Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Writer's Resolutions

New Year's Eve. A time for reflection, looking forward, and resolutions.

Unfortunately, promises made under the influence of good friends and libations in the wee hours of New Year's morning are often broken by year's end.

So what's a well-intentioned writer to do?

Most experts agree that the more specific and realistic the resolution, the more likely a person is to keep it. Resolving to "write the Great American Novel in 2006", for example, is hardly realistic, and unlikely to be achieved. Resolving to write a solid first draft of a work-in-progress, however, is realistic and do-able.

Jazzed by caffeine and ideas fueled by what worked for me while pursuing my MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College, here are a few of my writing resolutions for 2006:

1. BIC (butt in chair) from 10-2 Monday through Thursday working on creative (except for my once monthly SCBWI chapter meeting days.) All web surfing, "Kat's Eye" and listserve business, reading of other writer's blogs for inspiration, and emails MUST be completed outside of BIC time. No exceptions. This applies to phone calls, too. None allowed, unless caller i.d. indicates the school or a physician.

2. Marketing Fridays. Each week, I plan to dedicate Friday to the business side of writing. What do I mean by the business side of writing? All those tasks that we know we should be doing in order for our work to be read by The Powers that Be, but rarely get around to because it's safer that way. Or we spend too much time doing research and "business stuff," instead of doing the hard work and sitting BIC. So, I'm setting aside a day for the market stuff.

Some of the activities Marketing Fridays will include: researching the children's market for theme lists and contests, selecting items of interest to pursue, and prioritizing my writing schedule around these deadlines. During this time, I'll also read professional children's writer publications (including the SCBWI Bulletin and The Horn Book), analyze children's magazines for trends and preferences, draft query letters, and yes, gulp, submit something--even if it's just a query--every Friday.

3. Take at least one writing class to further my craft. Earning an MFA from Vermont College was one of the best decisions of my life. Not only did it save me from losing myself in caregiving for E, it immersed me in the craft I love, and connected me with a vibrant community of writers and teachers and friends for life. To achieve this resolution, I will identify a writing class before the end of the month, and sign up as soon as I learn when doctors plan to perform E's surgery. Taking a writing class will build in writing deadlines, allow me to improve my craft, help keep my skills fresh.

4. Attend meetings with my face-to-face writing group to twice monthly. The one-on-one meetings are an excellent way to keep constructive critiquing skills alive. The accountability keeps me writing. And the deadlines gives me permission to keep writing a priority.

5. Attend local SCBWI chapter meetings monthly and regional meetings regularly. These meetings are crucial to my writing life. Without them, it's easy to forget that every writer--even those who are published--wrestles daily with his or her inner critic.

6. Read. I'm a firm believer that writers need to read. How else to train the inner editor to learn how to recognize the beat of language and the music of prose? At VC we were required to log the books we read in an on-going bibliography. Not only did the list record our progress, it taught us about the movers and shakers of the industry, and increased our sense of who publishes what type of books. These days, I log books read in a separate notebook, making notes about what I liked/disliked about the work.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Hangman, Adventures at Children's, and Waiting for my Muse

You know how I hoped our visit to Children's Memorial yesterday would be painless enough that I'd have time to make creative notes in my journal in between appointments?


Upon check-in for our 10:30 appointment, we learned that E's kidney ultrasound was scheduled for December 27th of '06, not '05. When the woman at the desk learned how far we'd driven to get there, she took pity on us, promising to squeeze us in.

Four coloring pages, three hands of Fish, one Winnie-the-Pooh memory game, five Connect Four games, and the beginnings of a headache later, they called for E. By the time the test was finished, we'd missed our next appointment by 45 minutes, and my headache was full blown.

We headed off in search of the C elevators, praying the echocardiogram people hadn't yet called for E. A handful of wrong turns later, we found the right reception area.

Turns out arriving on time wouldn't have mattered. The echocardiogram was scheduled for December '06, too. So much for trying to journal in between tests.

12:10. The waiting room was packed. I rubbed my forehead, trying to concentrate. Our window of time to complete the echo and eat lunch before our one o'clock with the liver specialist had evaporated.

"I could try to fit you in," the receptionist said.

E and S leaned against the reception desk like they needed a place to sit. My head was pounding.

I imagined leaving the hospital right after our 1:00. We could beat rush hour, cutting our commute in half. Time enough to fix dinner, help E with her shower, read the younger girls another chapter from The Chronicles of Narnia, do bedtime, and settle into some serious writing before I got too sleepy.

"You guys look overbooked," I said to the receptionist. "Maybe we should just try to come back another day."

"Oh, I'd hate for you to make the drive again," the receptionist chimed. She clicked a few keys, studied the computer screen. "Tell you what. You have a one o'clock in the liver clinic, right? You'll probably be done by 3:15. Come back then. We should have openings by then."

Probably? She's expecting us to take that long in clinic? Swell. So much for getting out of here before rush hour.

"Sure," I heard myself say, "We'll check in with you when we're through."

12:17. Just under 45 minutes left to find lunch and return to 5th floor for the liver clinic which was located down the hall.

Thankfully, there's a McDonald's in the basement. Not my usual choice for lunch for the girls, but by now they'd earned it. The only downside was that the eatery is such a popular destination for patients and their families that it was out of Narnia toys. The girls ordered Happy Meals anyway.

Refueled, we navigated our way back to the fifth floor with one minute to spare. I took notes in my journal determined to use it for some form of writing that afternoon.

Long story short, the liver doctor sees no reason why E can't have surgery. He ordered a test to review liver function, adding another stop at the hospital before we ended our day there. "Just as a precaution," he said, handing me the order. "I'm not expecting any surprises."

"No problem," I said. I inserted the order in my journal, resigned to spending the rest of the afternoon at the hospital.

We did the blood test. We played multiple games of hangman in my journal until they fit us in for the echocardigram. We arrived home well after dinner time. Colonel Sanders cooked for us.

Now all we need is a new surgical date.

Appetite for writing:
Hungry, but still too exhausted to string together anything longer than this blog entry. I shouldn't be surprised. Traditionally, P's done the majority of lengthy visits with E, and I've done the shorter ones. Yesterday was the first time in many months I felt prepared enough emotionally to do a longer one on my own.

Edited to add:
Now, I'm required to do something that requires equal doses of faith and patience, both of which are in small supply these days. I must wait for my muse. Until it recovers and resurfaces again, there's no use indulging my need to finish my revisions to my work-in-progress. My head might be in it, but not my heart. And experience has proven that work forced when my muse isn't cooperating requires major cutting the next day.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

On the road again

We've been spending a lot of time in the car the last few days, driving to this celebration and that. My sister hosted Christmas for my side of the family this year. What a spread she put out. Italian beef sandwiches. Steaming spaghetti sauce over angel hair pasta. Fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Fresh-cut veggies and dip. Italian pastries and not so Italian, but just-as-good-because-they're-tradition crescents, iced sugar cookies, kolachkies (sp?), chocolate chip cookie bars, and more.

All my sisters were there, even B and J and their kids from Arizona. Visiting with everyone is always a blast, especially hearing their versions of events from our growing-up days. Not only are their stories a constant reminder of the good times we had, they're proof of the differing points of view people bring to an event and take away from it.

Edited to add:
On the menu for today--
Though I'm hungry for writing, I'll probably have little time, energy, or opportunity to do so. We're off to Children's Memorial for the second of E's required specialist visits prior to surgery. We expect to spend most of the day there.

First up is prerequisite testing for the last specialist we saw. Then we get a face to face with the GI doc. My fingers are crossed we get in and out quickly. I'm planning to take along my journal in case I have free time to jot down ideas or impressions of our visit. Or anything else for that matter.

Edited to add:
Didn't have time to crack the binding.

Friday, December 23, 2005

You're a Real Writer When...

"So are you published yet?"

The question is bound to come up at least once over the holiday weekend. It's inevitable after someone learns what I do, especially when that someone doesn't appreciate the real reason writers write.

Real writers aren't in the business for fame and glory, and they're not in it for money. A fact most friends and family members don't understand.

I used to feel obligated to justify my career choice at parties and family gatherings. Not anymore. Not since Vermont College gave me the confidence to pursue my craft. No matter what.

The fact is, though a host of celebrities think otherwise, writing for children isn't easy. The best picture books are works of art, requiring an economy of language that takes months to achieve, and months more to refine to an editor's satisfaction. What's more, today's award-winning novels demand authentic characters and prose that sings.

When you think about it, the question "are you published yet?" begs a question. Why is publishing the only sign of a real writer? Baseball players aren't required to win the World Series before they're paid beaucoup bucks. Lawyers don't have to argue before the Supreme Court before they can hang out a shingle. Why should writers be held to a higher standard?

Our first party of the weekend is tonight. When the inevitable question comes, I'll be ready.

"Not yet," I'll say when asked if I've sold my book yet.

I'll sip my wine, savor it, wait. If experience holds, the small talk will shift to another subject. Inwardly, I'll be grinning, grateful for the patience and perseverance I learned while pursuing my MFA.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Merry Writing to All and to All a Goodnight

Woo-hoo! The last bus of the year arrived at our house just under an hour ago. Winter break has officially started. From now through January 3rd, we're free.

No need to keep E on task in the morning so she and her scooter are ready in time to meet the bus at the end of the drive. No need to enforce bedtime so E gets the sleep she needs in order to make it through the day. No need to time meds just right so E gets her last am dose before getting on the bus.

The break's not a total break. Therapy is still on. But, there is a plus side. Since Easter Seals is closed the Mondays following Christmas and New Year's, we only need to make the 30-minute trek across town once each week during the holidays instead of twice.

On the writing front, the next 13 days could be a bust or a creative treasure trove. I'm hoping for the later. Some of the tactics I've used in the past to leverage uninterrupted time while my kids are on break:

1. Treks to the library followed by reading and video fests.

2. Bribing of my oldest daughter to "keep watch" while I lock myself away in the office.

3. Hiring of a church youth as a mother's helper if my oldest daughter is unavailable.

4. Kid swapping with a friend. (I'll watch yours if you watch mine.)

5. Writing before anyone else wakes up. (I learned this technique from Jane Resh Thomas. I find it very useful, especially when I need to get unstuck.)

6. Writing after the girls go to bed. (Though I rarely use this tactic unless I'm on deadline because my most productive writing rarely occurs during this time of the day.)

7. Writing while the girls entertain friends elsewhere in the house. With Elena home sick so often, I've learned to write with the TV or stereo going in the other room. Doesn't always work because of the inevitable interruptions for drinks and snacks and ushering E up and down the stairs.

*Raises glass of sparkling grape juice.* Merry writing to all and to all a goodnight.

Edited to add:

Appetite for writing--Hearty.

Now all I need to find is an Alice to help me finish up Christmas, cook and clean, and entertain the girls so I can curl up with my laptop and indulge my appetite. Sigh. Highly unlikely in this universe, but it's fun to fantasize.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Early Christmas Present from Editor Cheryl Klein

While surfing the web this a.m. (rather than finishing up my holiday shopping or sitting butt in chair for serious revision work), I discovered an early Christmas present on a fellow writer's livejournal.

Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein has authored a sweet little e-book called Rules of Engagement, How to Get (and Keep!) a Reader Involved in Your Novel based on a talk she gave at the Rocky Mountain SCBWI Fall conference in October 2005. Whether you're a serious writer, or someone who's just getting started, you'll want to read this book. Klein's insider advice is engaging and knowledgeable. And free!

To download your free e-book, log onto You'll need to register first before you can add it to your cart, but no need to promise your first-born child to get it. The info they ask for is basic, and so worth the extra 60 seconds to complete.

Thanks to Vermont College student and Des Moines Register teen-lit reviewer Kellye Crocker for posting the link to this e-book gem on her livejournal recently.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Pastels, Portraits and Time Stops

Delivered a long overdue pastel and colored pencil portrait today to P. She'd bid on the artwork at a church auction a couple years ago in anticipation of the birth of her first grandchild. By the time she delivered pictures of her new grandson for me to work from, I was hip deep in Vermont College packets, and E's constant illnesses, unable to give the piece the attention it deserved.

Felt good to get back to my art. To hear the scratch of pencil on paper. To feel the weight of the pastels and pencils in my hand, and smell the pastel dust on my skin.

To lose myself so completely in a piece that time stood still.

The place where time stops is where I suspect all writers and artists strive to be. In that place, all cares and fears and worries disappear. All that matters is your art, your story, and living in the moment.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Dashing Through the the Dr.'s Office

The streets were already slick with snow at 6 a.m. when we left home for downtown Chicago. Radio Disney kept E company as I white-knuckled my way into the Loop.

The appointment was for 8:20. The trip normally takes 45 minutes. If we catch all the lights. We made it to the doctor's office with 20 minutes to spare.

E and I broke out our Winnie-the-Pooh mini playing cards while waiting our turn for Dr. L. Forty minutes and a half dozen wars later, he finally appeared. And was worth the wait.

Easy going, fifty-something, and slim, with curly brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Dr. L engaged E in a lengthy conversation about school, friends and family. And he seemed genuinely interested in all her answers. E warmed to him immediately, eager to share all the gossip about her sisters and her best friend and her pets.

After a time, Dr. L wondered why the anesthesiologists didn't go ahead with the surgery the day before Thanksgiving. Apparently, he'd been in the building the day the procedure was cancelled, and would have gladly given another OK had anyone bothered to call him. But no one did.

I suggested that maybe the bit about the E's liver had been the deal breaker. He shook his head, saying that shouldn't have stopped them from going in.

When I commented that maybe the anesthesiologist was skittish, he looked up, smiled, and said, "I see nothing here to keep E from having surgery."

Hmmm. One doc down. One to go. Then it's all on the anesthesiologist's plate. Oh, and there's the matter of a date. We still need one of those.

Appetite for writing: Um, yeah, I have one. And I have ideas to show from my drive downtown. Here are some of the notes I jotted down in the half light on the way to the doctor this am.

One--a note to remember how frantic our oldest soundest this am when she sprang from bed and leaned over the upstairs railing. Is everything all right. Why is everyone up? What's wrong? (Turns out we'd forgotten to tell her I was leaving with E early for our appointment. When she heard us rushing to get out she must have thought the worse...)

Two--a note to remember the joy in E's voice as she belted out the words to all her favorite songs on Radio Disney, a station we can't get in Lockport, but comes in just fine the closer we get to downtown Chicago.

Three--the beauty of a doe, shrouded in the early morning snow, grazing alongside railroad tracks near the expressway.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Packing list for doctor's visit

I plan to bring along the following tomorrow for our visit to Dr. L:

1. Backback--for my stuff and E's. E does pretty well on her own with cane in hand, but she's sure to need an extra hand navigating the sidewalks in and around Children's Memorial once tomorrow's snowstorm starts.

2. Files--multiple--containing all my notes, copies of tests, medical records, etc. about Elena's old aneurysm and her current one.

3. Playing cards--S's Winnie-the-Pooh deck if she'll let us--for all the waiting I'm expecting to do. (And I have to admit, having those particular cards with us tomorrow makes sense on so many different levels.)

4. Book to read (after E tires of playing War). Already packed: Goodbye, Charley by VC classmate and fellow graduate, Jane Buchanan.

5. Meds--E's--in case the heavy part of the storm hits during our drive back, and E ends up needing her afternoon dose before we get home.

6. Cooler--with snacks and drinks--so we're not caught empty-handed should we get stuck in traffic on the drive back from downtown Chicago.

7. Barbara Park's books on tape, Cheater Pants and One-Man Band, in case E tires of her Cheetah Girls' Cheetah-licious Christmas CD.

Switching Gears

Shortly after loading E onto the bus with her scooter this am, I received a call from the kidney specialist's office. We had a cancellation, the scheduling secretary says. Doctor L can meet with E tomorrow morning. Do you want the appointment?

My mind's racing at this point. Meeting with Dr. L tomorrow rather than January 4th gives us that much more time to do any of the tests he'll need in order to "clear" E for surgery. Not that we have a surgical date yet, but I'm still holding out for the sometime-in-January date the lead surgeon gave us. And meeting with Dr. L means there's one less hurdle on our end to scheduling something.

"I think that might work," I answer, then tense as I scan the family calendar for tomorrow's agenda. Shit. Tomorrow's the school field trip. The one to the glorious theater production of "A Christmas Carol" at the Paramount.

E missed nearly every field trip last year because of illness. But this year's she's been on a roll. She's been feeling great. Tomorrow was a go. She was looking forward to her first outing of the school year with friends.

Poor E.

My inner Eeyore moans at this sudden change of plans; but, knowing E, she'll probably see the trip downtown as an excuse to seek honey.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Checking In, and searching for honey with Pooh

No word yet on a new date for the surgery.

The lead surgeon's office has been playing telephone tag with the other surgeon since the Monday after Thanksgiving. (By the way, the lead surgeon has said she won't--absolutely won't--operate until the other surgeon is at her side. If that means waiting till March when he's free, we wait till March. The lead doc thinks we shouldn't have to wait that long.) The best I can get from her office for a target date is sometime in January. Until then we're to go about as usual.

Whatever that is.

My inner Eeyore wants to crawl back under the covers. My inner Pooh wants to use our free time to go out searching for honey. I'm heading out in search of honey. Our local SCBWI group meets this am.

I SOOOO need this meeting.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Because It was a Book First

In honor of the upcoming movie release of C.S. Lewis' classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I sat down with my youngest girls, E and S, last night to read them the book that inspired it all.

"Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids."

So begins C.S. Lewis' fantastical tale. Not the most memorable opening in a children's book. Yet, the silence that descended on the girls as I read chapter one was undeniable. Even the ticking of the Winnie-the-Pooh clock on S's nightstand seemed intrusive.

What hooked my girls so early on? I couldn't depend on them to articulate the reasons. An "I liked it, that's why" was the best I could expect, given their ages. And besides, the lights were out, and it was way past bedtime.

My guess is that they empathized with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy because they were living away from home when something "happened to them." I suspect my girls were drawn to the reassuring, story-telling point of view of the omniscient narrator. And I wonder if they heard the promise of intrigue and adventure woven so seamlessly into the opening pages of the story.

By the end of page one, for example, we learn Lucy was "a little afraid" of the old Professor, despite her siblings' willingness to accept him. By the top of page three, we read that from Lucy's point of view the Professor's house is filled with "long passages and rows of doors leading into empty rooms" that leave her feeling "a bit creepy."

And then there's the wonderful tension Lewis builds. There's no denying the skillful way he contrasts Lucy's unease with her sister's and brothers' welcoming attitudes. "This is going to be perfectly splendid," Peter says of their new home."I think he's an old dear," Susan says of their host.

Lewis' novel is a first read for me. Like my girls, I was hooked before the end of page one. (So much so that I plan to steal into the girl's room tonight after they've gone to sleep so I can secretly read ahead. And analyze more about what's working and why.)

Note to self:
Remember to read aloud more often, especially those authors I admire most.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

As the Muse Turns

My muse has been unpredictable lately as we ride this roller coaster with E.

Some days, it awakens as soon as I summon it, eager to make suggestions as I re-vision my work-in-progress. Some nights, it awakens me from sleep, eager for me to find a pen. Other times--more often than I'd like to admit, my muse refuses to surface, and I wonder whether or not I'll ever find the words I need to make sense of the world.

To understand my process (and come to terms with it), I've turned to a number of craft books. Some are rereads. Some are new reads. Most all were purchased during one Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children Residency or another based on recommendations by friends and faculty. They are:

bird by bird by Anne Lamott

Writing Past Dark by Bonnie Friedman

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

I'm particularly fond of an essay called "Write Anyplace," from Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg launches the piece with a long list of excuses and reasons why we don't write, why we can't write, why we won't write.

"Okay," Goldberg says in the opening paragraph. "Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can't find his shoes, your car won't start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams. There is the threat of the nuclear holocaust..." And so on and so on.

The litany of excuses rings true on so many different levels. Lately, instead of writing, I give in to the siren's call of laundry and dishes and clutter clean-up, answer the phone instead of letting the machine pick up, surf from one blog to another--just one more--instead of focusing on my work-in-progress, and I mull over E's health files and reports as if I will find a miracle solution the doctor has overlooked.

I reread Goldberg's list, nodding all the while. I've been there. Done that. I've made lists. If I put them end to end they'd fill an entire chapter of her book, if not the entire book.

Goldberg doesn't end the essay with her list. She throws the litany down on the page like a gauntlet, then utters the following challenge:

"In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definite act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write."

I closed the book, pushed away from the sofa, paced from the living room to the dining room and back again. Stared out the picture window. Watched the snow drifting to the ground, felt the chill pane beneath my hand, heard the click of our golden retriever nails on the hardwood floor. Buffy's warm body leaned against mine. Her cold nose nudged my hand.

"In the center of the chaos...Just write. Just write. Just write."

I combed my fingers through Buffy's ruff. All this time I've believed my muse the problem child. All this time, I've believed it uncooperative.

Goldberg's essay suggests my muse hasn't been the problem. Following her logic, my muse has been waiting and willing all along. All it's ever wanted is to write. To make sense of the chaos. To claim it by making "one positive step (...) one definite act."

All this time, I've been puttering at my keyboard, giving in to my guilt over not writing more, comparing my process to others. Granting my inner critic too much power.

I'm reminded of Jane Resh Thomas' advice for taming the inner critic.

* Write a list of all your fears and regrets.
* Burn the list and collect the ashes.
* Take note of how little space they take. Remember how little they weigh as they pour down from your hand.

The semester I had Jane for an advisor, she gave each of us a tiny enamel box crafted in the shape of a butterfly. The box fit into the palm of my hand. Store your fears in the box, she said, so you no longer need to carry them.

My fears never overflowed that box when I used it. Despite the lists I made, the butterfly was always big enough to hold the ashes.

Time to write my list. Time to write it and burn it and summon my muse.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Waiting Game, Part Deux

We finally connected with E's lead neurosurgeon last night. Bottom line: January is likely the soonest the surgery will take place.

January? *Sighs and lowers her head* Another month?

Another month.

The grateful mom side of me is thrilled we'll have an uninterrupted holiday season. The worried mom side wants the surgery over with yesterday so we can learn what the universe has in store for us this time. The protective mom part of me stares at the phone incredulous.

But, doc, I want to say for the umpteenth time, we've first-hand knowledge of an aneurysm rupture. We've lived the downsides.

There was that bright humid day in July 2001 when we raced after that helicopter, wondering if E would still be breathing when we arrived at the hospital. And the chaplain who met us at the door. Not to tell us that she'd died, as we feared, but to tell us she was very, very sick.

We prayed by E's bedside that day and for days to follow, not knowing if she'd awaken from her coma, not knowing whether she'd recognize us if she did. Weeks later, we held E's hand as she pulled herself up to sitting for the first time, too weak to stay up more than a second or two because her muscles had atrophied from two months in bed.

Four years E has traveled this road, re-learning how to sit and stand and walk and talk. Four years, doc. Four long years. Knowing the downsides, you'd think clipping an existing aneurysm would be considered an emergency.

It's not.

Seems so counter-intuitive, hearing the doctor say the clipping of E's aneurysm is considered an elective procedure. Yet, the fact is--and this is the rest of what the lead surgeon reminded P of yesterday--the risks inherent with this type of surgery are extremely high.

Preparations must be deliberate and planned. All possible complications--however remote--need to be investigated beforehand to increase E's chances of success.


Counting down from ten to one.


Reminding myself that our children are on loan to us from God. Praying that the last red flag was raised because docs needed to know about it. And have time to investigate it before something awful happens. Because E's journey here on earth is not yet over.

Here are just a few of the very real risks inherent in the clipping of a cerebral aneurysm:

* E could bleed out during the procedure, the aneurysm rupturing too quickly for docs to react.

* The procedure could result in stroke or seizure or both during the surgery, or in the days immediately following the operation.

* The kidneys could be compromised because of the stress on her system.

* The surgery itself might raise E's blood pressure dangerously high, resulting in another kind of bleed or rupture.

* The surgery could introduce enough tissue into her internalized brain shunt that it becomes plugged or infected within days or weeks after the surgery.

* The surgery is long--every bit of 6 hours--increasing the chance of complications.

* Add to these risks the fact that E is a primordial dwarf, one of a very very small group of individuals (less than 50 known individuals exist world-wide with her type of dwarfism) with health issues that are yet to be fully understood.

It's sobering seeing this list on paper. And a reminder to all my mom sides of how blessed we've been to have come this far. Given the risks, I praise the fact that E's physicians are willing to take them.

And respect their need to take all the time they need to be prepared.

Location, Location, Location

What a difference a change in location makes. Writing from Panera Bread this morning. The bottomless, steaming cup of green tea is a welcome respite given today's near-zero wind chill. And the steady stream of people buzzing in and out sounds and feels like a vibrant community.

Puts me in mind of Capitol Grounds, the great coffee bar located near the capitol dome in downtown Montpelier, Vermont. It's a common gathering place for Vermont College students looking for a decent cup of coffee, tea, latte or iced chai. And it's a good excuse for an outing during Residency--winter or summer.

I've a feeling my reminiscing about Vermont College today is stronger than usual for a number of reasons. First, I finally finished my first run through of Kathi Appelt's lecture on controlling belief and character. Very compelling ideas she sets forth on the need for all characters in children's books to hold one controlling belief. With it, an MC can drive a story. Without it, an MC becomes so passive, a story will drive her. Hmmm. I plan to listen again before making a more complete post on the subject.

Another reason for my VC musings: Cynthia Leitich Smith's online interview with writer and Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children faculty chair Kathi Appelt about the VC MFA in Writing for Children program. Makes me faklempt and proud and so honored to have had the opportunity to experience VC. Surf on over and take a look. It's good reading.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Primal Scream

Another month in the Twilight Zone? Another freaking month?!

E, bless her heart, is oblivious to all the wrangling we've been doing via the phone to set up a new surgical date to clip her aneurysm. One of the specialists--the GI doc--can see E the first week of December. The other one doesn't have an opening until January 4th.

Hello? This is the soonest they can see a child who has an aneurysm cooking inside her head? Doesn't take a brain surgeon to do the math. Elective surgery or not, a month is too freaking long to wait, hoping all the while the thing doesn't call everyone's bluff by bursting.

And what if the doc doesn't clear E right away? What if he orders more tests before he feels comfortable enough to bless the surgery?

No way. I refuse. I'm not waiting another month. I've put a call into E's old kidney specialist, Dr. C, the one who saw her after the first aneurysm rupture back in 2001, the one who ordered the blood pressure medicine in the first place. We haven't seen him for a couple years because a change in our health insurance forced us to find another team.

He's good. He's thorough. He and E share a history. Maybe, since he's seen the downside of an aneurysm rupture, he'll appreciate E's current health situation enough to fit her into his schedule ASAP.

Appetite for writing:
Hopeful (especially now that I've finished ranting)

Edited to add:
Leaving soon to catch up on errands. Planning to listen to Kathi Appelt's tape on character and controlling belief while in the car. Musings on her lecture and how it applies to my writing to follow in a later post.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Waiting Game and Embracing the Pooh

Waiting. Our family's doing a lot of it lately. Waiting for phone calls to be returned. Waiting to hear what the docs plan to do next. Waiting to learn whether or not the holidays are a bust.

I don't blame the physicians for the Waiting Game. Not entirely. They've been raised on hospital time. And as anyone who's dealt with hospitals knows, hospital time is not equal to real time.

Hospital time crawls, subject to shift changes, lab tests, emergency surgeries, and an endless stream of patients needing medical attention now. Real time races, caring little about the crosses we bear as we rush from one activity to the next.

Given the differences between the two time realities, it's no surprise the anesthesiologists thought nothing of questioning the test result the day before surgery. A delay in their eyes was necessary in order collect the data they needed.

Doesn't matter that getting appointments for the needed specialists might delay the surgery for weeks or months. What matters, they say, is learning more about this problem and its potential for adversely affecting the success of E's surgery.

Okay. Makes sense. Makes me want to give docs the benefit of the doubt. Makes me want to believe surgery was cancelled because the findings that "came out of left field" required labs and testing that truly couldn't be done prior to going into the OR. Not because someone was worried about catching a flight out for Thanksgiving later that day.

In the meantime, we move through our days, E embracing her inner Pooh, me, channeling every bit of my inner Owl, Eeyore, and Piglet.

For the record, no matter how loudly Pooh's friends complain, I won't let them silence my inner bear. Not completely. During moments of quiet, usually when the girls are at school, and I give myself permission to be still, he speaks. And I listen.

I don't always follow through on his advice, but he doesn't seem to mind. He keeps talking, and offering me honey, and reminding me to take joy.

Thanks to my inner Pooh, the holiday decorations are out, the tree is up, I'm making lists and checking them twice. And I'm writing.

Taking joy one paragraph at a time.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Writing Behind My Back

In the midst of our roller coaster ride with E, I find myself thinking a lot lately about Kathi Appelt's notion of controlling belief in character-driven fiction.

Seems an unlikely pairing, our family's roller coaster ride and fiction. Yet, the connections keep coming. Between my belief that we were back to normal, and the conflict that arose after learning I was wrong. Between E's journey and my own. Between my personal experience and the main characters in my stories. The relationships between them all is undeniable, proof that I've been writing, or, at the very least, thinking about writing, behind my back.

It this it? Is this the connection my Vermont College advisors hoped I would internalize before graduation?

Very intrigued by how this concept will strengthen the emotional throughline of my current work-in-progress. More later, after I listen to Kathi's entire July Residency lecture on the subject.

Appetite for writing: Hungry

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Tao of E

Sitting at the dining room table, listening to P as he shares excerpts from The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Unable to hear Hoff's ideas without connecting them to E.

In the opening chapters of his book, Hoff explains the notion of the Uncarved Block as central to Taoist beliefs. The Uncarved Block, he says, represents a thing in its natural state. And it is this state to which the true Taoist aspires.

A tree, for example, would be considered an uncarved block. It exists in nature and with it. It bends with the wind, rather than resists it. It does not aspire to be a brook or a rock or something other than what it was born to be. It simply is...a tree.

Winnie-the-Pooh approached life like a Taoist, says Hoff. The Taoist ideal, he writes, "is that of the still, calm, reflecting 'mirror-mind' of the Uncarved Block, and it's rather significant that Pooh, rather than the thinkers rabbit, owl, or Eeyore, is the true hero of Winnie-the-Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner."

Hmmm. I've been a Pooh in years past, but not lately. Not since we first learned of E's new aneurysm in August, and especially not since the surgery to clip the bugger was canceled last minute. I've been more like a fretting Eeyore, thinking man's Rabbit, or busy Tigger.

E, on the other hand, was born a Pooh and remains a Pooh. Even after her aneurysm rupture in July 2001 took away most of her friends, her ability to walk unassisted, and her independence on so many different levels. Even after physicians canceled Wednesday's surgery with less than 24-hours notice.

Rather than resist the latest news--that surgery had been canceled--E bent with it. Sleeping in until 11:30 the next morning was her only concession. She has always practiced what Hoff describes as the "simple, childlike and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block: Life is Fun."

I must read Hoff's book.

Edited to add:
I must think more about how Pooh's philosophy relates to writing, especially during times when life conspires.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Still processing...

I should feel relieved the anesthesiologists raised zero-hour questions before a potentially lethal problem arose in the OR.

I should give thanks our family can celebrate Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving day.

I should be grateful for so many reasons...the shimmering beauty of this morning's first snowfall of the season, the sound of my younger daughters giggling on the sofa in the next room, the fact that I can unpack our suitcases, removing them from my view until surgery's rescheduled.

Instead, I feel somewhat like Bilbo did when talking with Gandalf on the eve of his eleventy-first birthday party: "...I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


We were still in the driveway. The girls were buckled up, ready to drive to E's zero-hour test. I had yet to slide into the front seat when my cell phone rang.

Bottom line: Surgery's off. The why of it is too long and complicated and justified to get into.

Current mood:
Picture the hour glass icon on your computer screen, the one that appears whenever the computer's thinking. Or freezing up. That's me.

Possible Hitch

Received a voice mail from the surgeon's nurse while shopping for supplies to keep on hand during our stay at the Ronald McDonald House.

Here's the gist of the message:
Hello, Kim. Sorry to call you again. I was going through your daughter's file today, organizing all the clearances, and need to know what you know about the results of the CT scan ordered by the pulmonologist this fall. The anesthesiologist needs to know about the test, why it was run, and what you've learned. I hope it's not a red flag. Please call me back.

I flipped shut my phone, and shoved a bag of buns into the cart. Okay, right. She's talking about the test that was run but wasn't technically ordered. The one that was supposed to be a chest CT only, but somehow ended up including the abdomen, too.

And found something.

Only a little something, according to the ordering physician. But here's the thing. The doc downplayed it. Said we could look into it after surgery. He wrote the surgical clearance. Shouldn't that be enough? Please let it be enough.

Since keeping a viable cell phone signal in our Jewel is nearly impossible, I returned the call on the drive home. And couldn't help but speak out loud my hope that surgery wouldn't be cancelled because of a question the anesthesiologist could have asked early last week, when the clearance was first faxed.

I used to love roller coasters.

edited to add:
On the way to the hospital with E to do a liver function test. Words to describe how I feel about this zero-hour test or the reported need for yet another clearance from the powers that be before the procedure's a go would be inappropriate to print here.

11 Reasons to be Thankful...and Counting

Here are 11 blessings in my life:

1. Fresh memories of a grand Thanksgiving, celebrated Saturday with family.

2. My Dad's release from inpatient rehab yesterday after knee replacement.

3. My mom and her hubby's safe arrival in Illinois, after a three-day relocation road trip from Arizona with a dog and cat in the back seat of their Blazer.

4. My Vermont College graduating class, the MVPs.

5. My critique group.

6. My church family.

7. Milk chocolate.

8. Chai tea.

9. Dark chocolate.

10. My best-friends-through-anything friends.

11. My hubby and best friend, P, without whom this journey would be unbearable.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Deep cleaning my attic place

A thought occurred to me late last night while deep cleaning my writing space for the first time since E's aneurysm. Maybe the reason I preferred working at the dining room table all this time wasn't so much about my oldest daughter's need for the Internet and quiet space in order to do homework. Maybe the reason I liked working downstairs reached deeper.

My dining room is located in the center of things. It's social and active, and filled with light, even during the darkest winter days. My office space, on the other hand, is the smallest of three upstairs bedrooms, with sloped ceilings and wooden floors, and two narrow windows that let in the afternoon light, but little more.

Before I moved my office downstairs to make way for my youngest daughter, I ran my consulting and PR business from the space. I wrote my columns, and planned my marketing campaigns, and designed newsletters, brochures, and annual reports.

The room was quiet, out of the way, a great place to focus, in many ways a perfect retreat...

Before E's aneurysm.

Since then it's felt less like a retreat and more like a storage room with a corner for a desk. Two walls and both closets were lined with boxes, papers, and books. Some of the clutter was set there the day we relocated my office upstairs so that E--unable to climb stairs on her own after the aneurysm--could move to the first floor.

The rest accumulated over the next four years. A hodge-podge of middle-school papers, clothes needing mending, old bills, and projects I planned to pursue once my life returned to normal.

Much of the materials were necessary: craft books on plotting, description, dialogue and story; Vermont College Residency notes; works in progress; advisor letters; critiques; revisions; creative thesis; critical thesis; children's books. Much of the rest was taking up space.

All had been waiting to be culled, organized, filed, catalogued, and shelved. When time permited, I kept telling myself. When time permited.

I didn't intend to leave the office disorganized for so long. But somewhere along the way the daily to-dos associated with E's recovery and recurrent illnesses took precedence. And then, after awhile--especially after starting the VC writing program--working around the boxes became commonplace.

I can't yet fully articulate what compelled me to confront my attic space yesterday. All I know is that the time had come. Here's an excerpt from one of the old notes I unearthed last night. It's a timeline of sorts, starting with the aneurysm rupture in July 2001:

July 1-aneurysm ruptures

July 2-aneurysm clipped

July 15-permanent brain shunt placed, not sleeping well at all

July 31-E released to Marianjoy Rehabilation Center for inpatient therapy

Aug. 7-back to University of Chicago, shunt infection, went septic, shunt removed, antibiotics started

Aug. 21--infection finally clears, shunt replaced

Sept. 7-released once again to Marianjoy inpatient care

Sept. 26-finally home, commute 5 day/week to rehab at Marionjoy

Oct 31--released from full-time out-patient care; return to school part-time, begin 3 day/week therapy after school at local Easter Seals

Edited to add:
I don't remember when I wrote the above timeline or why. What I do find curious is that unlike other times I've stumbled upon notes from the dark months after E's sudden illness, I can read the list and acknowledge it with a distance and clarity. The experience is a gift, one I'd given up on experiencing.

Appetite for writing:
Contented, focused. More focused than I've felt in a long, long time.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Fevers, rollercoasters, and Thanksgiving

E came home from school yesterday coughing and irritable. After shrugging off her coat, and burrowing beneath a blanket on the sofa, she wanted nothing more than a cup of tea. Sure enough, she'd spiked a fever. But only a slight one.

Figures, I thought. We're so close. Only days out from her aneurysm surgery. And now this.

While nursing my own steaming mug of tea, I considered the situation. Maybe E's day had been particularly trying. Her energy reserves are pretty low, and she tires easily. Or maybe the bus ride had worn her out. The ride home had taken extra long. And she'd come home wearing her hoodie and winter coat.

Then again, maybe she was truly coming down with something. Maybe surgery would be canceled. I lowered my tea, deciding it'd steeped too long.

The phone rang. Caller id came up unavailable. I picked up anyway. It was the surgeon's office calling with the results of the morning's lab tests.

"Good news," the nurse said. "The new labs look good. I'll page Dr. and let her know."

The labs looked good? Based on questionable labs obtained a week ago, we'd retaken them that morning, hoping for better numbers. So this was good news, right? Yet, on the sofa, E was sipping her tea and coughing.

"That's good to hear," I said to the nurse, "but you should know that E came home a bit wilty today."

"Oh, no. I hope we can do this now," she said. "We're entering cold and flu season."

"I know," I say, remembering E's non-stop illnesses last Winter. "I want this over with. We've waited too long already."

"Call us Monday."

"Will do."

E woke up fine this morning. No fever. No longer wilted. Thanksgiving's a go. Will be SO glad when I can exit this rollercoaster ride.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Family, Stories, and Early Thanksgiving

Since E will be recovering from surgery on Thanksgiving, we're planning to celebrate early. Festivities begin early Saturday afternoon, probably one ish, with dinner scheduled for later in the day.

Our menu so far:

1. Turkey.

Wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it. The 20-pounder's been defrosting in the fridge since Sunday. My fingers are crossed it's ready in time. Haven't decided yet whether to grill it or fry it. Both ways taste great.

Though grilling's definitely healthier, frying's fun and fast. Despite its size, the bird will fry up in less than an hour--so much faster than the time it'd take the traditional way--and then there's the benefit of setting up the big metal pot out in the yard. It's fun to huddle around the bird as its sizzling. It smells great, feels like camping, and gives everyone a chance to poke at the carcass while it cooks.

2. P and J's famous baked-cream-cheese potatoes with extra onions and garlic.

Haven't called them yet to see if they have time to make these...No problem, I'll just add it to my to-do list.

3. Mom's old-fashioned stuffing bake.

This dish is soooo good. In addition to breading drenched with turkey broth, it's chock full of sausage, nuts, and raisins. Yum.

Reminds me of my growing up days celebrating Thanksgiving at my Aunts' house. They lived in a two-flat located off Kimball Avenue just west of downtown Chicago. Their flat faced an old factory, a huge, hulking, behemoth of a building made of brownstone and dark windows. It was a predominantly Polish neighborhood back then. Folks sat on the steps out front, chatting or watching the cars go by. Each holiday promised a plate of blessed and unblessed kielbasa, and stuffing like Mom's.

Before dinner, with the promise of turkey and mashed potatoes grumbling in our stomachs, my sisters and I explored the nooks and crannies of the old place, marveling at the artifacts added to my aunts' collection from their latest trips abroad. There were dolls from Poland, glittering trinkets from the Istanbul market, leather sandals from Greece. And then there was Aunt Lee's closet. Pushing aside clothes and boxes and bags, we'd burrow from one end to the other. Magically, it seemed, it led from her room to her sister's.

Saturday, my sister C will make the stuffing. Mom would if she could, but won't be in a position to do so. She and hubby B will be traveling that day. After 15 years or so in Arizona, they're moving back to Illinois. Come Saturday they'll be somewhere on this side of the Colorado mountains. Mom expects to be back in time to sit with P and I at the hospital Wednesday. I bless the universe when things like this happen. The timing couldn't be better.

4. Cheesy broccoli rice casserole.

This dish is another family favorite. Probably came off the back of a Cheez Whiz box back in the 70s. No matter. There's just something about its cheezy gooey veggie taste. Haven't asked anyone to make this yet. Another thing to add to the list.

5. Oriental cole slaw.

My specialty. Also a must at every family get together. Imagine a huge bowl of fresh cole slaw. Add six chopped green onions, a cup of slivered almonds and sesame seeds browned and candied in a skillet. Toss the green onions and cole slaw mix with a zesty dressing--a mix of oil, lemon juice and oriental seasoning. Add a bag of ramen noodles for crunch. Top with the nut mixture. And voila!

6. Desert

Pumpkin pie ala Sara Lee, pumpkin roll ala SJ. (if she agrees to trade me one for a Frango mint fudge cake), and a Frango mint cake of our own. The cake's another specialty of mine. Imagine three layers of chocolate heaven. The bottom layer is a cake so rich and moist it alone takes one can of Hershey's chocolate syrup. The middle section is a thick layer of green mint butter cream frosting. The top layer is made from one cup of bitter sweet chocolate chips melted with so much butter that the sauce smooths into a thin layer over the green frosting, hardening into a candy shell over the entire cake. Totally decadent. Elena's favorite.

7. Family

The gathering will include aunts, uncles, cousins (four of them, plus my three girls), my dad (if he behaves well enough at rehab for his therapists to let him out to play), our golden retriever Buffy, our cat Mr. Ginger, lots of laughing, and stories. Always stories.

Makes me warm thinking about this weekend. Helps me remember where my stories come from.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Packing List

With the Big Day just over a week away, I've started a working list of things to pack. Here's some of what I plan to bring to the hospital (in no particular order):

1. Playing cards--because E loves to play War.

2. E's Hello Kitty CD/tape player--so she can listen to her favorite music intead of all the alarms and buzzers, and P and J can listen to Kitty Cash. Kitty Cash is a bit of an inside joke for my hubby and his younger brother. They spent many long nights together while sitting vigil in the pediatric ICU during E's first hospitalization. As I understand it, one night while listening to Johnny Cash on the Hello Kitty CD player, one of them decided Johnny needed a new name...

3. CDs for E--current faves include Aaron McCartney, Cheetah Girls, Grease, Hillary Duff, and Aly and AJ.

4. Instant anti-bacterial soap--for all the high touch surfaces--like the bed rails, doorknobs, phone, and TV/nurse call/remote that never got cleaned during the three months we were in the hospital back in 2001. No joke. We were with E 24/7 back then and the only time we saw staff truly deep cleaning anything was one day during our three months. One day. I asked what was up, and was told the accreditation people were coming in unannounced sometime that week. No wonder so many patients end up contracting superbugs while they're "recovering."

5. E's glow stick--This is a nifty little thing, a slender pink wand the length of a finger, attached to a silky black cord. Our pastor gave it to E after church this past weekend. It's a mini glow stick. She can wear it the day of surgery if she wants. And if anyone asks what it is she can tell them it represents love and light and healing. She has it packed already.

6. Tiger quilt--Given to E during her first hospital stay by her Aunt P and Uncle J. The quilt boasts a bold tiger print on one side, and bright pink, yellow, orange, green and blue design on the other. It's a perfect way to brighten up a hospital room.

7. My journal--I take it everywhere these days. Unloading in it is often a necessity before I can make progress on Keeper's Song.

edited to add:

8. Pop-tops. We must have thousands of them by now, collected from family and friends for Ronald McDonald House. When we stayed at the Ronald McDonald House near the University of Chicago Children's Hospital in 2001, volunteers told us recycling the pop tops raises enough money to cover most of the house's utility expenses. Not bad for one shiny bit of aluminum, huh? This time we'll be staying at the House near Children's Memorial. It's a short walk from the hospital, a beautiful stone home on a tree-lined street in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Should be a welcome respite from all the bells and alarms. Website if you're interested in taking a look at what will soon be our home away from home:

Monday, November 14, 2005

Sharpening My Ax

Back before children, I lectured regularly about self-promotion and marketing for small businesses. One story I told often featured a man so driven to cut down enough trees for his woodstove for the winter that he forgot to sharpen his ax, and in the end collected far less than he needed to keep his family warm.

The moral of the story: to increase your chances of success in life or business, take time out for yourself. Sharpen your ax or risk failure. Time out might mean taking a class or two to grow your skills or keep them updated. Time out might mean reading regularly in your field of expertise. Time out might mean taking time away to help bring perspective to a situation.

Last Saturday, I sharpened my ax by attending the Illinois SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) First Annual Prairie Writer’s Day at Dominican University in River Forest. The event featured talks on a variety of topics, a panel of acquiring editors, and one acquiring agent. Two of the sessions focused on trends in children’s publishing, and what’s new in kid lit. Another featured author-editor teams, and discussions about their working relationships. My favorite part of the day was the segment in which editors responded to anonymous first pages of manuscripts after they were read to the audience.

I imagine the editors felt a bit uncomfortable with the silence that followed some of the readings, but I’m so grateful they played along. Hearing their off-the-cuff reactions to what hooked them, what irked them, and why, gave me invaluable insights into my own work.

One of the first pages was my own. In the end, after they discussed the questions my opening had raised, they all wanted to read more.

I arrived home feeling energized about the day. A big reason why: attending the conference gave me permission to wear my writer’s hat the entire day without guilt.

Appetite for writing today: Ravenous.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

S and E and Blue, Oh My!

When my youngest daughter S was three or four, I discovered a stuffed, floppy eared dog buried deep in the bargain bin of the Wal-Mart across town. The little dog was sky blue, small enough to fit comfortably into a child's hand, and stuffed with tiny beans that shushed when you hugged it close.

I had no idea what S would think of it. At the time, she was mourning the loss of her pink Beanie Baby octopus, Inky, and despite a parade of possible replacements, no other candidate had passed muster. Yet, while considering the little dog, I couldn't help but believe it might be the one.

You see, S had a favorite cartoon character at the time. Blue, a quirky, lovable little dog from Nickelodeon's children's show, Blue's Clues. The more I considered the cuddly Wal-Mart version, the more it reminded me of Blue. I dropped it in the shopping cart, gathered up the last items on my list, and hoped.

S adopted the dog immediately, christened it Blue, and took it everywhere. Would have taken it to school if I allowed it.

Six years later, Blue is tattered and faded, and every six months or so, we darken her black eyes with a permanent marker. Despite her appearance, she holds a place of honor on S's bed, and participates in a morning ritual that I wish I could bottle up and uncork whenever I needed it.

"Blue-wee," S calls out to her sister E as they lounge in bed before school.

"Arf-arf-arf," E says in a high-pitched voice.

"Blue-wee," S calls out as she climbs down from her loft bed to rummage through drawers for a shirt and jeans.

"Arf-arf," E says.

Often, the game continues outside the bedroom. S might be brushing her teeth, E pulling on her shoes.

"Blue-wee," S says, her mouth full of toothpaste.

"Ar-arf!" E says inbetween giggles.

Back and forth they echo, like dolphins sounding out each other's position. Sisters. Best friends. S and E. E and S. Though they are nearly five years apart, they share a bond many would envy.

I cannot imagine one without the other. I pray I don't have to.

Appetite for writing: Yep, surprisingly, I have one. Keeping my journal close. Snippets of memories spill forth. One I must explore: S's need to be near E the first time she returned from the hospital (after being gone for three months). S dragged her sleeping bag into E's room and slept there for weeks, returning to her own room only long enough to get new clothes or pjs. Her need to be near E was so intense, we finally moved her into E's room for good. They've been together ever since.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

First Case

Took a call from the surgeon’s nurse yesterday. We’d been playing telephone tag since late last week. Turns out, E’s the first case in the OR the day before Thanksgiving.

“First case?” I heard myself say. “What time is that?”

“7:30 a.m., but we’ll need E here earlier to get her prepped.”

My cell phone's a tiny little thing, but it suddenly weighed heavily in my hand. I grabbed for a scrap of paper, steadied the phone as I scribbled down notes. “When should we be there?”

“Six should give us enough time to draw our final labs.”

More labs? They’ve already asked us to do a blood draw locally within the next week. “What are those for?”

“The lab needs to do a type and cross within three days of surgery. You live pretty far away. I thought it might be easier all around to come in a little earlier, and save yourself a trip.”

We’d been planning to leave at o’dark thirty that day anyway to beat the going-into-Chicago morning traffic. “What’s the test for?”

“The OR needs four units of blood on hand in case they’re needed during surgery. The type and cross will tell them what kind they need to put aside.”

“Blood?” My voice went so soft, I’m not sure whether I thought it or said it.

“It’s routine for this type of surgery. In case there’s bleeding.”

I don’t check my heart rate, but I bet it’s beating faster. Blood? The thought of saying the word again leaves me feeling faint. “We can do that,” I hear myself answer in a steady, business-like voice. “We were going to have to leave pretty early anyway to get there on time. Anything else you need from us?”

The nurse continued, assuring me I didn't need to write anything down because a checklist will be mailed our way. I took notes anyway. Anything to slow my racing brain.

The night before surgery E will need to fast, and she’ll need to take a shower with antibacterial soap.

“Let her soak in it,” the nurse said. “It takes five minutes to have any lasting effect. Really work up a lather in her hair. We want to minimize the chance of infection.”

Lather up her head. Made sense. The surgeon will make the incision at the peak of her forehead in the same place it was made before. Near the place where the first anuerysm burst. Near the place where it was clipped and another now grows.

The first time E had surgery a shunt infection set in, though no one knew it for weeks. She didn’t present with the typical signs. No fever. No headaches. Nothing. Until one night, less than a week into rehab she presented with a fever. Her temp went from normal to 105 in less than an hour.

E was rushed from rehab to the local hospital. From there she was flown by helicopter back to University of Chicago. The infection had been brewing for so long her blood had gone septic. We're told pus poured out when docs opened E up to remove the offending piece of equipment.

Docs began antibiotic therapy. The bacteria refused to die. They’d become like the Borg, assimilating her good guy white cells then encapsulating themselves inside their shells. They resisted antibiotic therapy until the doctors brought out the big gun antibiotics. Took weeks before we felt confident E would survive their assault.

Antibacterial soap? I’m in. I’ll fill the tub with it. Anything to lower our chances of journeying that level of Hell again.

Appetite for writing: Are you kidding?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Trapped in the inbetween place

I hate being trapped in this inbetween place. Perhaps because I’ve spent far too much time here. Waiting for E to awaken from her coma after her aneurysm bleed. Not knowing if she’d recognize us when she did. Waiting for results of each follow-up MRI to learn whether or not a new aneurysm had sprung up. Waiting to hear whether this blood test or that would come back normal. Worrying that each headache will herald another frantic trip to the ER.

Now, we're waiting again. For The Big Surgery the day before Thanksgiving.

I hate it. I hate the waiting. I hate the worrying. I hate not knowing what road we will be asked to travel.

Show me the road, and, though it will likely be rocky and uncharted, I’ll take lead. Just don't leave me alone in this place. The door no longer opens from the inside. Each day the walls close in. The inbetween place throbs like a splinter lodged too long beneath the skin.

How selfish I must sound. I’m not the first person who's been forced to endure this place, and cope with not knowing what the next day will bring.

Hundreds of men and women fight overseas in a war that’s gone on far too long. Yet, somehow, their loved ones summon the strength to move through their days, despite the worry that the next knock on the door will be news they’ve feared. Thousands sit vigil at a loved one's bedside, not knowing whether or not they'll survive another day. Then there are those living with cancer. How does my sister live with the knowledge that any day her cancer might return?

I should be celebrating each and every minute of this Time Before Surgery. But seizing the moment 24/7 looks easier on paper.

There are still bills to pay, appointments to schedule, and deadlines to make. And then there are weeks like this one. E’s been sick since Sunday, needing round the clock meds to keep her fever controlled.

Maybe her dependence on others the last few days has reminded me of how far she’s come, and how hard she’ll have to work after surgery to reclaim herself. Fear of the road comes easily knowing she may never reclaim who she is, knowing we might again be called to mourn the loss of the daughter we once knew.

My inner critic has escaped its cage. It cackles from its perch on my shoulder. "Why write anything creative?" it whispers in my ear, "when it'll be weeks if not months before you can finish it? "

E has never lingered in the inbetween place. I honestly don’t think she knows it exists. By the grace of God, she walked away from her illness in 2001 with an amazing sense of humor and the ability to live fully in the moment.

I suppose all children are born with this blessing. The ability to immerse oneself totally in the now. Maybe this is one of the reasons so many of us want to write for children. Perhaps our stories are one small way for us to reclaim our childhood--to make right what went wrong in our world, and to celebrate what's good and true.

Monday, October 31, 2005

November thanks and giving

Glanced over the November dates on the family calendar yesterday, unprepared for the fist of anxiety that lodged itself in my chest. Shouldn't have been surprised.

Nestled amidst the coming month's activities, seemingly so casual alongside the reminders about L's school production of Midsummer Night's Dream, S's girl scout meetings, and the Illinois SCBWI writer's conference, is E's surgery date.

Bleh. Three weeks and few days from now, everything will change. Hopefully for the better. Please, God, for the better. The mom part of me wants to believe the surgeon's assurances. Going in ahead of time to clip an aneurysm, he says, is so very different from treating it after it ruptures. My writer's brain wrestles with the what-ifs, revisiting all the dark roads we've traveled with E since 2001, and then some.

And then there's the whole calendar thing. Like I often do at the end of the month, I planned to write the 31st on the November page and flip it over this am so during the rush of all the trick or treaters tonight, I wouldn't have to remember to change it. Decided against it. As if not doing so will change the date for E's surgery, or hold back God's plans for the outcome.

Appetite for writing today: Mixed. Have no taste for my novel. It's too big a project for my brain to grok right now. Though ideas for shorter pieces keep coming, especially for non-fiction. In the rare case that I leave home without my trusty notebook, I jot down ideas on whatever scrap of paper I can find. Later, I tape them into my book, making notes about where I was when the ideas occurred to me, and thinking more about what my muse might be trying to say.

Listening to my muse in this way feels very much like writing behind my back. I've yet to make sense of it all, but don't expect to do so. Not in the near future, anyway. I'm too close to this situation, too deep within the heart of the forest to see anything but the trees.

Current read: My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Amazing. Poignant. Multiple points of view. I hope someday to tell E's story with such power and grace.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Channeling, two pages a day, and then some

So many ideas have come forth since making Monday's commitment to tackle two pages a day--just two pages no matter what--I had to tell someone.

It all started after I sat butt in chair Tuesday and dusted off my most recent version of Keeper's Song. Hours later, I discovered I'd written through lunch. Decided I had better set the alarm, or risk forgetting to pick up the girls early enough from school to make E's therapy on time.

To say my butt-in-chair time went well is an understatement. Ended up tweaking and rewriting and finding myself SO excited all over again about the story and the characters and the world I've created. Spent Tuesday reassessing the shape of the novel. Next on deck: rereading all my advisors' notes from my various novel drafts, then deciding whose arcs to follow, and whose to set aside for the sake of the story.

To be honest, communing with my story after being away from it for so long was enough to end my day contented. Little did I know my muse was just ramping up. While fixing my belated lunch, a 12-year-old boy started rambling on in my head about all sorts of things, but mostly conversing about the downsides of getting what he wished for. Since he wouldn't shut up, I exited my novel, found my notebook, and started scribbling down notes.

Snippets of scenes came to me all day yesterday. About his adventure, the day it began, and the people involved. Ended up taking my notebook everywhere. Even pulled over to the side of the road one time because he was so insistent I not forget anything. Talk about channeling.

Page count since Monday: 16-plus hand-written pages!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Do your work

In the hours since my last post, I've come to a decision. Incoming storm or not, I'm done ranting. What is it that Jane Resh Thomas is fond of telling her Vermont College students?

Do your work.

Lowers head. Allows a small smile. Okay, Jane, I hear you.

What else did you say at our first mentor meeting? Set a writing goal for yourself. Two pages a day. Just two pages, and you're done. I'm beginning to understand the wisdom of this practice.

No matter how life conspires, two pages a day is achievable. Most anyone can handle two pages. What's more, the pages don't have to be publisher ready. They can be pure crap.

What matters is that I put butt in chair. What matters is that two pages a day will add up a lot quicker if I channel my energies into actual work, instead of worrying about how little I'm doing, or how fundamentally our lives might change a month from now. Breathes deep cleansing breath, then smiles as she calculates the numbers. A week from now I'll have 14 pages of creative. Two weeks from now 28. By the Monday before E's surgery, in excess of 50.

It's a plan. Butt in chair. Two pages a day.

Thanks, Jane.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

One big happy?

Went to L's Fall choir concert Thursday. All of us.

Probably doesn't sound like a big deal to most people reading this post, the idea of spending family time together attending ball games and parties as one big happy. Most people probably just get up and go, barely giving the all part a second thought.

The all part is big for our family. The all part rarely happened last year or the year before that or the year before that.

More often than not when we headed to this function or that, we did so as a subset. Because more often than not, E was sick. Take last school year, for example. By the end of October, E had missed at least a month of school. She wasn't mental-health-day sick. I'm talking actively sick with a bad cough and fever for a week or 10 days at a shot before it started all over again. The cycle never seemed to end. By the end of the school year, we lost count of her sick days.

Contrast last year to this. So far E's missed only two days. Is this run of luck a sign of things to come? Testimony to the rightness of the meds she's been on since late last Spring? A shift of the universe in her favor? I mentally knock on wood as I write this, pray this trend continues, try not to look over my shoulder...

And muse about how I survived the rigors of the Vermont College MFA program.

Two critical essays, twenty pages new creative, and twenty revised due each month for two years. How did I make all my deadlines? How did I carve out the time to write my critical thesis, and rewrite my novel multiple times while juggling meds, and countless doctor's visits, and holding the barf bucket? How, in the end, did I manage to graduate on time?

Certainly, part of my drive came from what Debby Dahl Edwardson observed on our class listserve--the fact that the VC program provides students with the permission to say no to PTO fund-raisers and yes to writing. And then there's the cheerleading and support I received from my program advisors Ellen Levine, Sharon Darrow, Jane Resh Thomas, and Tim Wynne-Jones. But while their mentoring was transforming, it was not the sole reason I kept going. Something else spurred me on. Something I can't quite articulate.

As E embraces this school year with gusto, I long to embrace whatever it was that kept me writing through the dark times. For the first time since the aneurysm, E's in such a good place. She's finally well enough to attend art club, Scouts, Sunday school...and her sister's choir concerts. I'm thrilled for her. And frustrated for me.

Here I sit. Free to embrace "Life After the MFA" to its fullest. I've got a book to finish, two editors who want to see it as soon as it's done, two classes to teach as soon as I give the word, a non-fiction book proposal an editor wants me to write. So much I want to do. So much potential.

Yet, in the distance, E's upcoming surgery rumbles like a rising storm. How do I write through this?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Where do you rate on the Cosmo Stress Test?

Growing up in the 70s, a bunch of us loved paging through Cosmopolitan Magazine. A rather racy read for high schoolers back then, but at the time it was the only up-to-date info we could find that didn't sugar coat the facts about boys, dating, and sex.

The quizzes were a favorite of ours, especially the Cosmo stress test. The exact wording of the questions isn't as important as some of the topics they covered. Anything from: Have you been divorced in the last six months? Did you move recently? Have you ended a relationship recently or are you starting a new one? Are you pregnant or a new mom? Did you change jobs recently?

Each yes or no answer earned a point value. A low score meant your stress was in a healthy range. A high score meant you should call 9-1-1.

Thinking back on it now, I realize the test had little in common with high schoolers who'd been raised in single-family homes along tree-lined streets in a quiet bedroom community outside Chicago. Maybe that's why we liked the test in the first place. No matter how we ran the numbers, the score always came up peachy.

Over the years, a running joke with select friends has been to report how we've been doing based on where we'd rate on the Cosmo stress test. These days my score's off the charts. No surprise, those results. Not with what's been happening in our lives.

The last four years have been a non-stop roller coaster ride, ever since our middle daughter E took ill in July 2001, nearly dying in my husband's arms from a ruptured aneurysm. Since then E's relearned how to walk and talk again while we've reshaped our family life to a new sense of normal.

Family, friendship, faith, and a writing community that is second to none. Without all four, this journey would be unbearable.

Though we long to exit the ride, docs say it isn't over yet. A week or so before school started, we learned another aneurysm lurks inside E's head. The only thing keeping us sane is the belief that we've been graced with this knowledge now because we have the time to fix the offending blood vessel before it ruptures.

Surgery is scheduled for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Light a candle for us.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Lunch Bunch

Lunched yesterday at Basai Thai restaurant in Oakbrook with three of our six critique group members. We check in daily online, but hadn’t ever gathered in the same place because we hail from all over the country—San Francisco, New Hampshire, Georgia, and the Chicago area. It was a rare treat to visit face to face and hear each other's voices and enjoy conversation that ranged from process to Vermont College to the trials of teens and dating.

Someone, maybe R, suggested we get together more often. I agree. Don’t get me wrong. I love, love, love the convenience of meeting online. Doing so allows the freedom to crit in my pjs at midnight sans make-up if I want to. But our coming together...coming together was good. Not only did it get this isolated writer out of the house and away from my keyboard, it connected me with other writers who understand the creative process so well there’s no need to explain what I do or why I do it. And there's no need to justify why I’m still working on the same book.

Yes, we need to get together more often. Ideally, we can find a way for all of us to gather each year. Perhaps an SCBWI national conference? Until then, I'm thrilled to have a face and voice to place with the names on the screen. Happy writing!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Banana cake, aneurysms, and sweet-sad memories

Made banana cake yesterday from scratch. Used to make it all the time because bananas have a way of going brown quickly in our house. In a way I didn't quite understand at the time, the sweet scent wafting through the house reminded me of family and laughter and simpler times, maybe because the last time I made this particular cake was before E's aneurysm in 2001.

While sampling a piece still warm from the oven, I thought how odd that something so sweet can taste so sad as well. Then I remembered the Littmus Lozenges from Kate DiCamillo's book Because of Winn-Dixie. Their effect on the characters of Kate's story is so powerful and poignant that I suspect she drew on her own sweet-sad memories to develop the concept. Hmmm. Whatever she did it's working.

Edited to add: Worth thinking about more...the connectedness of our experiences to our writing, and the power that connectedness can bring to our prose. If we're willing to open ourselves to the emotions.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Welcome to Kat's Eye

Welcome to Kat’s Eye. Don’t know how long this blog experiment will last. Not even sure where it’s going. But I do know my starting point. Dateline: here and now from my own little corner of cyberspace in Lockport, Illinois. What you can expect: Musings, rants, and raves on writing, balancing work and family, and keeping the glass half full when life insists it’s not. My hope is that writers, artists, and others juggling work, family, and life's challenges will pull up a keyboard and chime in, creating a dialogue, and finding and sharing inspiration.