Unabridged Me

JUST ANOTHER WRITER

Coming to terms

October 17, 2019

“Did you hear that?” Laurinda asks as silence pulls me from my dozing state.

My mom’s friend and I sit up at the same time, searching the dark recliner ten feet away. Gears activate in my mind, and I count measured seconds. I reach and pass 50 before Mom’s lungs pull and push one breath of air, followed by noiseless darkness pushing my eardrums.

For one heartbeat Laurinda and I look at each other across the dim room. In a synchronized dance choreographed by three days together in a death watch vacuum, we stand up and move over to my mother’s prone figure.

“I think it’s time,” she whispers.

I nod as I move behind my mom, leaning down to kiss her forehead before whispering “I love you.”

Another raspy breath. Two short gasps. Silence.

The hum of electricity invades my ears, threatening a headache with its roar. Darkness wraps my shoulders, an embrace that grows heavier with each passing moment. Air seeps into my nose, my lungs afraid to scratch the night with an inhale as time stretches and presses on me. While my chest suffocates in black ink, my fingers separate from my mind and search for Mom’s pulse.

Nothing.

I shake my head at Laurinda, my fingers caressing Mom’s jaw before I step back. Like a newly wound clock, I move down the hallway with silent but solid footsteps. A strong wind of deep snores occupies the guest room. Minutes tick in each second as I shake Susan’s shoulders, urging her from a sleep drawn from 36 hours of hurried traveling.

“Mom’s gone,” I whisper after my aunt jerks awake.

The silence has followed me into her room, squeezing my neck and shoulders as I step away from the bed. I move in staccato measures, returning to my mom.

My hand finds a phone and hospice’s card. My ears hear echos of my voice talking to the on-call nurse. One hour, she says.

“One hour,” I say to Susan and Laurinda as metal gears direct me towards the recliner that has been my bed for the last two nights.

“Michelle,” Laurinda says, “she’s no longer here, maybe you should, I don’t know, cover her?”

I look at Laurinda, her words taking a minute to ease through the black quilt stitched around my mind. Tick tock, I walk to my mom and pull up her blanket, covering an expressionless face. The task complete, the clock resets to focus on the recliner.

I sit down. I pop up the leg rests. I pull up the blanket, a brown dual sided throw my friend lent me during the first hospital stay. I pull my legs up to my stomach. I put the pillow on the arm rest. I set my head on the pillow. I close my eyes. Except to open the door to the nurse and the mortician, I do not move. I do not sleep.

The silence wins, sinking me into darkness as time stops.

*

On March 31st, my mom and I sat in an ER room, staring in silence at the doctor as she delivered results against the beeps of a heart monitor. A CT scan showed a mass emerging from Mom’s pancreas and partially blocking her intestine, plus what appeared to be numerous cysts or tumors in her abdominal cavity.

On April 24th a biopsy confirmed the tumor was malignant. At the time, there was only 7mm space for food to pass through the duodenum and past the tumor.

On May 1st, we sat with the surgical oncologist and discussed whether it was more important to begin chemo or perform a GI pypass surgery. At the time Mom was still eating small amounts of food and protein shakes.

On May 8th, at the first meeting with the medical oncologist, Mom was hospitalized for emergency surgery.

*

“Mom, you need to get out of bed and walk.”

“I hurt and I’m tired. Just let me rest.”

“Every doctor who comes in here says you need to get moving. That’s the only way for the stomach to start working and for you to eat again.”

“Enough. Let me be.”

*

Due to Mom’s lack of recovery after nearly two weeks, another CT scan was performed. Though the surgery appeared successful, the tumor was threatening the artery to the liver and Mom had a blood clot in her lung. Mom’s GI track was still not working.

During the GI bypass surgery, Mom had a GJ tube installed. It is common practice for cancers involving the GI system, as the gastrostomy tube (G) can bring relief to nausea by draining the stomach contents while the jejunostomy tube (J) can deliver nutrition, hydration, and medication during times when the patient feels no hunger.

The doctors began tube feeding through a GJ tube to increase Mom’s nutrition and strength heading towards chemotherapy. Around receiving tube feeds, Mom drained her stomach to a foley bag. Both the draining and feeding were temporary measures.

Mom was released from the hospital, beginning her chemotherapy sessions that week.

My routine: Wash hands. Put on gloves. Pour formula into a plastic bag. Attach tubing to plastic bag. Prime tubing to remove air. Attach bag and tubing to pump. Put pump and bag in backpack. Flush GJ tube with 100 ml of water. Attach feeding tube. Begin pump. Administer abdominal shot of blood thinner. Wash hands. Try to write for clients.

Two weeks later Mom began vomiting, a common occurrence with chemo so we did not question the symptom. By the end of the weekend the fluid we were pulling from the stomach portion of her GJ tube changed in color and consistency. Over the weekend we took Mom into the ER twice, and both times she was hydrated with saline and sent home. By Monday she started leaking fluid around the tube site in her abdomen, despite draining her stomach regularly. Tuesday we went to her oncologist appointment and ended up in the ER. Mom was diagnosed with acute kidney failure and severe blood shortage.

The first week of June, Mom was hospitalized again. We spent two nights in the ICU as Mom was pumped full of fluids and blood in attempts to recover kidney functioning.

Despite all appearances, the connection between Mom’s stomach and her small intestine healed like a valve. The feeding tube that was directed into her intestine flipped, causing her stomach to close. Mom’s stomach was a closed balloon, filling with liquid every 12 hours.

That was the first time I watched my mom escape death.

After a week in the hospital, we were sent home with Mom carrying the foley bag attached to her G tube. Her stomach was still not pushing anything down into the intestine, causing bile and stomach acid to build up. While in the hospital Mom had a port installed into her chest.

A lot of chemo patients end up getting ports, as it allows IV treatments without having to access veins every week. More importantly, the port gave me access to feed her via VPN (a bag of lipids, fluid, and essential nutrients) for twelve hours every night.

My routine: Wash hands. Put on gloves. Lay out all the necessary tubes, needles, and medication. Via syringe, add multivitamin to the lipid fluid bag. Mix. Set aside. Put battery into pump. Attached tubing to lipid bag, priming tube to ensure no air bubbles. Attach tubing to pump. Put bag and pump into backpack. Put on new sterile gloves. Uncap the access to my mom’s heart. Wipe with alcohol. Flush with saline. Attach lipid tubing. Start pump. Administer shot into abdomen. Pull off gloves. Get a glass of wine.

I emptied the foley bag attached to Mom’s stomach twice a day, mentally noting the volume. Mom was taking in 2400 ml of fluid per VPN, and she was venting 2400 ml by stomach every 24 hours. Intake of water by mouth: nominal.

We went to the ER twice for dehydration, once after Mom passed out when a friend was with her and resulting in a scalp injury that never quite healed. Another time they sent her to the main hospital for overnight watch, just to make sure she was okay due to heart irregularities.

Add to the routine: prescribed saline bags when hydration appears to decrease, approximately 1000 ml every other day.

Mid-July Mom went back to the original GI doctor who performed the biopsy. This time they put in a stint to prop open the connection between her stomach and intestine. He removed the tube for feeding, leaving only a G tube for infrequent venting purposes, and gave Mom permission to start experimenting with solid food. As the doctor said, the plumbing works fine now. We felt a mix of relief, hope, and a little confusion. Mom no longer needed to drain fluid from her stomach, and for the first time in two months she was free from a foley bag.

Add to routine: medicine to move the stomach and intestines. Medicine to block stomach acid to prevent stomach bleeding. Both administered via artery port.

*

“Do you want yogurt or apple sauce?”

“I don’t really want either.”

“Mom, now that your stomach is working you need to eat. If you don’t eat, your stomach won’t work anymore. The doctors have cleared you, no reason to not eat.”

“Fine. Yogurt. Then a protein shake.”

“Thank you. Are we going to take a walk outside today?”

“No. I’m tired.”

*

Mid-August we had completed three cycles of chemo. It was time for another scheduled scan on August 15th to gauge success of the treatment. We never made it to the scheduled scan. Instead, Mom went into the ER with sepsis. A CT scan was performed by the ER doctor, and the infectious disease doctors searched for a source. The scan showed the tumor had blocked Mom’s liver and gall bladder. No source confirmed, but suspicions were blockage of the bile system caused toxins to back up into the blood stream. CT scan also confirmed chemo was not working.

The medical oncologist talked to Mom about options, which were very few in his mind. For him, she needed to recover from sepsis and regain strength before he would discuss any additional treatments. Chemo was off the table. The type of chemo that was ineffective for Mom was proven to be the most effective with the least amount of side effects. Any other version would have more side effects with less likelihood of success.

As the doctor said, he felt it would be practicing bad medicine to submit Mom to the side effects with decreased chances of success.

We had a meeting with the hospital’s palliative team. The doctor explained why radiation was not an option for Mom, as well as reinforcing and supporting why her oncologist was not going to pursue other chemo options.

After five days, Mom went home with IV antibiotics. At her next appointment, she was tested for immunotherapy and gene therapy. The oncologist did not have much hope for either, but there was a chance.

Add to routine: once every 24 hours administer 30 minutes of antibiotic via port.

The prescription was for 7 additional days after the hospital. Only 6 days after her last dose, Mom returned to the ER for her second case of sepsis. I watched my mom’s skin turn jaundiced in the first 24 hours as they tried to pump her full of fluids per protocol.

While in the hospital, we learned Mom was not a candidate for immunotherapy or gene therapy. We spoke with Intervention Radiologists about installing a tube into the liver to drain it to an external foley bag, and we talked with the GI doctors about installing an internal stint for the liver to drain.

The GI procedure was not an option due to the tumor. The IR doctor was honest about the risks of tapping the liver and what it meant, including having a bag she would have to carry around. Mom asked if it would help her live longer. The response was it would make her more comfortable. Risks associated with the procedure, combined with Mom’s current health, had a high chance of killing her. We decided against the procedure.

About three nights into our stay, I mourned my mother. I laid in the recliner next to her hospital bed, covered in my friend’s brown blanket in my nightly hospital repose since the first surgery, sobbing silent tears.

Hospital plan: comfort.

Once again we were sent home with IV antibiotics. Knowing how sepsis works and with no recourse for the source, I watched the days bleed by until we didn’t have antibiotics any longer. My mom gained 60 pounds in a few days, water weight her body shucked into her cells and abdomen. After pulling herself off hospice, my mom went into see her oncologist. He understood if she did not want to utilize hospice, but there was nothing else he could do to help her. He would continue to put in medical orders, but his message was clear: her liver was going to kill her in only a few weeks.

Our summer had been a quiet summer of routine and sleeping, punctuated by medical appointments and hospitalizations. That ended, and the time vacuum began on my birthday, September 10th of 2019.

A few minutes after midnight on September 22nd, my mom passed away from pancreatic cancer complications.

Hollywood and inspirational videos paint cancer as a slow wasting away until the person falls asleep and never wakes up. And maybe that’s the case with other cancers. Not pancreatic cancer. I watched as my mom’s major bodily systems shut down one by one, creating toxicity and decay. Until her last breath, my mom sat in her recliner hoping a miracle would save her life. Her fear of death was strong, but the disease was stronger.

I never questioned moving in with her. I never doubted changing my family’s entire life to be with her. Every choice I made was based on each moment, supporting my mom in the way she requested. I became an encyclopedia of events and medical jargon, medications and procedures.

For six months I didn’t look further than the day I was living. I tried to meet the needs of a five year-old with the increasing needs of a previously independent mother. What had become my life’s purpose ended in one weekend. Since my mom’s death, I have drifted aimlessly. It is not the loss of my mom, though there are traumas I need to process. Death is a part of life, and life continues.

Rather, I’ve tried to reinsert myself into my previous life. I don’t fit anymore.

As I start the process of cleaning out her house and cleaning out my mind, four words continue to haunt my consciousness. The four words started six months ago, but now is the time for me to act on them. I only hope I hold onto what I’ve learned through this experience to avoid inactivity. Instead, I will consciously choose life.

After all, life is too short.

Long Uneventful Days

April 3, 2019

Somewhere a baby was crying.

Not a baby. Close to two years old. I watched this toddler in Dulles while we waited for Royal Air Maroc’s counter to open. Since the airline flies three times weekly from Dulles International, the counter opens only four hours before a scheduled flight. We designed time to relax in Virginia to give Vivian time to stretch her legs and run around before a seven hour flight.

We arrived at the airport 20 minutes before the counters opened: plenty of time to sit and watch everyone else waiting for the airline.

The small child was the youngest in a family of five people. I watched her scream and kick, throw a cell phone to the floor repeatedly, and in general make everyone else watching hope the family would not be sitting near them.

What felt like every hour during the flight, she screamed.

Vivian was sleeping, curled into a tight ball that only a 4 year-old can accomplish, with

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The chandelier Vivian wants for her bedroom (Hassan II Mosque)

her head on my lap. My mother was finally sleeping, her pillow propped against my right shoulder. And I was feeling the gentle rise and fall of the plane on air currents, my mind rocking in an ocean of a thousand thoughts as a shrieking toddler kept time.

Finally giving up on sleep, I opened my eyes as dark blue line appeared on the horizon. My unfocused eyes watched as the blue lightened and grew, stretching across the windows as our plane raced east towards the sun. The blue line began to separate and split, forming two blues and then adding a purple as I realized my time for sleep had officially ended.

Just about the time all seven colors of the rainbow had shown themselves and the sun had crested the curved line of the earth, the cabin lights came on beckoning everyone else to join me in the land of the awake for breakfast.

A little loaf a bread and a tiny cup of coffee officially started my day.

Luckily, the remainder of the day held the same slow pace for us as we moved our way through immigration and customs, being shuffled between lines and back again, and waiting for the 4th member of our travel party to arrive.

Then on to the hotel. I start brushing up on my French, with mixed results. Interesting phenomenon: When I am attempting to speak Spanish, I slip into French. Because of this, I thought my French recall would be easier, despite the 30 years since I’ve actively spoken the language. Nope. When I attempt to speak French, I slip into Spanish.

I might skip the Latin languages this trip and try my hand at Arabic.

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Hassan II Mosque: 5th largest in the world

After check-in, Vivian and I chose to take an optional tour of Hassan II Mosque. While it might have been smarter to take a nap, I knew Vivian needed to run after sitting and waiting for so long. A tour was not the best idea.

We abandoned the tour halfway through, and Vivian followed unicorn paths outside for a few minutes until our driver returned.

One of the tour guides saw Vivian playing and joined her for a moment, and then asked me what I thought of the tour. I was honest about seeing only half of it, and when we returned to where the tour began he allowed us back into a roped off section. He said samples of the wood carvings, ironwork, and placard information about the architecture was in there and to provide his name if anyone questioned our presence.

Without a large group of jostling people, Vivian could focus. The two of us rambled around and talked about the beautiful artwork for a few minutes before returning to the hotel. Vivian crashed before we got our food at supper, so getting her to eat will become a priority.

Between Vivian and my mom, food intake has become an unexpected focus of mine this trip.

So far, so good. The food has been amazing, the architecture breathtaking, the social dichotomies as expected, and Vivian’s strong headed nature is showing itself in odd and interesting ways.

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Looking at Casablanca from the mosque pier

Tomorrow is a long day in the car as we move farther into the country. I can’t say this trip is meeting my expectations because I had no expectations. Mostly I’m trying to write regularly (already failed at that) and mindfully soak in every moment.

Stay tuned…

 

 

When writing gets in the way

December 3, 2018

So, I’ve done it. Kind of.

What did I do? I finished a novella, which is lengthier than I ever thought I could write. Now I’m done with the first draft, it’s time to edit and shine it up into a precious gemstone, readying it for cover art and marketing, to have an amazing debut into the world.

At least, that’s what is supposed to happen. The poor file has been sitting in a folder, calling out to me as I go about other things.

Unfortunately, the reality of writing tends to get in the way of, well, writing. Let’s take this blog, for example. I started with the best intentions. Wrote diligently, and I saw progress in my writing style, voice, and other people having interest in what I have to say.

And then I stopped. Why? For several reasons. The most pressing is the need for money. Let’s be realistic. Unless independently wealthy, working while writing is a requirement. I am fortunate with my situation, both in not being the sole earner in the household and in being paid to write.

But this is where writing gets in the way of writing. I write marketing content, blog material, and social media for clients. The work provides some income, and I’m closer to what I like doing than in my previous career. However, writing for clients takes time away from writing on personal projects.

So, client writing comes first. Because it’s money. Second in the priority list, at least for me, is writing for contests. Why contests? I prefer a specific contest by NYC Midnight because of the challenge and feedback provided by the judges. Due to my innate tendency for procrastination, the timed and assigned aspect instigate my perfectionist anxiety, bringing about the best in me.

Or the worst. Depends on who you ask.

Plus, along with Twitter, contests have given me a shallow end to step my virgin writer’s toe in and compare myself to the writers of the world. I know, we hear all the time to not compare ourselves to other writers. On one hand, this is true. I would never compare myself to Dickens or Atwood or King. And different writers have different voices, different audiences, and ultimately different goals for their art.

I have accepted my style of writing is not likely to have a large, commercial demand.

However, despite our tendency as writers to support and praise each other, there are amazing writers, great writers, okay writers, and then stubborn writers who struggle because their audience is nowhere to be found. I am prone to stubbornness as a general personality trait. So contests and Twitter give me a true perspective of how I rate in the overall world of wordsmithing.

Yes, I include Twitter in my priority list, just under contests. Contests occur once a quarter, at most, while Twitter has become my daily writing exercise. Not only do I write to prompts, sometimes pushing myself, but I watch and read writers and wordsmiths who I admire. I take apart their flash fiction. I try to understand what works about it. Also, I understand what I would do differently or how I would have written the piece. All in attempts to push myself to be a better writer.

On a side note, this can be a dangerous endeavor if a writer’s voice is not fixed. My voice is not fixed. In fact, I can mimic most writing styles pretty well if given enough exposure. While this is a great trait for client writing, it’s a horrible trait for a creative writer. There have been times when I’ve lost myself, and I see it in my stories.

Also, there is the unfortunate marketing aspect as a writer. A lot of new writers are in love with being discovered by a traditional agent or publishing house and making it big with their first book. Why? Well, the prestige, of course. Whose ego doesn’t need that? But aside from that, self and other forms of publishing require a large amount of marketing by a writer.

In fact, I would argue traditional publishing requires a large amount of marketing by a writer. And marketing does not mean blasting your published book in regular timed frequencies on social media. Traditional marketing meant book signings, traveling the country, making yourself available to the public.

Social media has made that a bit easier, in that there is more public readily available. But to be successful, a writer has to interact and engage. Which is a huge weakness of mine. My strong introverted nature, combined with social anxiety and a private nature, puts me at a disadvantage. So yes, Twitter is a priority.

As a quick recap, I have client writing, contest writing, and Twitter writing, all which seem to come ahead of my short story and novella writing. While some might say Twitter should come after my own writing, I disagree for the two above stated reasons.

Which brings us back to my novella. In an ideal world, I would set the piece aside. I would come back to it and begin my editing, putting on lipstick for it’s debut. And then I would begin querying or submitting it to literary journals.

Instead, my priority list takes, well, priority. So I reverted back to my innate flowchart. In my attempt to be more business-like in my approach to submissions and creative writing, I found a contest in a literary journal that accepts excerpts of longer pieces. Waiting until the last minute, and knowing my first draft needs a lot more than red lipstick to be acceptable by literary standards, I focused on one part of my novella as a submission.

Which I completed three days ago.

Will I get back to the other parts of my novella, editing and preparing them for a reunion with the submitted piece? Yes. The resting time is nearing completion, and my mind is ready and willing to make the necessary changes.

In fact, I’m looking into various options for publication. One option I came across is serial publication online, with authors receiving portions of the membership price if individuals subscribe to their writing. I’m hesitant about taking this approach with my debut, but on the other hand it will be a great learning experience.

And it’s time for this project to get bumped up the priority list.

 

Communal Living (Part I)

November 13, 2018

“Hey, what can I help you with?” The foreman removes his ear buds and looks at me from his sitting position on the dusty root cellar floor.

I move further down the steep, uneven cement stairs as I look at two of the three workers I can see. The foreman stares at me, like I was interrupting their flow. I understand, clients don’t interact much and get in the way when they do.

“So, I’m taking my daughter to dance class. I was wondering when you guys will be finished.”

I edge myself to sitting on the stairs, barely fitting and aware a slight lean forward would tumble me to where the foreman is crouching. The second worker has his back to the crawl space that extends under 2/3 of the house, looking straight across the basement towards me, and finally I can see the third worker standing by a joist support that isn’t attached to the floor. Inside I shudder at all the times my daughter has bounced across the floor upstairs, unsupported. 

“Oh, yeah, we are just waiting on Jose, slow on filling up his buckets,” the foreman and middle worker laugh as they look towards Jose.

I look at the dozen and a half filled buckets, dirt and concrete the three have been hauling up for most of the day. My eyes travel across the expanse of what could be called my basement, for a lack of a better term. No, there is a better term. More like root cellar with a thin sheet of poorly laid concrete, overhead joists cut by unnumbered, poorly done infrastructure remodels and heavily burdened with HVAC and plumbing. Slowly I take in the 2 x 2 holes pockmarking the floor. In another day the holes will be filled in with rock composite, designed to disperse weight of two floors bearing down on 3 steel beams and 9 jacks. 

“Well, we are better off than I thought we would be, ahead of schedule, so we shouldn’t be here on Thursday but for some clean up or concrete checks,” the foreman begins talking his end of day dispatch talk. I catch every other word, distracted by sounds of my daughter while also mesmerized by what has become of the uneven floors. “So, I don’t think we have much more to do.”

“You guys can stay as long as you want. Just saying I won’t be here with you,” I smile. 

“Yeah, well, we are in a good stopping point and probably need to get checked into our hotel, if you don’t mind us leaving the buckets like this.”

“I was wondering if you would drive back down to Monument tonight,” I comment lightly.

Although there are structural companies and firms by the dozens in Denver, this company is from a town that is on the southern edge of halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs, the two main urban areas of Colorado. I don’t know much about Monument other than it’s a bit of a hill sitting on I-25, away from the mountains, so snow storms pick up speed and slam the small town.

Why did I pick a company so far away? Of all the PMs that came to bid work, this one felt the most genuine, honest, and forthright about all my concerns. Choosing a contractor by intuition? Yes, that’s what I do. Plus, they were all about the same price, and this one could do it without me having to play contractor and hire additional companies to move HVAC and plumbing.

“Oh, yeah, well we were actually going to put up cots here if ya didn’t mind,” jokes the second worker, his full beard still well formed after a day of hard labor.

“Sure, you can stay here. But in full disclosure I gotta tell you I’ve smudged this house three times in two years, and there is still stuff going on,” I meet the eyes of the second worker, expressionless. 

For one heartbeat there is silence. Confused, the foreman tilts his head as he searches my deadpan face. The second worker, his shirt rolled up to show sleeves of black and grey skulls, tribals, and Americana, stares in my eyes frozen. Jose nervously jokes, “that would explain the shadows,” breaking the spell. 

The foreman jerks towards Jose, and the second worker laughs. I laugh and say, “seriously, guys, I was kinda hoping you hauling out dirt would take care of some of this. After all, this has got to be the creepiest basement and crawl space I’ve ever experienced.”

All three voices chime in a harmony of believing disbelief, as the second worker moves quickly towards Jose. Jose laughs, “damn, man, you’ve had your back to that crawl space most the day. You thought you felt sumthin, maybe you did.” The second worker shakes himself as he sits on a bucket of dirt. 

The foreman looks at me, asking,” have you really experienced things?”

“Yeah, I have. Voices and things, mostly at the beginning.”

The truth is this house called to me, before I could even sense it. In fact, the reason we found this house was because I was being driven mad by our last house. In all rational sense, we shouldn’t have bought the house we were living in. We made it six months before deciding to sell. Denver was still in a crazy real estate frenzy, so we decided if we wanted to get away from our poor housing decision with a little bit of money, we needed to move soon.  

Our real estate agent,  unlike the previous one, is a very smart man. I gave him some of my requirements, and he took me to different areas to test what I said. All in all, he knew I was a neighborhood buyer and not a house buyer. What does that mean? Houses are houses, and I can live in whatever. As long as I’m not going mad. But a neighborhood is beyond everything else. For me, the full environment needs to feel right, otherwise the house will never become my home. Plus, houses I like are found in neighborhoods I like. 

After seeing a few houses, and losing a bidding war on a house not far from here, we were getting a little frustrated. Day by day my sanity was wearing away. Until I received a call to meet our agent at a house under renovation. The minute I stepped from the car, I heard the crows cawing and felt this was our home. 

At the time the house was ripped to studs, lath and plaster torn to shreds and thrown into the crawl space below the floorboards. It didn’t matter. This was my home. The potential I saw. The feeling I sensed. This was my dream home.

Though it really wasn’t. My preferred house is a Craftsman bungalow, complete with full brick porches, pane and stain windows, and solid wood bookcases around coal fireplaces. Second to a bungalow is a beautiful Queen Anne Victorian, complete with bay windows, crown and dentil molding, and a solid keystone above every window. Third is a hardy American four-square, complete with wrap around porch, butler’s pantry, and solid wood trim everywhere. So this house, a simple four room folk Victorian with a 1920’s kitchen and bathroom addition, wasn’t even in the running of my dream homes.

That didn’t matter. The crows called. The walls spoke. This was my house, despite my rational senses stating I saw the potential in the blueprints and I could pick my own colors and I could choose the octagon marble floor and subway tile in the bathroom and I could dictate gray cabinets with open shelves true to Victorian kitchens. This was my house bare boned and empty. 

My house per contract at the end of June. A house we didn’t move into until the end of September. We bought the seller’s reasoning that contractors were hard to find, though come to find out that wasn’t the full story. We bought the surface because it seemed reasonable. After all, two years later and Denver still has more cranes in downtown than the four-state area combined. We played understanding because we had no choice. Our house had sold while we were in Panama, a single buyer offering more than asking, and rent back was not an option. Finding another house was not an option. After all, it was a seller’s market. And this house was my house, the decision was out of my hands.

So we figured it out, living in a loft downtown where energy bombarded me 24/7. We took deep breaths, feigned patience, and ultimately moved in before the house was finished. We reasoned the chaos of the workers was less than the chaos of loft living, and at least we were home. Though that first night made me question if moving here was right. Or maybe this house wasn’t mine, after all. 

To be continued…

Character Versus Plot: Which Is More Important?

August 23, 2018

In general, humans do not like ambiguity.

Though there are a few people who can handle a gray existence, their number is far less than those who proclaim to have that comfort. And this tendency extends to everything within comprehension. The need for labels, definitions, categories, and boundaries was necessary at some point for our survival, and these layers are an extension of the black and white, binary trait of needing to know yes or no.

Will I live, or will I die.

And without survival stressors, at least for most of us in the Western world, it’s moved into existential sensibilities. How we view ourselves and our identities.

Just as humans are incapable of conceptualizing reality and layer levels of labels for understanding, writing has it’s own labels, categories, and boundaries. We observe complex humanity, yet we cannot resist falling into camps with a dichotomous structure.

As with most labels, I resist limiting myself by placing boundaries on or categorizing what I write. However, there comes a time when I realize there is a grain of truth despite the exaggerated discussion I usually come across.

One of the dichotomies that has slightly more truth than others, and notice I said slightly, is character versus plot driven writing. The reason I say slightly is there isn’t a true dichotomy. As with any other human trait, there is a complex, dimensional continuum to cover all that is entailed by stating character versus plot.

But in resisting the rabbit hole, I will simplify by stating yes, there are writers who begin their writing with characters. Likewise, yes, there are writers who begin their writing with plot, or external events.

As with most discussions, people like to group up in one camp or the other. Almost any discussion board will have most writers arguing plot based writing is poor writing. In order to entice a reader and have depth of writing, one must develop and build complex characters.

I disagree.

First, poor writing can be found everywhere. In fact, I produce mass amounts of poor writing to create a small gem that I read and reread, amazed the words came from my mind. Whether a writer is plot driven or character driven has very little to do with quality writing.

Second, there is some amazing literature that we all know and love that does not have complex characters.

Third, plot driven writing does not mean characters are not developed or well-thought out complex beings. To be a plot driven writer means the primary focus of action is external events. Usually found in genre writing, such as Mystery, the plot is the device which causes the character to act. Things happen to the character, and the character responds.

In fact, I would argue that most novels and writing is plot driven. Of the categories of conflict, there is only one category that would not require external events precipitating a sequence of decisions in the character. Namely, man vs self.

That is not to say character driven writing excludes all conflicts except man vs. self. That would be a simplistic, dichotomous view of writing. Nor am I stating plot driven writing excludes man vs. self. Again, simplistic view of writing.

Rather, character driven writing focuses on the internal world of a character as primary. Their drives, their motivations, their backstory, and ultimately the progression of the story is tied to exposition of or change within the character.

There is no question as to where I fall in the complex plane of character and plot writing. I am a character writer.

That is not to say I don’t write plot driven stories. I do, it’s inevitable, but the first step in writing for me is to understand my characters. Who they are. My least interesting stories, at least to me, are stories where I haven’t developed a complete profile of my MC’s internal world before writing.

Since I do not outline, my characters decide where the story goes. Their personality decides how the plot develops. Rather than forcing my characters to fit the action of the story, my characters tell me what happens in the story.

In fact, I delayed writing on my current WIP because even though I knew my character, I had no plot in which she could engage. I had nothing for her to do, no canvas on which I could display her and tell a story.

Of course, then I delayed another month because I wasn’t in the mood to write her. The forms procrastination comes in.

But at the end of the day, there are three things stories must have: character(s), plot, and setting. Without any one of these three, a story does not exist.

The degree in which character or plot plays importance for the writer is entirely subjective. And neither one or the other is indicative of poor writing.

Self-Doubt Loves Language

March 9, 2018

It happens to all of us.

Well, maybe not all of us. From all I’ve read, sociopaths and psychopaths do not struggle. Nor do grandiose narcissists. But those extreme examples aside, it happens to all of us.

I’m talking about self-doubt.

It varies by person, by personality, and by occupation. Some occupations leave little room for self-doubt. Namely those that save lives or are involved in split second decision making.

And then there are occupations such as writing, which seems overflowing with those who doubt their abilities and talents. Show me a writer who doesn’t once in a while throw a tantrum, papers flying everywhere (metaphorically in the almost purely digital world), screaming this is shit to anyone who will listen, and I will show you someone who has not really invested in writing. Or hasn’t received a rejection letter.

I know, bold claim.

The reason I say this is because similar to any other combination of art and skill, writing takes a lot of work and is highly subjective. While a writer may develop strong ability to combine words in whatever rules dictate that particular language and form, there is subjectivity in the writer and the reader.

In essence, writers try to pull people into their imaginations, their realities, the way they view the world. And in turn, readers bring their own experiences and understanding. And somewhere in between is language.

A highly imprecise, inexact, difficult combination of symbols and meaning that often fails at its one purpose.

So, taking skill out of the equation, writers will often find themselves deep in the flow of an idea. Spitting out words. Building immense structures of thought and dry walling with all the tricks we are taught. If language is on our side in that moment, we end up with a stable structure we design and change to a more suitable vision.

If language is not on our side, we struggle with a building that lists and tilts no matter how we prop it up. Often ending in abandoned stories and paper flying tantrums. Whether a novice or an expert, self doubt during these times can creep into an ear and take up residence in the back of a writer’s mind.

Speaking horrible thoughts like “that doesn’t make sense.”

“No one wants to read that.”

“What’s the point in that?”

Some writers push through self doubt, post tantrum. Start a new story. Begin a new idea. Or obstinately pound out words until language is malleable. Of course, these are the wise and diligent practitioners of the field.

And then there are others. Of which I am included. We throw our tantrum. We have words with language that would make our grandmothers blush. Then we quit. Let self-doubt have room to take up shop. Build its own workbench of malevolent statements.

I believe this is where writers’ block emerges. Our inability to come to terms with language. Our frustration with disparities between our minds and the expression tools available.

While some might quit forever, others of us are haunted. The urge to write is stronger than the pain of creating meaning with crude cudgels instead of fine carving tools. So we return. At some point we return.

Just as I always come back to writing.

And inevitably we are stronger. Those of us who come back. Our muscles have been worked by tearing apart self-doubt’s workshop. We find new mechanisms of soothing or find opportunities to test the waters in safety.

Or we complete a post that has been sitting in our drafts folder for two weeks.

Regardless, the words always return. The goal for any writer is to become one of the veterans. The time tested writers who know when to set something aside and move on with something else. The ones who do not let tantrums sideline them.

Because for all its crudeness as a tool, language is the only tool available to a writer.

Self-doubt will never leave. So instead we fight. We write drivel. We practice using prompts. We cry and complain to those who listen. And with enough force the inertia recedes and we move forward.

In my experience? My mind is flooded with ideas I refused to create while hosting self-doubt. And I’m left to wonder what amazing things I’ve lost, giving time and space to self-doubt.

Subconscious Weaving

February 16, 2018

I’m a little behind on these posts.

But here we go anyway. Day 2…

02.08.2018

The night was spent in a low to mid grade motel room. Although I can’t say it was absolutely awful (that was for the drive home), it wasn’t exactly pleasant.

The motel room smelled okay, which is the first aspect presented when I open a door. Lights go on, seems decent and not too run down. Though, my Hollywood fed imagination began to run scenarios.

Namely drug deals gone wrong, prostitution busts, and all kinds of down on their luck characters with alcohol and drugs limping along some form of reality avoidance. A world David Lynch explores in his movies.

Meh, it was for one night. I can handle this. Besides, the smell still seemed reasonable.

My eyes will close, shutting out the poorly patched hole in the bathroom door. My vision will no longer view, with an obsessive-compulsive focus, the shoddy handyman work. Such as the towel bar hanging upside down, with the screw on top. Or the failure to sand walls before repainting, causing new paint to flake and peel. My optical organ will miss all these details.

But my sense of smell will continue to feed my brain with non-stop information the entire night.

So, exhausted from a long day driving through semi-arid desert (not my favorite of regions) and having dinner and wine with a relative, I fell into bed.

And slept very little. Not the room’s fault. I rarely sleep well in a new environment. Takes me a few days to feel settled enough to sleep. After a rough night of tossing and turning, punching a motel pillow, I opened grainy eyes to a room that did not benefit from sunlight.

Side note, I have decided I will become one of those people who travels with her pillow. Hotels and motels do not think about stomach sleepers when they stock pillows. Understandably, we are a minority. But my neck cannot handle another too fluffy pillow.

I ran through my daily routine, a muscle memory dance of shower and grooming. So mindless is my routine I don’t usually start waking until halfway through my shower.

When at home all writing ideas come flooding through my neurons at this point.

Since I was not at home, all the details of the shower seeped into the crevices of my gray matter, settling in a twitch between my shoulder blades. It’s not the shower was unclean, but the handyman work scratched my consciousness. Not to mention the essence of down on their luck Hollywoodness.

I’m almost positive I still had conditioner in my hair when I hurried into a bare thin towel and a chilly room. A room still smelling decent, I might add. Though cloying at this point. Must have been the air freshener.

All four of us hurried through a barely there continental breakfast and into the car.

The decision was to head north from Gallup and east at Window Rock, driving through the Navajo Nation since the drive was not as arduous. For those not familiar with American history, Navajo Nation is a sovereign nation within the US, though the executive branch of the US government does have some control.

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Visitor Center, Hubbel Trading Post

We stopped at Hubbel Trading Post, a still active trading post that has been in place since the Navajo were allowed to return home. While it’s not difficult to find houses in Colorado decorated in Southwest style, it was fascinating to learn how integral the art of weaving was and is in the Navajo culture.

Watching the woman weave a rug in the visitor center, I was almost tempted to take up rug weaving. Certainly not to that level. The artistry takes a lifetime to develop. But watching the weaving was mesmerizing, meditative.

Unfortunately, I know myself too well. I would take it up with a passion, to just as quickly lose interest.

I did not purchase a Navajo rug. My art tastes run surreal, and I’m not one to purchase something just because I’m there.

While Vivian played with a shop just her size, I learned how respect can overcome cultural differences. Treating people fairly will always outweigh what governments choose to do, what military enacts. Individuals can overcome group think.

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After our picnic lunch, we moved onward. A quick stop at another monument, pueblos in cliffs, before heading down the canyon to Sedona, AZ.

Living in Colorado my whole life has given me a skewed perception of geography. I have lived in or within view of the Rocky Mountains all but four years of my life. Most of our drive was flat flat flat and desert. So much yellow and sage brush for days. Although I would appreciate the sky on the drive back, the drive there felt blah.

Until I realized we were on a high plateau and everything was hidden from view. Rather than driving up into something, like we do in Colorado, we ended up driving down into. I realized my eyes might have been missing mass amounts of beauty, only because my eyes didn’t know what to see.

I cannot say I will ever live in the desert. Still not my region of choice, but I understand the draw for some people. Cut under the yellow yellow yellow and sage brush is layers and layers of red and orange. You only need to know where to look.

The canyon into Sedona was beautiful. The next day we would get to see the full light set the canyon on fire. But for this day, it was food and bed.

And a realization I might have under dressed for the entire vacation. Stay tuned.

For more pictures, my Instagram.

Ready, Set, Go

February 11, 2018

I do not write a travel blog. Rather, I attempt to write a writing blog since I am a writer (at times). But this week traveling is my experience, so I will write about traveling. A family road trip to be precise.

02.07.2018

Today began the road trip. This is an experiment, to see how well Vivian travels. My mom has been biting at the chance to take her only grandchild traveling. Of course, Vivian has only recently been okay away from mom for more than a few mandatory hours. So this trip was to see what kind of traveling Vivian could do.

Plan was to leave at 9 am. My mother was late. Entirely expected. Fortunately, Vivian is not of an age yet where time matters. And I decided this was a vacation. Time does not exist for me.

So into the car we piled and headed south out of Denver. Our destination? Sedona, Arizona. I don’t really  know what to expect, and I think that is a positive. Expectations lead to disappointments, as well as a failure to see what is offered.

The drive down was split into two days, giving credence to the limited capacity of toddlers for containment. The plan is to spend the night in Albuquerque, NM, and drive the rest of the way on the second day. So far so good.

I should note I have been accused of being addicted to my phone. Namely Twitter. While I admit I am more inclined than not to scroll while bored, I don’t think addiction qualifies. However, I stepped to the issued challenge and agreed to not pick up my phone other than to take pictures.

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Pike’s Peak, Colorado 

It was about halfway past Colorado Springs when I realized what was being asked. Not that I mind. For the most part, I skip a lot of what is written on Twitter other than a few favorites. However, I have substituted Twitter for a notepad. I use the platform as a stream of consciousness writing tool.

I had snippets playing through my head all day. Ooo, I should write that. Oh, I need to remember that. Wow, that sentence is awesome. Of course, I forget them as soon as I finish editing in my head. Thus the attraction of Twitter’s nature. I can quickly write them down, record them, and move on with my day.

Oh the gems I lost.

Then again, maybe not gems. Until there is a form of validation for our words, there is no sense of their value.

Writers can, and will, argue this all day. I write for myself, I hear people say. I don’t care what people say, I hear writers discuss. Who cares about opinions of others, writers will lament. Myself included, depending on how I feel about my writing.

But validation is an important piece to any art. Yes, we create for ourselves. Because there is some demon that has taken up residence in our head, haunting us with words. Not just words, sounds. Rhythm. Flow. Context. Meaning. Requiring us to install layer of layer of thought and meaning via words.  Not to mention the obsession for the perfect sentence.

We cannot not create. This is a truth.

However, there is diary writing if it’s just about letting the demon loose from time to time. Artists, writers, musicians… we are so obsessed we choose to try living by way of our demon.

Which requires skill development. And how do we know we’ve mastered a skill? Validation. Feedback and acceptance by our community. Our community of writers who know what we live through, what we exist within, what we struggle with daily.

Not necessarily consumers. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Patrons and consumers are needed to put food in the fridge and heat in our houses. For those of us crazy enough to try and exist by way of the demon, patrons and consumers are necessary. And their purchases are a form of validation. The most important form, if taken in a pragmatic view.

But validation from the writing community provides feedback as to where our skill rates. No one can pick apart a sentence faster than a writer.

So while I was staring out at the semi-arid desert of Southern Colorado, what I thought were written gemstones could have been, in truth, nothing but drivel. Without validation, I know not which I had created. Well, since it was not recorded I didn’t create anything.

Merely passing thoughts as flat barren landscape passed my eyes.

Vivian did well this first day. The great experiment seems to have the desired results, though after the first two hours excitement of traveling had worn off. On all of us, not just Vivian.

At hour three it was time for a long break.

We stopped for lunch in Trinidad, CO. This allowed the toddler to run while the aging adults to stand and creak about, lamenting how stiff our muscles had become. While my mom was focused on telling me where to drive, and the backseat passengers were focused on getting out of the car, I was noting small details.

Trinidad is an old town that has seen a recent influx of population, as has most CO towns. This meant the historical downtown buildings are being renovated, and the narrow streets are made more narrow by construction cones, equipment, and flaggers. While the town on one side of the freeway looked like any number of small towns in Colorado, downtown appeared to have a new lease on life.

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Downtown Trinidad, CO

Colorado is dotted with small towns, from east to west and north to south. As time has moved on, some small towns have dwindled to nearly nothing. A lot has to do with migration away from agriculture towards urban living, though not entirely.

Some small towns are falling by the wayside because they are on the wayside.

Freeway travel has allowed us to drive further faster, goal oriented as we look forward to our end destination. Small towns a few miles off the freeway offer little for distraction. No travelers to buy gas or eat in cafes, and nothing to keep the young around.

I admit, we took freeway the entire way to Albuquerque.

Where we ate a home cooked meal of lasagna at the house of my mom’s cousin. Vivian ran out her energy, and we relaxed while drinking wine and admiring my cousin’s quirkiness. Women of a certain age who live alone are allowed to develop their oddness, and I get to admire and enjoy said oddness without it affecting my life.

Onto one of the local motels, which resembled the Bates Motel. Not in physicality, but in vibe. Oh so many vibes.

Checking in through bullet proof glass by a woman who looked like she couldn’t get rid of us fast enough. Rooms maintained by a handyman who did not know screws of a towel bar go underneath the bar. And badly patched holes in doors and walls.

Only one night. Then we can move on. Across the desert. Notepad-less. Stay tuned.