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Monday, June 15, 2015

The Bridge

My daughter and I are working on a memoir. The memoir is about the time in our lives when Arianna became enmeshed in an abusive relationship, told from her perspective as well as mine. As you can imagine, for the past four plus years, we have had time to think about this subject quite a bit. One of the questions that comes up often when we bring this subject up with people is a lack of understanding on how people find themselves in abusive relationships and why they don’t just leave. A related question my husband and I have been discussing is what can we do help educate our young people on how to recognize these types of relationships and how to avoid or extricate themselves if they get caught up in them.

A few days ago I was speaking to a friend about my planned redesign of my blog and the subject turned to abusive relationships. This friend mentioned a short story/fable written by Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman. Rabbi Friedman was not only a religious leader, he was also a marriage and family therapist. The story he tells is called “The Bridge” and is published by Guilford Publications and can be found in Friedman’s Fables (1990). Here is the story with some abridgments.

The Fable of the Bridge

A man set out on a journey with a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish and dreams for his future and a plan to achieve those dreams. On this journey he came to a bridge that crossed a swift and deep river. As he began crossing the bridge he saw someone else on the other side walking towards him, carrying a long coil of rope in his arms with the end tied around his waist.

“The other began to uncurl the rope, and just as they were coming close, the stranger said, ‘Pardon me, would  you be so kind as to hold the end for a moment?’ Surprised by this politely phrased but curious request, he agreed without a thought, reaching out, and took it.

“‘Thank you,’ said the other, who then added, ‘two hands now, and remember, hold tight.’ Whereupon, the other jumped off the bridge.”

The man managed to hold onto the rope despite almost being pulled over himself.  He looked over the edge of the bridge. The other was hanging there, alive but dangerously close to death.

“‘What are you trying to do?’ he yelled.

“‘Just hold tight,’ said the other.

“‘This is ridiculous,’ the man thought and began to try to haul the other in. He could not get the leverage, however. It was as though the weight of the other person and the length of the rope had been carefully calculated in advance so that together they created a counterweight just beyond his strength to bring the other back to safety.

“‘Why did you do this?’ the man called out.

“‘Remember,’ said the other, ‘if you let go, I will be lost.’

“‘But I cannot pull you up,’ the man cried.

“‘I am your responsibility,’ said the other.

“‘Well, I did not ask for it,’ the man said.

“‘If you let go, I am lost,’ repeated the other.”

The man looked around for something to tie to rope off to but cannot find anything. No other people walked by. He decided to talk to this other again.

“‘What do you want?’ he asks the other hanging below.

“‘Just your help,’ the other answered.

“‘How can I help? I cannot pull you in, and there is no place to tie the rope so that I can go and find someone to help me help you.’

“‘I know that. Just hang on; that will be enough. Tie the rope around your waist; it will be easier.’
So, he tied the rope to his waist.

“‘Why did you do this?’ he asked again. ‘Don’t  you see what you have done What possible purpose could you have had in mind?’

“‘Just remember,’ said the other, ‘my life is in your hands.’

“What should he do? ‘If I let go, all my life I will know that I let this other die. If I stay, I risk losing any momentum towards my own long-sought-after salvation. Either way this will haunt m forever.’ With ironic humor he thought to die himself, instantly, to jump off the bridge while still holding on. ‘That would teach this fool.’ But he wanted to live and to live fully. ‘What a choice I have to make; how shall I decide?’”

He had to make a decision. The longer he held on, the greater his own distress, the further away he was from his own goals. He had an idea. The other could use him to brace himself against the sides of the bridge and climb up. He told the other of his plan. The other refused to climb up.

“‘You mean you won’t help? But I told you I cannot pull you up myself, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer either.’

“‘You must try,’ the other shouted back in tears. ‘If you fail, I die.’

“The point of decision arrived. What should he do? ‘My life or this other’s?’ And then a new idea. A revelation. So new, in fact, it seemed heretical, so alien was it to his traditional way of thinking.

“‘I want you to listen carefully,’ he said, ‘because I mean what I am about to say. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your own life I hereby give back to you.’

“‘What do you mean?’ the other asked, afraid.

“‘I mean, simply, it’s up to you. You decide which way this ends I will become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring yourself up. I will even tug a little from here.’ He began unwinding the rope from around his waist and braced himself anew against the side.

“‘You cannot mean what you say,” the other shrieked. ‘You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me.’

“He waited a moment. There was no change in the tension of the rope.

“‘I accept your choice,’ he said, at last, and freed his hands.”
The End

The Impulse to Love

The moment in the story where the other asks the man to hold onto the rope reminds me of that scene from the movie Notting Hill, where Julia Roberts characters stands in front of Hugh Grant and says “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love me.”
That is the moment of decision and Hugh Grant does the unexpected. He passes on the offer. Then he tells his friends and they tell him he’s made a mistake. One mad dash to the hotel, where he accepts her offer and they live happily ever after. Cue the romantic montage and love song.

A more recent movie also plays around with this meme—Disney’s Frozen. To me, this movie is not about Elsa and that song, this movie is about Anna and her lessons in love. One of those lessons involves love at first sight and how we often make a decision to love on nothing more substantial than an impulse and a desire to end her deep loneliness. I really think Anna loves Hans. The problem is not in the impulse to love but in trusting someone else so quickly without really knowing their character. Hans is a villain and Anna nearly pays for her naivety with her life.
I have sort of been in that position. Once, a long time ago in a dive shop in Orem, Utah, I accepted a proposal of marriage from a man I only knew for ten days. Why? Because he asked. That is what I was supposed to do, right? At least that is what I thought at the time. Along with being relieved that someone, anyone, finally wanted to marry me. I confess I also felt like the ‘curse’ of singledom was finally lifted from my shoulders. All very impulsive reasons. It turns out this guy was not a good guy. But you don’t give up on love—that is another one of those memes. I was going to married him. Instead, he broke up with me. One tear fell down my cheek. That was how much time passed before I realized what a great bullet I had just dodged.

Abusive Love

Not every one is as lucky.
 I once second chaired a case at the Salt Lake County Defenders Office where our client had been accused of stabbing his ex-wife in the chest. He finally confessed, but claimed that in stabbing her he was not trying to kill her—he was trying to show her how much he loved her. It was chilling. I honestly believe he believed that that was love.
I have heard some common refrains from people I know who have been in abusive relationships. “If you do X (some behavior the abuser did not like) it means you do not love me. You might as well leave me. And I will kill myself.” Or variations on that theme. Much like the person dangling from the end of the rope, these people connect their lives to another person in such as way that seeks to control and isolate, and ultimately harms—all the while claiming that moral and ethical obligations require that the stay in the relationship.
No wonder people hang onto the rope, even at the cost of their own lives. The impulse to do good and value life is ingrained in all of us and rightly so. It is the glue that holds society together. At the same time, it can be used as a weapon. From our own experience with Arianna’s abusive boyfriend, Shawn and I were called un-Christian and unforgiving because we recognized the abuse and started taking actions to end it. I am glad we did not cave to his attempted manipulation though I admit I felt its pull; I did not want to be perceived as unforgiving. I believe in forgiveness. I want to forgive. I wanted my daughter to be safe more.

We should stop asking why people stay in abusive relationships. The fact is, we probably would too. The pull is that great.

And we probably would not have spotted the abuser before getting “roped in” either. I know I didn’t.  I just got lucky.

Can We Innoculate Our Children?

I wish there was an easy answer to this question. I thought I had inoculated my daughter. I told her the story of my attempted murder client, and my almost husband. I told her about those close to me who had partners threaten suicide as a means of control, and how the correct response was to call the police and break up with the boy, and get a restraining order to boot.  All years before she turned fifteen.
I also taught her to be a loving and kind person. To help others in need. That charity never faileth.
She chose to love and I do not blame her for it. She chose to hang on even when doing so was killing her. I do not blame her for it. It is what I had taught her to do.
We saw what she could not see and cut the rope for her, hoping she would not blame us if he fell to his death, hoping she would come to see what we saw and let go of the emotional rope that she had bound around herself and was dragging her down. 
It is such a fine line—this boundary is between help and harm, between care and control—that I often despair that anything can be done. But we must try. Stories like Edwin H. Friedman’s “The Bridge” are a start, a jumping off point for important conversations we need to have with our children about these boundaries and what real love looks and feels like.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

April Fool’s Day

The Fool Tarot Card

Sometime in February of of this year, my husband finished writing his dissertation. It was time to schedule his defense—and the only two dates available were April 1st and April 15th. April Fool’s Day or Tax Day? He choose April Fool’s Day.

He was a bit worried that this might be a bad omen—and more than a little ironic—that the day he was to demonstrate the end result of years of study and work was dedicated to celebrating fools. I assured him that April Fool’s Day was not something to be worried about. If anything it was a good sign. Are we not all fools? (see earlier blog post). And I showed him a Wiki on The Fool card in Tarot (see above).

Disclaimer: I do not have a deck of Tarot cards nor am I advocating using tarot to predict the future. That being said, I think the imagery and symbolism behind the tarot cards deal with common human problems and experiences.

The Cliff

The Fool is young. Too young to know that he is in danger. Most images of the fool symbolize this by showing the fool looking up while he is about to step off a cliff. We call him a fool because he is blind to the danger and seemingly unconcerned. And yet, how often can we rely on complete safety before venturing out on some new project or adventure? Without the willingness to take a chance on the unknown we would become immobilized.

Ten years ago we made the decision for Shawn to pursue his PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill. And it felt much like stepping off this cliff. Yet at the time, I was unconcerned. I felt as calm as a summer day, confident that everything would work out even though there were no guarantees that Shawn would be able to successfully complete his degree.

That was certainly foolish. It has been a very long and hard road. One filled with unexpected disruptions, tears, and discouragement. I recently read that 47 percent of all Ph.D. candidates feel depressed. We have been there. 

If there was going to be hardship, why the preternatural calm?

I credit this calm to a gift of the Spirit, and as a result of concerted prayer as a couple and individually seeking for direction. I also credit it on having lived through other cliff-walking experienced. Choosing to go to college, choosing to serve a mission, choosing to marry, to have children, to accept a new job. All of these past experiences have felt like walking off a cliff into the unknown. Some of these times I was more excited than afraid of the new experience that awaited me. More often than not I was terrified.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat

Fortune favors the bold. Why? Because often times it takes the willingness to risk in order to gain. No Risk, No Reward. Of course, risk comes with dangers. Some of them very deadly.

I just finished reading a Bill Bryson book entitled One Summer: America 1927. He starts the summer off with Charles Lindbergh. What made Charles Lindbergh worth mentioning is that during the summer of 1927 he became the first person to make a non-stop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. That one flight changed his life. What I did not know before reading this book were the names of the other aviators who had attempted the journey in the months and weeks before Lindbergh.

Rene Fonck, a French WWI Ace made an attempt but his plane exploded after failing to take off. Two of his crew died. Richard Byrd and Anthony Fokker tried next. Nobody died this time, but Byrd broke his arm and a crew member was seriously injured by a propeller. The next to try were Noel Davis and Stanton H. Wooster. Their plane failed to clear the trees at the end of the runway, stalled and crashed. They both died.

This is the context of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight. As much as we take transatlantic flights for granted now, how many of us would have been willing to fly a route that had killed or seriously injured nearly everyone who had tried before us?

Only a fool, right?

I almost did not marry Shawn because I was too afraid. I had been engaged before to a less than kind individual, who broke off our engagement because we were just too different. (Thank goodness for tender mercies. I would have married this man out of sheer stubbornness.) I had many other examples of my shortcomings. How could someone as foolish as I make such a life altering decision?

My self-doubts reached such proportions that I verbalized my feelings on a double date to a Greek bouzouki bar, ending all conversation for the following two hours. What I said was this, ‘Shawn has received spiritual confirmation that getting married is the right choice. I haven’t, but that’s okay. His answer is good enough for me.’ Read that with a huge helping of sarcasm.

That response was not good enough for Shawn. He assured me of his love. He also assured me that this was a decision I needed to make and that I needed to know for myself that this is what I wanted to do. He would accept whatever my answer was.

I decided it was time to fast and pray. Over a weekend in March I went without food for a day and spent many hours in prayer and meditation. What I was seeking was some sort of reassurance that I was on the right path, that the decision to marry Shawn was the correct one. I did not want to step off a cliff, I wanted bedrock beneath my feet. I asked God how I could know I was making a correct decision when I did not trust myself to do so.

I received no answer. No burning bush. No angelic messenger Sunday night. Nothing.
Monday morning, mentally exhausted I went to my law school carrel to read up before my first class of the day. As I was sitting there, one of my law school friends came up to me. She said that she did not know why, but that she felt like she was supposed to tell me something. She said, just because you made mistakes in the past does not mean you are making those same mistakes now. At that moment I felt the spirit confirm these words and remind me that I already had received the witness of the Spirit with regards to Shawn every time I went out with him and felt calm, peace and joy. What more witness did I need?
I was finally ready for the cliff.

It is not as if I suddenly knew that everything work out, that Shawn was not some secret ax murderer. (He did not turn out to be an ax murderer, if you were wondering.) The reality is that we all operate on the certain knowledge that things will most certainly not all work out—at least as far as physical well being goes. Sometimes our best efforts end in spectacular crashes and we do not walk away unscathed.

It is still better to venture. Not recklessly, without thought or proper planning. But try nevertheless. Channel your inner fool, the part of you that puts her trust in God that if you do what is right and do your best, everything will work out in the end.

So here is to Shawn! Congratulations to you for all your hard work in achieving your academic goal. It was a perfect way to celebrate April Fool’s Day.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Last month my husband Shawn and I turned fifty. A half century lived and five short years until the AARP mails us our membership cards and we qualify for the senior dinner special at Golden Corral (not that I would ever use it). Our youngest child is rapidly approaching seventeen and I can see the light at the end of the first phase of parenting tunnel. I anticipate more travel and more time to spend on my writing.
To mark this occasion I decided to write a poem. But not only that—I wrote it in order to submit it to an online magazine—Quantum Fairy Tales—a speculative fiction ezine. They had issues a call for short form fiction and poetry and I had an idea—an image really—that I thought would work. The fact that I had submitted exactly one story before, a short Christmas story I had written for my kids about how a sheep dog leads the shepherds to the Christ child which Deseret Book politely rejected, did not deter me. And whether they accepted it or not, I am determined to push myself out of my comfort zone as a writer and take more chances.  Which is one of the things this poem is about.

And guess what? They published it!  Please click on Fifty-Fifty to read the poem. Thank you, Quantum Fairy Tales!
I am a firm believer in readers contributing to a story or poem. We each bring our own experiences into how we interpret a poem or story. I feel a creative work exists in the space between the author and the reader, who each must invest creative energy to bring it to life. That being said, I also enjoy reading what authors have to say about their creations and about the hows and whys and whats of the creative process of my favorite authors.  

In that spirit, I want to share with you what I had in mind when I wrote this poem.

As I said before, I had an idea to write a poem for Shawn and my fiftieth birthdays. I often write poems for significant events or as gifts for a friend. That is the initial impetus behind this poem—a gift for my husband, for myself.
Every year I plan a non-birthday adult costume party during the week leading up to Halloween (and our birthdays). This year the theme was superheroes. In addition, our family went to Disney World the week of Oct 16 and for the first time were going to go to the Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. I had chosen our family costumes—The Incredibles.

 This movie is my husband’s favorite Pixar film because it is about a dad trying to be super—not just as a superhero but more importantly as a husband and father. I also made a thirty-eight song mix CD set to give out as party favors. (If you would like the playlist, send me an email and I will send it to you.)
 You could say I had superheroes on the brain big time.
As I mused on that theme, an image came into focus: two superheroes—a man and a woman dressed in their super costumes standing on a precipice, a unruly mob coming up behind them and a choice to make—to jump and risk a fall or to turn and face certain death. The superheroes were Shawn and I. The title of the poem refers not only our ages, but also to this choice—this chance.  

The conflict with the mob was real. Only the mob was an angry teen daughter and her crazy and abusive boyfriend. The cliff was deciding to send her away—to take a chance, leaping head first into the unknown rather than facing the certainty of disaster if we did nothing. Maybe just maybe things would work out. Maybe we could all find the help we needed.  
When we went to pick my daughter up from wilderness, we gathered in a room with the other parents and teens who had finished the program. We sat in a circle and each teen was given a wooden pendant with a wing burned into the front.

We were all meant to fly.
Life inevitably brings challenges and hard choices and no guarantees that things will work out the way we hope. Take a chance anyway. Fifty-fifty may be as good as the odds may ever get. Take the chance anyway. We may try and fall flat on our face. Take a chance anyway.

The only real failure is doing nothing; it is not entering the race, not finishing last. Taking a chance bring something more precious than victory; it brings experience, compassion, understanding, resolve, patience, ingenuity, persistence. It is valuable beyond measure. It is the making of all great men and women.
This poem is about taking those chances. To striving. To making that leap into the unknown.

Join me. We will fly. Even if it is only on the way to the ground.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

My Grandma Esther

My Grandma Esther

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter Arianna was cleaning my parents’ family room and she found this photo:

My first thought was, ‘When did my Grandma meet Weird Al Yankovic? My second thought was, “Holy cow, what was I wearing? That is the most awful sweater, and the pants are not much better.

After I recovered from the shock of seeing my awkward teenaged self—and congratulated myself on being one of the rare people who look better at 49 than they did at 16—I looked at the photo again. This time I saw someone much more important than ugly sweaters and hair styles.

I saw my Grandma Esther. 

Oct 11th is my Grandma Esther’s birthday. She died Oct 21, 2002, having lived for 100 year and nine days. Growing up in Provo, Utah and with Grandma Esther only lived forty minutes away in Salt Lake City, I got to know her fairly well. She was an amazing woman, someone I have learned a lot from during my life.

Scrabble Champion

From my earliest memories of Grandma Esther, she was always reading and studying. Before marriage she had been a kindergarten teacher. Back in those days, once you got married you were forced to retire. She left teaching to raise her family. By the time her youngest (my mother) left for college, she decided she wanted to go back to teaching, only she was not qualified any more. She would need a bachelor’s degree.

No problem.

My grandma went to the University of Utah at the same time as my mother and graduated with straight A’s. She taught elementary school until she retired at age 65. This story, of my Grandma Esther going back to college and getting her English degree was told time and again. It sunk in deep to my being. It became one of the foundational expectations I had for myself—that I would go to college and graduate with a degree. I even got my degree in English. 

Grandma Esther was a continual learner. She was always reading. And she was also very competitive. Her games of choice: Scrabble and Boggle. Whenever she would come down to Provo, or we would go up to her little bungalow in Sugar House, she would break out Scrabble or Boggle. And let me tell you, there was no taking it easy on the grandkids. She beat us time and time again. I cannot remember ever beating her. Even when she was in her late eighties and early nineties. Thankfully, she was a gracious winner, never making us feel badly when she pulled out a triple word play at the end of the game and won going away. We would do better next time. I learned from her to do my best at all times, to strive for excellence.

Model T

Grandma Esther was fiercely independent. Before she married she saved up her money and bought a Model T Ford. She was one of the first people to own a Model T in Salt Lake City. She loved having a car as it gave her the freedom to travel. While her health was still good she traveled. She went to Israel and Egypt, and she returned many times to Switzerland, her parents’ birthplace.

She was very proud to be Swiss German and we heard all about her parents and their emigration to the United States. She lived at home until the day she died, accepting live-in help only for the last few years of her life. And she still read the newspaper every day. As she got older, one of the great sorrows was the loss of her driver’s license.

When I think of Grandma Esther, I think of someone who valued freedom. She was very patriotic and very active politically. Though she was of modest means, she was a lifelong Republican and was active in her party. She served as a delegate to the state convention on multiple occasions. She was not shy about sharing her political opinions, especially her scorn for politicians she felt fell short—and they were mostly Democratic politicians. Bill Clinton was high on her list. She even had Clinton toilet paper. I don't think she used it.

The Turquoise Rebellion

Grandma loved colors, especially the color turquoise. She had many turquoise rings and bracelets. I asked her once why she liked turquoise so much. She told me that there was a time in her marriage when her husband had insisted she only wear black clothes. It was a different time, and though it chaffed, she complied with his wishes. But after he died, she never wore black again.

Wearing turquoise became her way of saying that she could decide for herself what color she would wear. I cannot see the color turquoise without thinking of her and her insistence on being her own person. Sometimes as a wife and mother we can get lost in meeting everyone else’s needs. Grandma Esther reminds me that it is okay to have things that I like—just for myself. I think of her and her turquoise rebellion every time I get dressed up in my Aeryn Sun costume. 

Cinnamon Knots

Grandma Esther was not a great cook. She was not even a good cook. Okay, she was a terrible cook. And she only ever made one meal for us: chicken, rice and broccoli casserole, made from rotisserie chicken bought from the supermarket, white rice, frozen broccoli, a can of cream of mushroom soup and cheddar cheese. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas she would make a cranberry and walnut relish that involved a bit of chopping. And she would make banana cream pie, using instant banana pudding. Honestly, I do not think she knew how to make a custard from scratch.

Cooking was not her thing.

Which is great, because every holiday Grandma would go the local bakery and buy a huge bag of cinnamon knots. Think a long strip of chewy sweetbread, dipped in butter and rolled in cinnamon sugar, twisted into a knot and baked until the sugar caramelized on the outside.

There were never any left over. Because she did not like to cook, we also got to go out to eat whenever we would visit. We would alternate between visits to the Lion House Pantry restaurant or the Sugar House Chuck-A-Rama. I especially liked going to the Sugar House Chuck-A-Rama because of the enlarged photos of early LDS church leaders in their black and white prison uniforms smiling for the camera (apparently the restaurant is located at the site of the old Sugar House jail where these leaders were imprisoned for the practice of polygamy). I would stare at these people and wonder what brought them to the prison, why did they seem so unfazed by it all.

Grandma Esther was a woman of faith. Her parents had given up everything for their newfound faith and emigrated to Utah. She was a committed Christian and active in her church community and neighborhood—always giving service to others, not just members of her own church. Her best friend was a Catholic next door neighbor. For years, she drove her blue Ford sedan slowly around town delivering dinners for the Meals on Wheels program. She also working as an ordinance worker at the Salt Lake City Temple.

She did all these things—but she did not cook.

What I have learned from this is to know your own limitations, and to know what you love doing and what you really would rather not do. Grandma Esther was not a cuddly grandmother. She was not the person you would go to for a hug or a shoulder to cry on—that was not in her Swiss German constitution. But she is the person you would go to with a problem. She was the person who would help you figure it out. She was the person who would give you the confidence and space and love to figure it out for yourself.

Here is to you Grandma Esther!

Thank you for the cinnamon knots, and the Scrabble games. Thanks for teaching me by your example how it was okay for me to value education and independence as well as faith and family; that it was okay not to be the best homemaker as long as I did my best in whatever field I chose for myself. Thank you for your life of service to your family and church and community, though I do not have your stomach for politics.

Until we meet again!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why I Read, Why I Write

Why I read and Why I Write
Reading is like breath to me. A necessity. A doorway.  I began reading early. As soon as the letters turned into words and stories I dove into books. The truth is, I read nearly everything, from the daily newspaper to the back of the cereal box if there isn’t something better to read. I read because I have a curious soul; I want to know, to learn, to understand. 
Through the written word I can enter a magical place, a place where I can almost transform myself into someone else; where I could see with new eyes and hear with new ears—almost. I know that I cannot truly see through others eyes because my own particular shades will color the view, however slightly. I read anyway.
I read to understand myself. And in that wordy mirror I am find new ways and angles to view my own experience.  Sometimes that experience is twisted like a fun house mirror. Sometimes I am surprised to find my reflection in a story seemingly far removed from my own.  Sometimes the writer shocks me with the realization that it indeed my own face staring back at me.
Ellie Wiesel is one such writer; the book was Night.  That book rocked me to the core. I had thought I could read about his experiences in Auschwitz without danger of seeing myself in the story. I was wrong. His writing pulled me in to the camp. It was I who lay there wishing my father would just shut up already, hating myself at the same time because my need to survive outweighed, if only for a moment, my love for my father and my humanity. Gone was the smugness and unspoken judgment of those who had perpetrated these crimes against humanity. Now I was not sure I would not have turned in my neighbor, or that I would not have been Sieg Heil-ing with the rest of the German populace. I wept.
I expect the writers I read to honor a simple contract. To be true to the story they are telling. To not rely on tricks, emotional chain pulling or a twisty ending. I expect the writer to treat the reader with respect. I do not like writers who talk down to me. I want the writer to invest the characters with a spark of life, something that makes them more than a cardboard cut-out.
There are some kinds of stories I will not read. I will not read erotica—it is boring. I once went through the supermarket and cracked open random “romance” novels and read the sex scenes; they were remarkably similar. Sex is not what interests me in romance. What interest me is everything else in the romance formula: how two different people can overcome the things that separate them and find harmony together. I will not read gratuitous violence—stories that exist only to provoke fear and dread. The real world is scary enough.
~ ~ ~
Why do I write? I have been asking this question of myself this week. Or rather, I have asked these variations: Why do I think I can write? Why do I say it I am a writer when I have not been putting in the hours of hard work to sculpt the inchoate stories that I twist and turn in my brain while I lie in bed waiting for sleep?
I went to the SCBWI Carolinas Fall Conference last weekend. My last night I sat amid a group of working writers. One of them asked me if I was not lying to myself about my intentions because my reality was that I was not putting in the time every day to write. Her words gave me pause. Why was I self-sabotaging my stated goals? Fear? Fear that I am not a skilled enough writer to accomplish my dreams? Avoidance? Laziness? I am sure there is truth in all of these reasons.
A good analogy is my garden. I have an imaginary garden—it favors the English gardens of the multitude of Merchant-Ivory and BBC productions I have watched, with flowers everywhere waiting to be cut and tastefully arranged in white ceramic vases in the sitting room. The reason why this garden remains mostly imagined? To paraphrase Lizzy Bennett it is because I have not taken the trouble to actually pull the dang weeds. It takes effort, concerted effort over time. Just like writing.   
Consider this essay my shrive, my rededication to the craft.  
Which brings me back to the question: Why do I write? I write to be heard and understood. I write to express the stories welling up inside me, words that I hope will have the power to create an empathetic response in the reader.  I write with the knowledge that the more I write the better I will hone my craft. I write not to impose my view on the reader, but to share it with the reader, leaving enough space for the reader to find an independent interpretation.  
I write to entertain, but not as an end to itself. I want there to be meat on the bones, not a club to beat readers over the head with; no preaching allowed. I want to elicit genuine emotions—no tears jerked from eyes unearned. I want my reader to leave my story feeling they have gained something from the time and energy expended reading my story. I want my stories to find as wide a readership as possible, without compromising my own voice or perspective.
This is what I expect from myself as a reader and a writer. As I continue to devour books and struggle to create my own, I will keep these words in my mind, remembering that there are no shortcuts on this path I have chosen.




Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Wise Fool

The Wise Fool

 He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.
-Plato, The Apology

          The other day, my son Alex asked me if I knew what the word sophomore meant. I knew the common definition, but I didn’t say so, restraining the urge to launch into a scene from My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding about the Greek roots of many English words—especially neologism like sophomore (I could practically hear my father break the word down in my head.)  Instead, I asked my son what it meant. “Wise Fool,” was the answer. He thought the meaning was funny, a contradiction in terms, made funnier because he was no longer a ‘wise fool,’ having just starting his junior year.
          We talked about what the Greek roots meant. Sophos meant wise; moros meant fool. Moros also happens to be the name of a minor Greek deity—the God of impending doom. Which makes sense in a weird, Henny-Penny sort of way. But back to this paradox of a word. Can a fool really be wise? Doesn’t wisdom preclude foolishness as a matter of course?

My answer – it depends.
There is a certain kind of wisdom that is foolishness.  I call it the wisdom that relies on limited knowledge to draw a far-reaching conclusion. Much like Henny-Penny, we can often mistake something as inconsequential as the falling of an acorn for disasters of Armageddon-like proportions.

There have been times in my life when I felt like the sky was falling. One particular time stands out to me. I was a sophomore in high school and I had a flare up in my rheumatoid arthritis. Both my elbows became hot and swollen, so much so that I could not touch my face. I could not brush me hair or teeth. I could barely dress myself, much less continue to play basketball on my high school team. I cried and cried—my life was over.
I was wrong. It wasn’t over; but it was going to be different. And it took some time to adjust. I had to go on a course of cortisone which had the unfortunate side effect of giving me a moon-face and making my already hairy eyebrows that much hairier. Not the look I was going for. Soon I was able to move my arms again, but my mood was still in the dumps. I remember wallowing in the hallways of school, miserable and depressed because I was focused on all the things that I lost—competitive sports, a less hairy face, any chance of getting asked out on a date. A friend noticed my despair and gave me some really helpful advice. She asked me how wallowing was helping me. And she said that although I may not be able to play volleyball and basketball anymore, I should look for things I could do with the restriction I did have.

I listened to what she said. It made a real impression on me. For the first time since I woke up with my elbows locked at forty-five degrees I stopped feeling like it was the end of the world. And I joined the speech and debate team. It is easy to look at my tenth grade self and see a fool. But I also see someone who was wise enough to listen, to learn to let go of things I could not control, and to learn to find happiness and gratitude for the opportunities I did have. I have needed to relearn this lesson many times in my life. I am still working on it.

Of course, Socrates would say we are all fools.
Our knowledge is always limited. That is one of the conditions of this life. I have recently started reading the complete works of Plato. I have only made my way through the Apology and the Crito. I freely admit my near complete ignorance on philosophy both ancient and modern. And the more I read, the more I am convinced of my ignorance. Each book or web article I read adds a tiny amount to my knowledge bank, but more often than not makes me acutely aware of how much I do not know. And yet, I am eager to learn.

The other day I subbed for a math class and whatever ability I had to work a quadratic equation has left my brain for good. When I got home I asked my husband for a refresher course. He acted like I was asking for directions on how to put on a pair of pants, as if this was something so basic as to not require explanation. My son commented he could work a quadratic equation in grade school.
It is a good thing I am comfortable playing the fool.

Wisdom, in my opinion, is not found in knowledge alone. It is found in the recognition that we are not the measure of all things. It is found in humility before God—the source of all good things. It is found in knowing God.

The apostle Paul puts it this way:

If any among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, the Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. (1 Corinthians 3:18)

Wisdom in this light becomes attainable because it is an act of faith and is found in submitting our will to God’s will.
Some people believe that belief in God is foolishness; that one might as well believe in a flying spaghetti monster in the sky as belief in God. Or that even if one grants it likely that there is some sort of creative force it is impossible for us to know its will and foolish to suppose it would see us as anything other than evolved bacteria.

My reply would only be that it is foolishness to think that we can prove God exists or does not exist. I would add that there are other ways to know besides the scientific method. That much of what we think we know, if we are absolutely honest with ourselves, is based on what we believe. Even mathematics is based on certain unprovable axioms that must be accepted in order for the rest of it to work. Isn’t that amazing?

It is through faith in God that I have experienced the divine in ways that are sacred to me. And in ways I realize that I cannot fully transmit to someone else. I can only say that through my faith I have found peace and happiness by following as best as I can the commandments of God—to develop charity, to forgive, to learn patience, self-control, integrity, to be generous.

It is through my faith in God that I am learning to let go of the things that do not matter. None of us gets out of this life alive, after all. When those terrible days come—and they will—I hope I can say with Job, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

In the meantime, I am content to be as wise of a fool as I can be.


Sunday, July 27, 2014


Ennui – by Sylvia Plath

Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe,
designing futures where nothing will occur:
cross the gypsy’s palm and yawning she
will still predict no perils left to conquer.
Jeopardy is jejune now: naïve knight
finds ogres out-of-date and dragons unheard
of, while blasé princesses indict
tilts at terror as downright absurd.
The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump,
compelling hero’s dull career to crisis;
and when insouciant angels play God’s trump,
while bored arena crowds for once look eager,
hoping toward havoc, neither pleas nor prizes
shall coax from doom’s blank door lady or tiger.
~ ~ ~
Have you ever had one of those days when you just feel blah? You know, a certain boredom tinged with a bit of anxiety and guilty that you should be doing something other than surfing the net or playing spider solitaire—again. That you should be conquering world hunger, or at least making a menu and shopping list for the week so you don’t end up staring into the fridge at five o clock in the evening wondering what to make for dinner.
I confess to just such feelings.
In fact, I felt like that yesterday.
It’s not like I didn’t start the day off well. For three hours yesterday morning I joined over thirty parents and students from my son’s charter school in a painting work day. More than that, I helped organize it—I happen to be the PTSO president. I painted and hobnobbed with other parents, even recruited a parent to join an important committee.
You would think that after spending three hours in community building and public service I would feel better about myself. Nope. Instead, that sinking feeling that I was running in place, like I was on some giant hamster wheel accomplishing absolutely nothing hit me. Of course, the few rounds of spider solitaire that afternoon will bring that out sometimes.
I like being busy. In fact, I am happiest when I have lot of things to do.

Someone asked me once what my idea of heaven was. My answer—that it would be like going to university. Learning, working, growing. What it wouldn’t be would be boring. That is my idea of hell—nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to help, no place to grow. Endless summer vacation. In a very hot place.

Every summer since I can remember I have always looked forward to the autumn and the return of school.  Laying poolside, besides being terrible for your skin just never really appealed to me. And now, with Alex being mostly grown (that is hard to believe) and my substitute teaching job on summer hiatus, I find myself with too much time on my hands.
We have a scripture in my church that sometimes plays in my head in moments like this. It states:
Men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness. (D&C 58:27)
Sometimes, when I play this scripture over in my mind I often add an “always” in there; as in ‘Men should always be anxiously engaged in a good cause.’ I do not believe that is what this verse means, at all. But it sometimes creeps into my thoughts. And so, when I feel like I am spinning my wheels and not working at some ambitious goals I have set for myself, I feel this unease rise up inside. Ironically, these feelings, if I let them persist do not help me get back to what I would like to be doing.
What to do about it?

Denying these feelings would not help. A therapist once told Shawn and I when we would feel these feelings of failure rise up in us, to let ourselves feel it—give it say five minutes of complete wallowing, and then after the time was up to set those feelings aside, get up and go on with our day. I have found that to be good advice.
Another thing I did was call a close friend who I knew would give me some great advice. She did.  She reminded me of what I already knew, that although I had these feelings right now, that they would pass and to not get stuck in them. Making a connection with a person I greatly admire helped me feel like I was not so alone in my feelings.

Lastly, I got on with my day and the feeling passed. Things are looking up and Alex’s school starts in just over two weeks! And I am currently back to work on some of my projects, including this blog.

One final thought, when talking about my feelings of unease I am not talking about clinical depression. I do not suffer from depression and am certainly not making any suggestions in that regard. If any of you do have those kind of feelings, I hope you will go seek professional help.

With love, Helene