools in March, intending to reopen April 20, my classes were all mid-way through units whose foundational lessons and skill practice we had already completed together. Thus, transitioning my content from classroom to online formats wasn’t terribly difficult. But then Gov. Murphy extended school closures through at least May 15. 

I foundered like a first-year teacher.

Twenty-nine years ago, my then-principal handed me a list of books and said, Go teach. I had neither answer keys nor annotated books. No mentor, no curriculum, no unit outlines, no tests or quizzes or lesson plans. Nothing. Twenty-nine years later, I have a file drawer full of self-annotated books and a closet full of binders, each of which contains units I’ve created for the books, essays and projects I use within my rotating teaching assignments, each of which is backed up on three different computers and two different Google drives. Among them are two, three-inch binders filled with my Kite Runner resources, none of which would work in an online learning environment.

I had to redo everything. Not only for The Kite Runner, but for my elective courses’ poetry and drama units. I could have shortcut the process. I could have gone online to one of the many valuable, wonderful resources available to thousands of other educators in similar circumstances and merely copied their units. It would have certainly been easier and less time-consuming. But I couldn’t do it, particularly with my beloved Kite Runner.

Why, you wonder. What’s the big deal about a book? About any book, in fact? 

Great questions. My students often ask me the same. And honestly, sometimes the answer is absolutely nothing. Sometimes students refuse to read for one of the millions of reasons any of us give for refusing to do what we don’t want to do. And sometimes stories that resonate with one reader leave another reader unmoved.

But this book is one of those marvelous exceptions. Although it is an AP Lit-approved title, The Kite Runner is an engrossing page-turner that even struggling readers enjoy. Sure, I’ve encountered students who read the book and just don’t like it: Amir’s central conflict is intense. But they are the minority. Instead, the majority congregates in the nurse’s office during lunch and read, comparing how much they hate Amir. I’ve had kids tell me it’s the first book they ever read all the way through, the first book they’ve ever loved, the first book they’ve ever reread. Some kids race ahead of our schedule and pop in my room because they cannot wait until class to chat. Once, a PE teacher told me he had to break up an argument in the boys’ locker room that became pretty loud–they couldn’t agree on who was the bigger jerkface, Amir or his father, Baba. 

So what is it about this book that speaks to my kids? Like Amir in 1975, they are young people navigating a world whose rules were set long before their birth and input. Rules over which they have minimal control. Soon, they will exit their childhood and become adults, an exciting transition but as nerve-wracking as crossing a minefield. What if they screw it up? And how can they impact a world increasingly determined to define the human experience as Us versus Them?  Amir’s struggle to find “a way to be good again” provides a road map of sorts toward the world they hope one day to create. 

I want my kids to have that map. Considering how much they’ve already lost of senior year, I didn’t want to take away one more thing. I wanted to keep my promise.

Maybe one book isn’t that important.

But maybe it can be. That’s why I spent much of the break redoing my unit plan, recreating materials and writing lessons before heading upstate once more.

This time through a snowstorm.

The normally six-hour trip became nearly eight Friday as we inched across icy roads. One ten-mile, unplowed stretch snaked along steep, mountainous drops. Emergency workers extracted two people pinned when their mini-van flipped on its roof. Farther down, police and firefighters uprighted a jack-knifed tractor trailer, its driver mercifully unhurt. At least three cars slid into ditches, warning flares blood-red against the snow. Thanks all to my husband, we arrived safely. Saturday, we repeated the trip eastward, his mother cushioned by pillows and dozing up front.

Pathetic fallacy notwithstanding, I hope the weather does not foreshadow the next chapter of our lives.

*****

After Rahim Khan’s phone call in chapter one, Amir ventures to a nearby park and contemplates his childhood. Blue and red kites soar against a brilliant summer sky, and Hassan’s voice rises like a ghost from the past: “For you, a thousand times over” (2).

And therein lies the heart and soul of this remarkable story: What obligations and responsibilities do we have toward our families and friends?

Neighbors?

Those whose paths may never cross our own?

Hmmm. Do you see where I’m headed with this?

Good.

Our right-now normal exists in a strange and unsettling world, but this too shall pass.

And there IS a way to be good again.

Now go read chapters 1-4 so we can chat about how next week.

Recently, I was invited by StoryADay.org founder Julie Duffy to be a guest on her weekly podcast. I was honored, thrilled, and honestly quite a bit nervous about the interview. However, I needn’t have worried. Julie is a warm and welcoming host in whose care I felt immediately at ease. Chatting with her was like chatting with a long-lost friend–invigorating, fun, and over much too soon. I’m so glad I had the opportunity!

To listen to the interview and learn more about all things StoryADay (including the upcoming May short story writing challenge), click here:

https://storyaday.org/episode164/

I hope you like it! And I hope to see you in May.

I packed books when I left home mid-March, but I have not been able to read them. They require an emotional energy I cannot muster, so they remain unopened in my bag. However, I can still read poetry. Mornings as I drink my coffee, I read my daily poems from Poets.org and The Paris Review. I owe my love of poetry to my senior and AP English teacher Mr. Oberholtzer. Poetry, he explained, is the soul’s soundtrack, articulating experiences for which we have no words and in the process creating a language of shared understanding. 

And sometimes, the universe conspires to play the exact song we need to hear.

One such gift arrived in my inbox April 4 and changed the way I think about my upstate exile.

In Fenton Johnson’s “The Miracle,” the unnamed persona lives confined in a prison house but lets his soul wander free of its walls. On his sojourn, he meets a “browneyed child” from whom he pleads “a flower/That [he] might bear it to [his] lonely cell.” The child picks a common dandelion, “an ugly bloom” that the persona hesitates to accept until he sees in the child’s eyes the love with which the gift is offered, a love that immediately transforms the dandelion into a rose, the poem’s final, joyful image. Therein lies the miracle–the power of love to invoke change and create hope in even the most dire of circumstances.

Week three was tough. Week four, I gathered my dandelions:

  • Jamie, my fifth period team teacher, is the lighthouse in the middle of my virtual storm, and I wish I had a teaspoonful of her patience. The quintessential professional and all-around top-notch human being, she is unfailingly compassionate, hard-working, and cheerful, and she treats every student with dignity and respect regardless of ability or disposition. She runs our class Remind, texting kids to wake up and join our Google Meet, to get help on assignments, and to submit check-ins–all the while teaching her own virtual classes, mediating her three children’s squabbles, overseeing their morning meetings, and coordinating our lessons and grading. Come to think of it, I also wish I had her energy!
  • When my mother-in-law fell, her neighbor Beth stayed with her until the ambulance arrived, texting me updates as my husband drove the seven-plus hours to the Erie PA hospital to which she’d been transported. Beth stayed with her until my husband finally arrived at midnight, her own husband waiting hours in the parking lot because of Covid-19 restrictions. In the days and weeks that followed, she checked in daily, offering food, a shoulder, and a glimpse into her similarly upended life. A teacher’s aide, she became her grandkids’ remote teacher and caregiver so her daughter and son-in-law, both medical professionals, could continue to work. Her many kindnesses made a difficult situation more bearable, and for that my husband and I are grateful. 
  • We are equally grateful to the nurses caring for his mother, first in the hospital and now at the rehab facility. People who see her as more than a patient. Who cry with us and share their stories of loss and upheaval. Who help her place calls when she’s upset and crack her window so we can chat six-feet away through the glass. Nurses who remind us of our daughter. I should be there with you and Dad, Miss told me over the phone. But you are, I said. In everything you do for your patients and their loved ones, you are with us in these remarkable women.
  • Mark, my best friend and husband of over thirty years, sometimes sees me more clearly than I see myself. Every night as we returned from window-visiting his mother, he detoured us through back roads and neighboring towns, telling me fascinating stories about the region’s history and his own, helping me feel grounded in a place to which I never before felt connected and in the process creating treasured new memories we can share. True story–when you find a good one, you hold on tight.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I write, it’s Easter Sunday. Yesterday afternoon, we buckled into our two vehicles and crisscrossed the nearly deserted state back home. His mom continues to improve under the facility’s excellent supervision, and we need to tend our own lives and determine our next steps for her care. Soon, we’ll cross the state once more and bring her here with us. 

Meanwhile, the sun shines on an extraordinary ordinary day. I’ve been waiting over three weeks to do this, I said as I hugged my kids. Healthy, thank heavens, and glad of a mom-cooked meal. For dinner I prepared not the traditional ham but homemade spaghetti and meatballs, a family favorite, after which the four of us played Apples to Apples and took turns making each other laugh. However, our moods grew somber as we watched the news and debated the extent to which people will learn and grow from our global crisis.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know the answer to this one: What difference can any of us make in the life of another? 

Everything, when we love.

Corny? Maybe. Each of those I mentioned above would say they were just ordinary souls living ordinary lives and doing what needed to be done in that moment.

But isn’t that the point?

Every minute of every day, we face an infinite variety of choices, each a stone whose toss ripples through those around us in ways we cannot always fathom. Imagine if love were the only force guiding our decisions. Imagine the tiny miracles we could sow in each other’s gardens. 

That’s the world I want to live in when all this too shall pass.

(You can read the full text of Fenton Johnson’s “The Miracle” here: https://poets.org/poem/miracle-0 .)

I have misplaced my ability to discern time. I left it back home on the table next to my spot on the living room couch where every morning I drink my coffee and watch the sun rise while I clear the sleep from my brain and plan my day. Or used to. Here, an hour south of Erie PA, I still have my coffee but the couch is different, the light is different, the view is different. The seasons and sun cycles are different. When I left home, spring blossomed, tree branches hazy with pink and green buds, flower mounds poking their fingers through the soil. Here, nature teeters on the precipice of winter. Even sunny days can bite. 

Here, the sun rises and sets about twenty minutes later than it does back home. At night I awaken in the dark convinced it’s time to rise but it’s not, so I pad along a hallway that is not mine and down steps that belong to another and try to fall back asleep on a couch that although different, is thankfully firm and comfortable. I may have forgotten time, but I have my own pillow and my own blanket. I remembered to pack those at least.

Today is Palm Sunday. I feel like I have been here forever, though as I write it has been exactly fifteen days. The hours have swollen and slowed like ice, freezing everything in its place and leaving me struggling to tell Monday from Wednesday, Sunday from…Sunday. What does any day look like shorn of its routines?

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law is out of the hospital and in a rehabilitation facility. We don’t know for how long. They won’t let us see her. No one except medical personnel is permitted access to hospitals and nursing facilities. We were allowed in to see her at the hospital last week only because no one expected her to pull through. Thankfully—miraculously?—they were wrong.

Meanwhile, I’m still teaching classes from my mother-in-law’s kitchen table and hoping my hotspot won’t boot me offline while I’m in the middle of a Google Meet with my students. Knock on wood, that’s only happened once. 

Knock on wood, my kids are still healthy. Although their rooms back home sit across the hall from each other, they have not talked face to face in a week. They use two different bathrooms and communicate through text and closed doors. I talk to them every day. I need to. They need me to, as well, though I am amazed by and proud of the ways in which they do not need me. I read somewhere once that a parent’s ultimate job is to raise our kids so that they don’t need us. When I cry, my husband hugs me tight and tells me I’ve raised them right, our two awesome no-longer children. My husband is awesome, too. His mother raised him right.

I think about that when I think about how our lives have changed, not only because of the pandemic but after. Because after, my mother-in-law will most likely not be able to return to the home in which she’s lived since the late 1950’s. My husband and I will become her caregivers, just as someday our children may become ours. I think about that and I once again become unmoored from time, propelled by forces I can sense but not see. It feels like vertigo, like the loops and lulls of a roller coaster.

I used to love roller coasters.

I used to be a lifeguard, and when I took my Red Cross certification test I had to swim four laps of each of the four strokes, dive to the bottom of a twelve-foot pool and retrieve a coin, rescue a “drowning” classmate and perform CPR. I also had to float, first on my back and then on my front. The dead man’s float, it’s called. Your face is submerged, your limbs limp and pointing toward the bottom. And you must hold your breath for at least four minutes. First, you force all the air from your lungs, then you gulp and hold. The trick is the timing. You count ten seconds, then ten seconds more, mouth closed and exhaling a trail of bubbles through your nose until someone taps you on the shoulder and tells you to breathe once more. I prefer the back float, my body a cross, the sun drawing pictures on my closed lids. I can doze while I float. The lapping waves hum like a lullabye.

When I was a lifeguard, I learned that sometimes you have to swim. Sometimes you have to float. Sometimes you have to save people, and sometimes you sit on your stand and scan the water, wishing you could dive in and play like the children who laugh and splash and holler Marco Polo. It’s all part of the job.

According to one of the women in my online writers’ group, part of our job now is figuring out our new normal. Because although I am physically in a new space, I am not the only one unmoored from the familiar. We are all exiles. We all want to go home.

This too shall pass, yes. 

Until then, we needn’t always fight the current. We can let ourselves float.

Spring 1999, my two-year-old daughter awakened from her nap with a painful limp. Hoping perhaps she’d slept awkwardly, I changed her diaper and took her and my son outside to play. Rationality warred with fear. Then, we had no Google. No WebMD or its equivalent with which to quickly search for answers. I thumbed the index of a pediatric medical guide I’d bought on a whim when her older brother was born and read a warning that confirmed what fear had shouted: Get your child to an emergency room immediately.

*****

Spring 2020, I finished my first week of virtual teaching, packed my suitcase, laptop, and Lysol wipes, and drove six hours northwest to my husband’s childhood home, where he has been since March 19. His mother, a ninety-year-old widow, had fallen in her kitchen and was briefly hospitalized. She needed care, which the two of us would provide in shifts as she recovered at home. For several hours, I worked bedside and tried encouraging her to eat and drink. To wake up to take her medicine.

By nightfall, she was back in the emergency room.

*****

According to the medical guide, the sudden onset of my daughter’s symptoms suggested either a viral or bacterial infection, one of which would resolve on its own with no lasting damage, the other of which would destroy her hip joint and leave her permanently disabled if not treated. Only a blood test could determine the difference, hence the trip to the ER.

Fortunately, my daughter’s condition was benign, and I went to work on two hours’ sleep after spending nearly twelve hours in the emergency room. Marking period grades were due, and in 1999 we had to manually bubble them on Scantron sheets that Guidance would magic into paper report cards. No one else could do that for me.

See, when you’re a teacher, taking a day off for illness or personal reasons is typically more trouble than it’s worth. Unlike other professions, you can’t just close your door and work longer hours playing catch up when you return. You must do all of that, of course, but you must also leave seating charts and plans in advance. Detailed instructions about the layout of your schedule, your students’ needs. You must be specific about your expectations, else your students behave like children left home unsupervised, ignoring the rules and eating candy for breakfast, leaving their messes for you to clean up. And you can do all that prep, then return to find the substitute hired to mimic you for just one day instead spent it swiveling in your chair or reading a paperback, and you’ve lost not only the one day out but the second day playing catch-up.

That day, my children stayed home with my husband while I went to work, and while my daughter experienced residual pain and mobility issues for a week or so, she eventually recovered with no lasting damage.

I don’t know yet whether the same can be said for my mother-in-law. She is still hospitalized, and my husband and I are still six hours away from home. There is no Internet here, so Monday through Friday, we each power up our laptops and sync them to our phones’ hotspots. He has a work phone. I do not. I have burned through a month’s worth of plan access in one week.

But I’m okay with that.

If I can find one bright spot among the daily barrage of bad news, it’s this: At least we can be here together for each other and for her. We can continue to work, and the hospital staff allows us to see his mother every day. We must Purell our hands first, then don masks while apologetic nurses take our temperatures to verify we are healthy. Bedside, we hold her hands and tell her about our days. We tell her we are looking after her home for her, and we tell her we love her. She squeezes our hands in return.

I miss my own children, though. Now 23 and 24, they remain near Philadelphia working and looking after the home we all share. Both are helping to combat the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. He, in IT for a company supplying medical goods to hospitals and nursing homes. She, as a night RN at a local hospital. My husband and I love them so much and are tremendously proud of them both.

*****

Sunday my daughter texted me she that may have been exposed to the virus at work.

Monday, my son began a fourteen-day quarantine, which means we can’t go home anytime soon.

This too shall pass, yes.

Until then, hold each other’s (virtual) hand and squeeze.

Embedded in the middle of the Hoover Dam walkway is a survey marker delineating the state line between Arizona and Nevada. Summer 2011, I straddled that imaginary line as my husband snapped photos and our children high-fived passengers meandering the Dam’s rim in slow-moving vehicles. Some tourists venture to that scenic halfway point at the start and end of Daylight Savings Time, which Nevadans follow and Arizonans do not, suspended in that blink of time between two different times and two different places, their photographs evidence of the impossible.

That’s what this past week has felt like. Straddling two different states, two different times, wholly present in neither.

Monday, March 16, my teacher colleagues and I entered our building for the last time of the foreseeable future. Alone in our rooms or six-feet apart in department groups, we strategized and planned. Shared ideas and fears and even a few laughs. By day’s end, I had finalized my plan and shut my door, unsure when any of us would return.

Tuesday, March 17, I readied for work like I always do, commuted the traffic-free steps to my family room couch, logged on to my virtual classroom, and realized my plan wouldn’t work. Cumbersome and user-unfriendly, it needed an overhaul both for me and my kids. 

Wednesday, March 18, Virtual Learning 2.0: Student check-ins using Google Classroom, through which I would post daily messages and instructions, as well as facilitate discussions and answer student questions. I spent over nine hours answering each and every question, mini-essays whose content–because I teach English–had to be correct and coherent, edited and revised. I chatted with my fifth-period team teacher via text, answered emails, and completed my own check-ins the school’s administrators require of our faculty. And when my eyes grew buggy, my body stiff from sitting, I took a walk, circling around and around my downstairs like I used to do in my classroom.

Thursday, March 19,  the world outside continued to shrink, devolving to an even more alien and threatening terrain. What’s your biggest concern about our transition to online learning, I asked my kids in their daily check-in.  Grades. Missing assignments. Navigating different teachers’ different platforms. Getting help. Power-failures. Staying on track. I want to be in school, I want to be in school, they said. Over and over again.

Friday, March 20, I held my first virtual classroom through Google Meet. Just drop in and say hello, I told them. And bring your questions, please. It was wonderful. A line of kids, clamoring for facetime. They joined me from desks, kitchen tables, bedrooms, and couches. I met their pets, their siblings, their nephews and neighbors. I chatted with one student as he grocery shopped with his father. Wash your hands when you get home, I told him, and he smiled. We’ve got this, my colleagues had said before we left the building on Monday. For the first time all week, I thought, Yes. I do.

*****

After our excursion to the Hoover Dam, my family and I drove our rental to Grand Canyon National Park on the southern rim where we stayed for several days sightseeing and hiking, including walking backward in time along the one-mile Trail of Time. Its brass markers lie one meter apart, each representing one million years and highlighting the Canyon’s geologic history. Next, we drove to the Hualapai Reservation on the Western edge. We stayed in cabins that lined the rim and watched the sun rise over the Canyon as tire-shaped goats wandered the desert scrub before us. From there, we circled back to the Dam, and our kids leaned out of our windows to salute pedestrians walking where we had walked only a short week ago. We ended our trip in Las Vegas where it began, boarded a homeward plane, and through the windows watched Lake Mead and the desert turn into a patchwork quilt as we climbed. The view hadn’t changed. Our journey eastward mirrored our journey west. But the Canyon, carved incrementally over millions of years, continued its sculpting of the earth’s crust and would most likely do so one million years more.

I’m reminded of that as I prepare to enter week two of my virtual life. Like the Dam’s state line marker, we stand between the world we knew and the world we face. But that stasis is a mirage. Time advances regardless of our perceptions. It carries us like a river despite our desires. Despite our fears.

This too shall pass, yes.

We’re already one week closer.

The first in an occasional series

I thought I was ready.

March 6, my teaching district conducted a survey of students’ at-home internet and device access. The following week, we had conversations and meetings, a flurry of emails offering resources and support. I began updating my Google drive, copying my in-district files for access at home. I scanned non-digital documents, brought home books and unit binders. I developed a plan for instructing and communicating with my students in the event of a mandated shutdown, and I shared it with my classes. Some of my colleagues expressed understandable concerns about the transition. About teaching remotely. About what would be expected of us. Of our students. 

But I felt neither anxious nor concerned. I planned to continue teaching as I have always done, as my students are used to my doing. Except I would do so through our computers rather than the classroom. The district even rescheduled our in-service from March 20 to March 16 so we could coordinate in our departments and write plans.

Then during a mid-afternoon press conference  on Friday, March 13, New Jersey’s governor announced closures would be a matter of When, not If. Five hours later, my superintendent called to announce the closure of all county schools through April 17.

I wasn’t ready at all.

I’m not sure how I feel about this, I posted to my writers group on Slack. Not the fact of online teaching and learning. I’ve been an online learner for nearly ten years, everything from PD for my job to graduate-level creative writing classes. I’m also in an online writing group through StoryADay.org. I employ online platforms in my daily instruction. I feel comfortable with and enjoy their flexibility and variety.

However, I wasn’t ready for the sense of loss. When classes ended Friday, I told my students, See you on Tuesday. And now, I wouldn’t. Like that, everything had changed.

No one gets into teaching for the money. Ask any teacher why he or she  chose this profession and most stories share a common theme: They enjoy working with young people, and they want to do work that matters. 

What we do next matters. Maybe more than everything we’ve done before. Bottom line? I’m worried about my kids. About all of our kids.

This too shall pass, yes. 

But when?

And how?

One lesson at a time.

FOCUS.

And no, its selection has nothing to do with the visual connotation of 2020, though I do appreciate the symmetry. 

Rather, its selection logically follows my 2019 word, SPEAK.

A little context…

 I’ve been a writer almost as long as I’ve been a reader, but writing–and finding the time to do it well–has almost always been an afterthought, a luxury for which my overfull days as a working mom almost never had room. In 2019, I determined to change that. First, by speaking up about what I need. Second, by speaking out in my writing and telling the stories that I want to tell. 

What did that look like? I began scheduling regular writing time rather than waiting for those elusive free minutes. I joined an online critique group.  I accepted the StoryADay May challenge, becoming a “superstar” and meeting the most wonderfully supportive and encouraging community of writers.  I began setting, meeting, and tracking my writing goals. I launched this blog.

I also wanted an audience and am thrilled beyond measure that three of my stories were published this fall. A fourth will be available in 2020. In different ways, their protagonists all struggle with the issue of voice. Not so coincidentally, protagonists in my current WIPs share similar dilemmas: What is the price of silence?

Short answer? More than I’m willing to pay.

So as 2019 drew to a close, I began to reflect and plan for 2020. I wondered, How can I continue to build on this year’s successes? What strategies can I employ to effectively mesh my writing and non-writing lives? And how can I wring every second out of my allotted 24 hours? 

FOCUS.

As I said in an earlier post, I can’t do everything. No one can, so why even try? Instead, I want to work toward my big picture writing goals, prioritize activities that get me closer to achieving them, and eliminate distractions.

One of my biggest distractions? Guilt. Nothing derails my best intentions faster than feeling guilty for not doing more. For saying, No. For not living up to other people’s expectations of what my life “should” look like. 

I recently read Michael Simmons’ Medium article on business magnate and philanthropist Warren Buffett. According to Simmons, “Buffett is a master at ruthlessly prioritizing the few things that matter and cutting out everything else.” The article details Buffet’s lifelong strategies for success and provides a model for implementing them in readers’ lives as well. And guess what its core tenet is?

FOCUS.

Step #1: “Kill the busy work.”

Check in soon for an update.

Until then–What’s your word? Post yours in the comments below and thanks for sharing!

(You can read Simmons’ entire article here: https://medium.com/accelerated-intelligence/warren-buffett-really-successful-people-say-no-to-almost-everything-ab78832ffebc

I highly recommend it!)


Writers are nosy creatures. We eavesdrop. We people watch. We collect other people’s stories like sea glass, shiny bits of treasure we hoard then barter with the muses.

The inspiration for The Nail Club is one such gem. Years ago, my nail tech B. shared that one of her most difficult clients at her former salon was the mistress of a well-known local man whose wife also patronized her services.  While each woman seemed ignorant of the other’s existence, the menage was an open secret among the salon staff, and B. had worried about a confrontation should their appointments overlap. In real life, the women never did meet, but I wondered, How much fun would it be if they had?

Writing that HOW wasn’t nearly as fun. The “real” characters refused to adapt to my imagined scenarios. My scenes seemed forced and sappy, their structure soggy and disappointing.  Much of my failure with those early efforts I attribute to my own lack of confidence. Surely a “real” writer wouldn’t struggle nearly as much as I.

So I gave up.

Or tried to. But the story wouldn’t let me, and I decided the only way to end its clamoring insistence was to keep rewriting. 

It took over a year and countless revisions. Before The Nail Club was a screenplay, it was a short story, and in those ugly, early drafts Kat was scared and weak and whiny, Lila a vindictive ice queen. I hated both of them. Likewise, Henry pontificated and was as obnoxious as I imagined, which was why I wrote him offstage. Kat’s story isn’t about Henry, after all, so why not deny him the power of speech he would steal from her?

Like my characters, I evolved throughout their creation. First, I learned to recognize the anxious feeling that overwhelms me when I’ve written myself into a corner. It doesn’t necessarily mean I should abandon my story. Rather, it means I need to abandon the idea that led me to that corner, retrace my steps, and rewrite in a different direction. Second, I learned the importance of time in my writing process. While drafting, I need time to live within my story world, to become comfortable with my characters as I follow them throughout their days. I also need time away from that world so I can see its flaws more objectively.  Finally, I learned that stories derived from real life must at some point reject their origins and become their own living, breathing organisms. A story needn’t be “true” to speak its truth.

That said, I changed the decor and the location, but The Nail Club is the name of the salon where I heard B.’s story. I kept it because I appreciated its symbolism, which among other things speaks to the exclusivity of class and economics that Lila represents and Kat eschews. The noun Nail also represents Kat’s need to build a future for herself and her son, one in which she decides the rules. And that is the core of Kat’s dilemma. Her son’s father abandoned them both for Lila, and when Lila’s sudden arrival at The Nail Club offers Kat the perfect opportunity for revenge, Kat must decide between the future she’s owed or the one her son needs. 

Want to know what she decides?

You can get your copy here:  https://www.34thparallel.net/

Hope you like it!