Tuesday, July 23, 2013

This Girl is a Woman Now, or How to Hold on Loosely (But Not Let Go)

It seemed to happen overnight, sometime this past school year, during seventh grade.

It's not that I hadn't foreseen this.  Daughters grow. They become women.  I had seen the signs year by year. I would walk into her bedroom to look on her sleeping face at night. Sometimes it was the face she had worn as an infant still, but, increasingly, I could see her woman's face forming beneath the surface, a shifting of bones and sinews, a remaking.

Still it came as a shock when it happened. She blossomed. Not just her body, but her mind and spirit. 

She's beautiful, of course, in that way that only a girl new to womanhood can be.  Not quite in a woman's proportions yet, with girlish shoulders, but womanish hips.  Her legs seem incredibly long, like a baby giraffe's, and entirely out of bounds with the rest of her. There's a charming awkwardness to the way she stands. It seems impossible that she could move her limbs evenly, yet she is a graceful machine in motion, tearing up the basketball court or the soccer field, head and shoulders taller than the other girls.

She's independent, too. Sure in her own abilities. Creative. Always making something. She's in that in-between world, standing in the center of the seesaw between girl and woman, rocking back and forth, trying to balance new privileges and new responsibilities. It's terrifying and wonderful to watch. I'm proud of who she is becoming and my role in that. I'm more frightened than I have ever been in her whole life.

It's a new world of mothering.  I have to pursue her when once she would have come seeking me. I have to ask to see her art when once she would have pulled me by the hand to get me to come see.  I make appointments to ensure we spend time together. I learn about the oddest things so that I can hold up my end of the conversation.

I make sure I'm the one to drive her where she wants to go, just for the little moments when she rhapsodizes about the song on the radio, or analyzes her relationships, lets me in on what is worrying her.  Time in the car is vital. When I can't look into her face, when I have to keep my eyes on the road, she'll reveal her heart to me in a way that she won't do across the dinner table.

Friendships are so important right now.  As is time alone.  But she still needs us, even when she pushes us away. Parenting is a balancing act at every stage, but this one feels more precarious, like an over-reaction or failure to respond on my part will tip the seesaw permanently, letting her slide away from me.

Like always I need to protect her, but now, more than ever,  I have to protect her from herself. I have to let her hate me sometimes. I have to be mean. As her parents, we have to give her room to develop confidence by making her own decisions without letting her walk into a situation that will have life-long consequences.

I try really hard not to linger too long over news stories (Facebook bullying, sexting, pedophiles stalking Instagram, Steubenville). It can be paralyzing.  I can't worry about all the things that could possibly happen to her. Instead, I try to make sure she has the skills to watch out for herself.  Without frightening her unnecessarily with "what-ifs," I try to guide her thinking, to show her how to watch out for herself and her friends, to make smart decisions, to take measured risks.

So, if when you next see me, you notice that I suddenly look older, it's not your imagination. My hair has grayed. I might have an ulcer. My girl is a woman now (and she has a boyfriend).

Monday, July 15, 2013

I'm My Own Fan Girl

W00t! This is awesome!

It's been a long time since I was this excited over a writing project.  It's all I can do to tear my fingers away from the keyboard long enough to do things like feed my family and wash some clothes.  Sometimes I have to apologize to my friends and family because my brain wandered off and tried to get back to the book when I was supposed to be with them.

It wasn't like that when I was working on His Other Mother.  There were days that I had to force myself to go back. I'd take a deep breath and dive in and come up gasping a scene or two later. Especially as the end of that novel neared, I procrastinated.  It was hard, following Sherry through all her hard times.  I felt for her so much.  It was like seeing a beloved friend through chemo. Harrowing. Worth it, but harrowing.

In the end, I finished that novel by bribing myself with the project I'm working on now: The Change. I promised myself that if I could put Sherry to bed and get her ready to send out into the publishing world, I could work on something light and fun next.   

The Change is a superhero novel, a genre I didn't even know existed until I met James Maxey at a writing workshop he taught at my local library. His superhero novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, was such fun!  I really enjoyed getting the comic book world feel, but in novel form, where the characters were more fully fleshed out and I imagined the action for myself (as opposed to seeing another artist's vision of it in a graphic novel).

I've read several other great books in the genre since: James's sequel/side-quel Burn, Baby, Burn, Peter Cline's Ex-Heroes, and Mur Lafferty's Playing for Keeps.

It's my own novel, so it's not like I have distance, but I think it's awesome!  You should see and hear me sitting here writing it.  I laugh, I gasp, I grin maniacally.  Damn, this is fun.  I'm going to go write some more.  I want you to get to read this, too.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Writing about Mental Health

I didn't set out to write a novel about mental health.  But like a lot of my writing projects, at some point the project became what it needed to be, and I was along for the ride.

His Other Mother began as novel about fertility.  Sherry Morgan, my main character, wanted to be a mother, more than anything else in the world. But she and her husband were not having any luck. Then she saw the baby:

Sherry had been watching them for a few minutes now.  The baby had to be about a month old. He was all wide blue eyes and chubby cheeks, riding in his car seat in his mother's grocery cart, not yet big enough to sit up in the built-in seat. Whenever his mother came into view, his face relaxed, and every time she stepped out of view, picking up some broccoli, squeezing an orange, his brow furrowed and he shook his little arms and legs in silent distress.  Oh, how he loved her.
    And she didn't even see it, that mother. Didn't know her luck.  Didn't stop to coo over her sweet one or let him smell the oranges.  She just piled groceries into her cart silently.
    Sherry followed them throughout the whole store, aisle by aisle, picking things off the shelves that she didn't even want or need. From time to time the baby would meet her eye. It felt like the world stopped--no, like it contracted, everything else was gone except the connection between them.  Sherry found herself hating the mother, who could so casually push this little miracle around the store and not even notice him. If that were her baby, she would talk to him as she shopped, showing him the things she chose, letting him touch them. She would pause to kiss his toes. Or even better, she would carry him against her body, swaddled in a patterned cloth sling.  She would be able to feel the warmth of his body against hers, and smell his milk-sweet breath every time she glanced downward.
Her obsession began. When opportunity presented itself, Sherry snatched up the baby and took him home with her.
The mother was on the ground, the grocery cart she had been pushing dented and thrown some distance from her.  A young man was yelling for help.  People were running to the woman from all around the parking lot.  Suddenly there were so many people.  Where did they come from?
    Without really thinking, Sherry went to the Honda.  She reached in to the baby, offering one finger. He grabbed it.  In that one moment, she made her decision. She took the keys from the baby's hand and jingled them at him, smiling.  She put one finger to his impossibly soft lips and said, "Hush now, sweet boy. Mama's here." She pressed the release button between his legs—he had the less expensive version of the car seat Sherry had bought for her sister-in-law at her shower last month—and lifted the seat, baby and all, letting him rock gently and cooing to him as she carried him to her car and buckled him in. She even thought to grab the diaper bag.
    The baby fussed in her back seat and she twisted around awkwardly to stroke his cheek around his backward-facing car seat.  “It's okay, Alex,” she said softly, “we'll go home now.”  She pulled out of her parking place carefully, driving around the back of the store to avoid all the commotion in front.
Mental health is slippery. It's hard to know when something is temporary and when it's a break with reality.  It's hard to know when your fantasy has stepped over into unhealthy separation from the truths of life.

Like my character, I didn't know that Sherry was schizophrenic at first. Writing the novel, I discovered with her that she had a dissociative disorder.  I followed her to her therapy sessions and hoped with her that she would find her anchor in ordinary life, that she would learn to manage her medications without feeling dull and disconnected all the time. She was doing well in so many ways. Then, she saw the child again:
She heard him before she spotted them.  Her head whipped around, just like it did every time she heard a child, but she didn’t expect anything.  She’d almost shrieked when she saw that it really was him, Alex, The Child from That Day.  In all her talk with her therapist, in all her ideas about how to build her life from here, it had never occurred to her that she might see him again.  In all the coping strategies they’d talked through, there wasn’t one for running into The Child, her Alex, at the garden store.
    Sherry felt as though the rest of the world had grown fuzzy and indistinct. The only thing in the room in bright focus was him, the baby. Her heart sped up and she had to restrain herself from running to him, scooping him from his seat and covering him with kisses.  She had convinced herself that she didn’t miss him, since he had never really been hers, but it had been a lie.  Seeing him made her alive in a way she hadn’t been in months.  Her mouth was suddenly dry and her arms ached. She had to be mistaken. It couldn’t really be him. 

 Of course it was him. I don't want to spoil the ride for any future readers, so I won't tell you what else happens now.

I've done a lot of thinking and worrying about mental health.  Several people I know and love have struggled with dissociative disorders, depression or other problems.  I listened. I observed. Autodidact that I am, I read a lot on the subject.

But getting in Sherry's head was a revelation.  As I wrote her story, I was in the experience in a new way. I understood from within.  And I sympathized. 

My subconscious is a wonder, bringing to the surface things I didn't even know I was pondering. The novel is finished now and I'm shopping it around to agents and publishers. But whether I ever see it published or not, I'm grateful for Sherry for helping me understand.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My dentist is a mad scientist!

So, next time you are at the dentist, close your eyes and just listen for a little while. Pretend you don't know where you are.  By the sounds, where do you think you'd be?

I was in the chair earlier this week and I'm convinced now. My dentist is a mad scientist!

She has all these bizarre devices that you can't figure out the use of just by looking.  I mean, I know that the long tubey thing is a suction device and that the weirdly shaped box on a robotic looking arm is the camera for the x-rays.  But, these devices wouldn't look out of place in Victor Frankenstein's lab or Emmett "Doc" Brown's workshop. 

Some of her tools look like devices of torture.  Who doesn't feel something curl up and hide inside when they see the tray of gleaming silver implements? Who doesn't flash on Marathon Man and start to wonder if your dentist might secretly be a Nazi? (Just me? Sorry.)

Then there's her lingo. She tells me what she's going to do, but half the words sound made up or out of context. 

Prophylaxis (so this is safe dentistry?).
Composite (isn't that what my deck is made of?).
Bitewing (is that an incarnation of Robin after he left Batman?).
Calculus (my teeth are better at math than me?).
Scaling (no one said there would be mountain climbing).
Eruption (my six year old has a volcano in her mouth?).
Extraction (we're sending in the CIA?).
Veneer (wasn't he an artist or something?).
Implantation (wait, which doctor am I visiting?).

The angles are straight out of mad science labs, too. Devices you can't quite focus on because they're so close to your face disappear into your mouth.  It sounds like she's operating a saw and mining for diamonds in there. Her hair, which looks normal when you're both standing up, fluffs up around her head in a bizarre wing like Rotwang from Metropolis.  Her eyes are distorted and huge as I look back through her bifocals. The entire bottom of her face is obfuscated by a mask that begs the question of what she is hiding under there.

With the push of a pedal she raises and lowers my seat with a strange hydraulic sound.  She shines bright lights in my eyes and asks me questions that I can't answer because there are strange things in my mouth. She has long scary looking needles and a decidedly Whovian gas mask.

Don't get me started on her laugh.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Please don't call me Sam.

My name is Samantha. Three syllables. I like all of them.

I can handle shortening of my name by people who've known me since childhood or knew me during a time in my life when I more willingly allowed the nickname.  I don't like it, even from them, but I can handle it. But complete strangers, meeting me for the first time? That's a grit-my-teeth and try-not-to-slap situation.

For example, I made a hair appointment yesterday.  The salon called today to confirm my appointment and asked for "Sam."  I signed up as Samantha.  The salon clerk person has never met me.  What made her think she could call me Sam? If it weren't that the stylist is fabulous and an old friend, I'd cancel the appointment.

Obviously, I am really rankled by having my name shortened.  But even I don't really know why that is.  I didn't have a traumatic experience with someone who called me Sam. It's not PTSD from reading Dr. Seuss as a child.  It's not that the nickname is non-specifically gendered.

I'm starting to think that it's about boundaries, about the license people take, the assumptions they make. 

If you ask me, "Do you go by Sam?" I'll politely say, "No, I'm a three-syllable girl."  I won't be upset with you for asking.  Because, after all, you asked.

If you call me Sam without asking, I'll correct you: "Samantha, please." Then I'll go on with the conversation as if it didn't happen. I won't hold a grudge.  Most people are briefly taken aback by my directness, but then they remember.

Names are very personal.  You don't choose your name initially. Your parents get the credit or blame for that one.  But, by adulthood, we've all chosen what we preferred to be called: our full first name, a shortened version, initials, our middle name, a nickname that doesn't draw from our name at all.  We've chosen.  It's part of who we are.  If you change my name, you are trying to tell me who I am. That's not up to you.

So, a poem about my name:

Someone Called me Sam Today

Women like us are not Pat or Jenn or Sam,
Kat or Jess or Liz.
We’re not Izzy or Mandy,
Cathie or Chrissi (with an i) or Tina.
We won’t be shortened,
made cute, easy, or palatable to the lazy tongue.
We are not here for your convenience.
We are who we are. 

Call me by the full length of my name,
each syllable lovingly pronounced
as it was by my mother
when she named me.
You don’t know me that well—
few do. And if you did,
you would know to love me
fully, in all my syllables,
and not try to change who I am.