Saturday, October 25, 2014

#My Ghost Story

NOTE: To protect the "innocent" I'm avoiding using my childhood friend's name. I'll call her "A." (Not really A's house)
A. told me her house was haunted, but I didn't believe her. I thought she was just embarrassed to have me over and was making excuses. My family wasn't rich, but hers was far poorer. I'd seen cockroaches skittering across the sink behind the leaking faucet when I came over to work on a school project. There was never anything to eat. You had to go in the back door because the stairs had caved in at the front door.

Still, I wanted to spend the night.

We'd be far less well supervised at her house than we were at mine. A.'s mother worked long hours and, even if she was home, was likely to be soundly asleep pretty early. Her house was near enough the Avenue (which is what everyone called the main street through town), that we could walk to a small club that I technically wasn't allowed to go to, where a boy I wouldn't be allowed to date liked to hang out.

So, I pushed. She reluctantly agreed.

I showed up with my overnight bundle right on time. Slipped into the sleeping bag was a dress I had managed to buy without my mother knowing. It was shorter and tighter than I would have been allowed to wear. Now that I'm a mother, I see her point. But this was then. I was fifteen. I knew everything. (Though the dress was a horribly 80s thing . . . so maybe I didn't know *everything*).

When my friend let me in, we went to her room to change and primp before our planned departure for our not-so-slumber party. The weirdness began right away.

I had barely entered the room, when the door slammed shut behind me, as if an angry person had thrown it closed. I jumped, squeaking a little. A. put her hands on her hips and looked up at the ceiling. "I told you to be nice!" she yelled. The door creaked gently back open again. "That's better," she said softly and shrugged apologetically at me.

I was rattled, but I was going to admit that to A. I already felt inadequate next to her in so many ways. A. had it rough and it had made her tough in a beautiful way that I admired. I felt weak and naïve next to her and was always doing foolish things to try and show that I could "hack it." She had this don't-fuck-with-me air about her. The air around me was awfully sweet and push-over-y. At least that's how I saw it then.

So, I laughed as if she had played a great joke on me, and pulled out my primping supplies. We spent an hour or so messing with each other's hair and getting our clothing to lay just so, and then we were off.

The night was nothing to remember. The boy I liked didn't show up. One of A.'s ex-boyfriend's did. The music was loud, and not my kind of music. Everyone there seemed older and more glamorous than us. Mostly we sat on a stone wall at the back and felt awkward.

Our bravado was up on the way home though, and we each pretended for the other that we had had a better time than we had. We had cheered each other pretty thoroughly by the time we arrived at A.'s back door.

Following her lead, I was quiet as we walked through the downstairs. I swung the bag of convenience store snacks I had picked up for us in one hand and followed her to the stairwell. On the landing halfway up, A. turned to me and asked me to wait. I nodded, leaning against the bannister and pulling off my ridiculous shoes. A. went upstairs ahead of me.

I didn't have to wait long, and that was good because the stairwell was creaky and poorly lit and I was freaking myself out pretty well. I was sure that I heard whispering. She came to the top of the stairs a minute or two later and hissed that I could come up. I hurried after her.

When I think about it now, I know it's entirely possible that A. was yanking my chain, and that she had done all the damage herself while I was waiting there on the landing. But she really did seem as surprised as me when we opened the door and there were feathers all over the room. Surprised and angry. Her face purpled.

As I stood there with my mouth hanging open, slowly figuring out that a pillow had been sliced open and the feathers had come from inside, the boombox in the corner suddenly cut on. Neither of us was standing near it. And I jumped and squealed again. The radio station went to fuzz then turned back off.

A. rolled her eyes. "Now he's showing off."

I smiled tentatively. "Boys always do." I was scared to ask who "he" was.

That made her laugh and I felt clever and brave. But when the lights cut off, we jumped into each other's arms and stood looking around at the room for a long moment. I tried not to let myself tremble. After another moment or two, the lights flickered back on and A. turned to me. "I think he's gone for now."

I nodded. "You hungry?"


We flopped down in the middle of the floor amid all the feather and opened our snack bag and devoured our chips and snack cakes and sodas like they were going out of style. I agreed with A. that the room felt different now. Maybe I had just overcome my fears, or maybe there really was a ghost and the ghost had finished playing with us for the night.

Weird things continued to happen from time to time whenever I visited A.'s house, though nothing as scary as that night. To this day, I don't know the name of the ghost. She said that telling his story would only make him stronger, so she refused to tell. Maybe she didn't even know. 


This Halloween, Curiosity Quills authors are spreading the spookiness by sharing their own personal paranormal experiences. Get haunted with these bone-chilling blogs, or post your own! #myghoststory

Here are some of the others:

JE Anckorn
Michael Cristiano
Katie Teller

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Growing When You're Not a Beginner

I have a lot to learn.

Sure, I've learned a lot in my first forty-odd years here on planet Earth, but in any endeavor that matters, I can still grow.

The problem is finding ways to do that.

When you're new at something, it's easy to find a mentor. There are a lot of people who are better than you and can help you move forward. There are very basic things that you don't yet know.

But, the further you get, the harder it becomes. Eventually, when you're truly top-level, you have to become your own teacher, setting for yourself what the next level is and figuring out what exercises will stretch you and get you there. Our needs as learners become more and more individual and it's harder to find a "group solution" that includes you.

I'm not there yet. But I am far enough along in some endeavors, teaching and writing especially, that I'm having trouble finding things that move me forward. Where's the training for intermediates?

I went to a teaching conference recently and found that 90% of what was being offered were sessions I could have taught. Frustrating. I've found the same thing at some writing seminars and conferences.

As a teacher, I've learned to use reflective practice to help me grow. I analyze a lesson in terms of how well my students engaged and how much they retained. The next time I teach the same topic, I make adjustments accordingly, trying to figure out how to engage more people and help them retain more knowledge longer term. It's a struggle, as reflection requires time and I only have 90 minutes per workday in which I am not actively teaching. Reflection often gets shoved down the list in favor of things like providing training to others, performing secretarial tasks necessary for lessons, and keeping up with communication streams, or, you know, using the bathroom and eating lunch.

At least in writing, I set my own pace. Reflective practice is trickier. My writing is more personal than the Spanish lessons I provide. It's harder to view objectively. So, reflective practice, for me, is a matter of finding an appropriate peer group, in putting my work out there and listening to the feedback with a heart to learn. I am fortunate in my local critique group, which includes writers in a similar part of the journey as me, as well as some who are more skilled than me, and others that I can help along. I also participate in a few online critique groups and response is varied. Not everyone is there with a heart to learn.

One of these opportunities for reflective practice, for me, is the #saturdayscenes movement on Google+. The work I present there is much more raw than the work I am sending to magazines, anthologies and other publishing venues. I value the interactions I have in this community because nearly everyone is there with a heart to learn and grow. Pontification and defensiveness are at a minimum.

So, I guess the key is, once again, community. A community of learners, all with a heart to learn.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cover Reveal: Altar of Reality by Mara Valderran

I am so pleased today to be able to be one of the bloggers revealing the cover for Mara Valderran's new book, Altar of Reality.

Isn't it awesome? I'm already anxious to read it. If you feel like you can't wait, you can start with Heirs of War (the first book) or Heirs of War, Crown of Flames (the second book), which came out Oct. 13. There are links on her website for buying.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Finding Focus

Normally, I'm a very focused person. I'm good at prioritizing a list of to-dos and getting them done. In any given weekday, I manage to write 800 or so words of my WIP, teach six classes, do the prep work for the next day's six classes, prepare three meals for four people and a dog, do a load of laundry and a load of dishes, help one child through homework, be an ear for the other child, pay things on time, and get my work and name out there on social media.

There's a lot I don't do as well, of course: exercise enough, read enough, keep up with media (TV, podcasts, movies, games, etc.), sleep sufficient hours . . .

But this is what we call the Balancing Act.

But I'm out of balance right now. Really out of balance. Like a washing machine trudging forward away from the wall as the load smashes noisily around. It's been this way for about two weeks.

What changed?

Well, it's already been a challenging school year. The eldest started high school, the youngest started taekwondo, and I'm in process on my first published book. These three things have really stretched the demands on the hours of any given day.

But, I was doing okay on those things, most days. Until we hit a bit of a crisis with one of the kids. I'm not going to talk about the details here. They're private and I am strong in my faith that we will come through and get everyone on an even keel again. But it will be a process.

And, though I'm not a brooder, I'm brooding. Seriously, I'd put Angel to shame. I'm working slower on that pile of daily tasks because part of my brain is distracted at all times by the crisis stuff.

I've missed a deadline at work (for one of those "other duties as assigned" that can drown a schoolteacher who already does an amazing amount of work in the ninety non-teaching minutes I have per schoolday).

I don't do that.

Even list-making isn't working for me like it usually does. Each item I put on the list seems to come with peripheral items until the page is not a nice organized list, but some sort of ugly bubble map of my billowing brain.

So, tonight, I plan not to think. At least not about my own things. It's time for some superheroes. Not angsty ones like Batman either. Pure escapist butt-kicking. Hulk smash!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Don't Be Afraid to Get Your Hands Dirty

Education is a messy business, and I'm not just talking about the paint smears and glue incidents. 

No. Education is messy in that it's hard to define. It's hard to know in any immediate sense if teaching has been successful. It's about gut instincts and intuitions, inspiration and leaps of faith. 

It can take many years for the effectiveness of a classroom experience to become clear. So many factors converge into the experience and success of one child, that assigning credit and blame becomes meaningless. 

That makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They want "objective" measures of progress of students and quality of instruction. They invent new systems of testing, grading, and evaluation. They insist that we have to codify and measure by "objective" standards what we do in the classroom or it is not learning.

"They" are usually not teachers. Some of them mean well, others have an agenda to push.

But really, it comes down to discomfort with the squishy, emotional nature of learning. Research is so afraid of data that it is anecdotal or about how things feel. The longer I teach, the more that kind of data is the only kind I find meaningful.

Learning is an interaction between people--teachers and students, students and students, communities of learners. And people are emotionally motivated critters, not lab rats. A child's success in the classroom isn't about what textbook the teacher had, or what specific pedagogical approach she used. It's about relationships. When you find the right teacher for you, your learning skyrockets. And, with one who is wrong for you, the whole climb up the educational mountain just gets that much harder.

But no one wants to hear that "it's complicated." Or that what is successful in one place with one group of children and a certain teacher may fail miserably in another setting. But the truth is, it might.

Think back on your schooling. What do you remember fondly? Was it that your math teacher had the newest and greatest set of manipulatives you had ever seen? Was it that the lessons were available on a website for your later perusal? Did you even know what kind of educational philosophy your teachers espoused?

If so, you had a very different experience than me.

When I look back on the brightest spots in my education, they were all about relationships and connections. That long conversation with the elementary school librarian about why I found Little House on the Prairie books unsatisfying and why I might enjoy Louisa May Alcott more. The teacher who clipped poems out of a magazine to show me, telling me that the words reminded her of some I had written for her class. The one who listened when my heart was broken and I didn't want to tell my mother because I knew she never liked that boy anyway.

Good teachers aren't afraid to get their metaphorical hands dirty--they ask the tough questions, listen to the hard stories. They support and love their students. Sure, these teachers also taught me chemistry, algebra and literature. But you know what? I listened to them and learned well from them because they tried to know me as a person. Not because of how they taught, but because of how they made me feel.

I only hope I can do the same for my students.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Why We Didn't Go to the Football Game Today

As I always tell my students, No hablo deportes. (I don't speak sports). In general, my policy on sports is that if my daughters are not playing, I don't care.

My husband, however, does speak sports. He's not a die-hard, face-painting tail-gater, but he does enjoy a bit of football. Especially when his alma mater, UNC, plays.

So, when UNC had a teacher appreciation deal, I bought tickets to the game today vs. Virginia Tech for the Sweetman. I figured I would enjoy some nice fall weather, some people watching, and some junk food while he enjoyed the game.

So, we set off for the game. We looked for parking downtown, but, of course, couldn't find any. We'd waited until too near game time for that. We did find a lot of rich people. You can tell them by the type of baby gear they use, their shoes and their haircuts. Even when they are wearing basic UNC clothing, like any fan, they have the most expensive items from the shops. It also shows in the way they assume that their own comfort and ease is more important than the safety and wellbeing of others. (Sorry if the chip on my shoulder is showing). That was probably our first clue that we didn't belong there. Obviously, these events are for Socs, not Greasers like us.

If we had found parking, it would have cost us $20-$40 depending on which lot we let gouge us. Most of the time, when we go to Franklin Street for a little fun, we spend $4-6 on parking. We considered the park and ride, but then realized that even that would cost us $10, plus a lot of time in waiting for a ride back to our car, which adds to the babysitting costs.

Now, if I had not gotten a special deal, those tickets would have been $120. That's a cash outlay not that different than a night at the theater. I don't know about your family budget, but that's a chunk of change in ours. And, when I go to the theater, I get a place to park along with my ticket. If there's a charge, it's more like $5.

Everyone has their thing they hate to pay for, and one of ours is parking. Driving among all the rich people and calculating how much we were going to have to spend to park and eat, we were both getting a little grumpy. Sweetman was getting that tense look that had him hunching around the steering wheel. I was hoping he'd feel better when we finally got to the game.

But he surprised me by asking how I'd feel about giving up the money I'd spent on the tickets and doing something else instead.

So, instead, we went out to lunch at a place we'd been meaning to try (far enough away from campus that we could park there). Then, we went to NC Botanical Gardens, where we hadn't been in a long time. We sat and talked, admired beautiful plants. Then, we went to our favorite game shop and the game Sweetman had been stalking was in! Then we did a bit of practical shopping at Target, got a milkshake, and did the grocery shopping. That's what we call a married parents date. Way better than football. :-)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

There are Plenty of Fish in the Sea

Trying to get traditionally published is like dating.

You find a likely prospect. He says something flattering about the shape of your line. On the surface he looks pretty good. He's got a handsome veneer, a nice cover and an attractive website. You get a good feeling when he smiles at you. Kind of tingly.

But you've been burned before, so you do a bit of research, asking friends what they think of him, googling him. You check warning sites like Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors so you know it if he has a history of abuse or dishonesty.

Then, you dive in. You share your heart and hope it doesn't get broken.

In that same vein, having your writing rejected is a lot like being dumped.

You put yourself out there, but for some reason it doesn't click. Maybe it's mutual and you feel a sense of having dodged a bullet.

More likely, you are hurt. You overanalyze, trying to understand why he dumped you. Were you lacking in some way? Was it him? Only rarely does the Dear John letter tell you anything other than "not what we're looking for right now," so you might not ever know why.

When you dish with your girlfriends, you talk about the other fish in the sea, and how it's his loss.  You let them cheer you, even if part of you thinks it might be you.

But you're still looking for love, so you decide to try again. In secret, you work to make yourself that much better. You work out, lifting heavy verbs and sculpting careful sentences. You polish your craft and try new things; you stretch yourself and grow.

You do the dance many times before you find the one. Sometimes, it's hard to put yourself out there again. You have to fight cynicism and despair and keep hoping. But you're tough. You're a believer. You persevere.

Then you find him. And it's wonderful. You find that audience you've sought for so long. Or maybe it isn't exactly the way you imagined, but it's still lovely in its way.

But you don't just get married and ride off into the sunset together. The right publisher for one piece is not right for another. You'll need more than one beau to escort you to all the balls you want to attend. So, even when you've found a beau you have to keep dating.

If you're lucky, some of those beaus remain in your corner your whole life. Others turn out to have been fleeting romances, and they end, sweetly or angrily. But you go on.

Because there are a lot of fish in the sea. And you're going to catch a big one. I know it.

This posting is part of the Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. To check out other posts by writers in a variety of places in their careers, check out the participant list. This group is one of the most open and supportive groups of people I have ever been associated with. You should check them out!

I give permission for IWSG to use this post in the anthology.