1/26/23

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Well, actually, not so much. This is going to be very short. I was in a car accident last night. I was at a full stop when I was rearended by a Ram truck going full speed. Driver was a kid still on his probationary license. And of course, he has no insurance. My car, my beloved 2018 Chrysler 300S named Barry, because he’s a berry color and if he could speak, he’d sound like Barry White, will need a new rear driver’s side side panel, a new bumper, and I’m not sure what else yet. I’m being treated for whiplash and muscle strain. Today, I went into a full fibromyalgia flare-up, so I’m basically just one big ache.

It hurts to move. And my shoulder feels like a dead weight on my neck, and so it hurts to type.

So this is all I’m going to say today, for my Moment. I’m glad my car wasn’t totaled. I’m glad I’m not more injured. I’m glad I’m alive.

And in the middle of all this today, I received what my new cover of my novel, Hope Always Rises, will look like. I wrote about that book last week. And today…I saw its face.

And I read my own words. Hope Always Rises.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Julian of Norwich.

“Hope Always Rises.” Kathie Giorgio.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

The cover of Hope Always Rises! Ignore the blurbiage on the back cover. That still has to be added.

1/19/23

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

I often say to my students and clients that writers are the most confounding conundrum of absolute ego (“I’m writing the best book/story/poem/memoir/whatever! It’s genius!”) and an absolutely crippling lack of self-confidence (“Why did I ever think I could do this? It’s a waste of time. It’s waste, period. It should be in the garbage. It’s not good enough for the garbage. I’m not good enough for garbage.”). I see this over and over and over again.

And of course, though this surprises many people, I experience it myself. Over and over and over again.

One would think that by the time a fourteenth book is due to come out, there have been awards and exclamations and stories performed on stage and poems included in art exhibits, that the self-doubt would be completely gone.

Oh, no. Dream on.

Fairly recently, I went through a deep crisis of confidence. My novel, All Told, was released. For the first time, I had a hardcover edition. I’d been given an advance. All looked right with the world. But then, when I went to turn in my next novel, Hope Always Rises, the publisher told me they’d decided to turn the publishing house into a hybrid. For those that don’t know, this means that the author pays a partial, but substantial, hunk of the publishing costs. It’s a step up from self-publishing, but a step down from traditional publishing. As a longtime firm believer that writers should be paid for their work, I said no and walked away.

And then realized that this was like starting all over again. Where was I going to go with the new book?

It only took me two weeks to land a new publisher, which was a boost to the ego. But it remained dented, along with a sense of exhaustion and distrust. I wondered for the billionth-billionth time if I was doing the right thing. All Told was my 12th book. Shouldn’t I be able to just focus on writing by now, and not on who was going to take what I wrote?

I had trouble writing. I’ve always said that I’ve never had writer’s block, that I don’t believe in it, and that’s still the case. This was not writer’s block. People with what they call writer’s block want to write, but they don’t know what to write about. I knew my topic. I knew what I wanted to say. But I simply didn’t want to write.

I thought I was done. Which pretty much shook me to my toes.

But I did start something new. When I can make myself sit at my desk and work, I leave with great enthusiasm for what I’ve done. But the next day, it’s a fight to sit back down again. Still, this newest book has eked past 100 pages now.

Then this week happened. A message from my publisher came through, saying there was a medical emergency, but that they thought the release date was still safe. However, they offered me the chance to dissolve my contract.

What?

The odd combination of that – the book is safe, but you can dissolve the contract – set all sorts of red flags off in me. If I stayed with the publishing house and something happened to the publisher, my book could be held up for a long time, even years, before everything was straightened out. I knew writers this happened to.

But…to be without a publisher again? When the release date was set and an amazing launch was already scheduled?

I didn’t sleep at all that night. Again, the questions hit me hard. Shouldn’t this be easier by now?

In the morning, after talking to a few people, I emailed one of my previous publishers. A favorite. I explained everything that was happening, and that the book was ready to go. “Would you consider publishing it?” I asked. “It has to be out in time for its launch. The launch is a pretty big deal.” Which it is. It’s slated for April 27.

Within a half-hour, this publisher answered. “Let’s do it!” he crowed. He sent a contract.

For a book he hadn’t even read yet. He sent a contract based on…me.

I think I sobbed for at least an hour.

And then…and then…

Today, an envelope showed up in the mail. It was from a literary magazine I love, called Thema. Inside was an acceptance for my short story, “First”, which I submitted for their “So That’s Why!” issue. And you know what that story is?

It’s part of a chapter in the newest book that I’m writing, the one I have to convince myself to sit down to write.

So. Within a 48-hour period, I rode the waves of devastation to elation. My novel, Hope Always Rises, a book which I can unabashedly say is my most beloved, most favorite, most everything I’ve ever written, is safe and coming out on time, with a publisher who hasn’t even read the book, but who has absolute faith in me. And a story, lifted from the novel I’m currently writing, the novel I wasn’t even sure I had the energy to do, is coming out in one of my most favorite magazines.

These moments, these sand dollar moments (a reference you’ll understand if you’ve read this blog or read my book, Today’s Moment Of Happiness Despite The News; A Year Of Spontaneous Essays) are the ones that keep me going. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, one word in front of the other, one page in front of the other, one more day of being who I am, despite so many crippling years as a kid, being told that I wasn’t anything.

Oh, I’m something.

Now…I can’t wait to sit down at my desk and work.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

In my happy place – minutes before doing a reading and presentation of All Told this last summer, at Pearl Street Books in La Crosse.
All 13 books. Just waiting for #14!

1/12/23

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Late at night, when I am finally done with work for the day, I like to spend an hour or so in my recliner, watching a television show. It’s usually a blast from the past. I’ve watched the Gilmore Girls a few times through now, and Scrubs, the Bob Newhart Show where he plays a psychologist, the Mary Tyler Moor Show, This Is Us (not too far in the past yet), The Good Place three times and Parenthood twice. Recently, I was delighted to see that the old television show Family is on a free streaming channel, Tubi.

Family ran from 1976 to 1980. It featured Sada Thompson and James Broderick as the parents, Meredith Baxter Birney as the oldest daughter, Gary Frank as the sensitive middle brother (a wanna-be writer, of course), and Kristy McNichol as the precocious youngest child. In the last two years of the show, Quinn Cummings joined the cast, for reasons I can’t remember – she was an orphaned child who became the new “cute kid” when Kristy McNichol began to outgrow that role.

I remember being enamored of this show. I was in love with Willie, the writer/brother, and I wanted to be Buddy, the precocious beyond intelligent youngest sister. Unlike The Waltons, my favorite television show of all time, Family was “cool” to watch, and so I actually emerged from my room to do so. The Waltons, by the way, ran from 1972 to 1981, and so despite not being “cool”, it lasted far longer. It’s even referred to in Family, when Buddy says to Willie, “Don’t go all John Boy on me.” Personally, I think more of us need to go all John Boy. But I digress.

So I started watching this with vague memories and great anticipation. That changed quickly, but despite my disappointment, it still counts as my moment of happiness.

In the first few episodes, I was shocked as this family, meant to be a role model for viewing audiences, yelled at each other to shut up and called each other stupid. The father told the wife to shut up, the wife told the husband to shut up, they both told the kids to shut up, the father told Buddy she was stupid, Willy told Buddy she was stupid, the father told the mother she was stupid, they all told Willie he was stupid, and on and on and on. Really? That was considered a wholesome family? In a way, it explained a lot about that time period.

But then, a few nights ago, I watched as Buddy babysat for her big sister’s baby. Nancy, the sister, was going through a volatile divorce, one that involved both she and her husband smacking each other upside the head in front of the judge. Wonderful. But Buddy, playing with baby Timmy, explained her worries to her brother Willie. “What’s going to happen to Timmy?” she asked. “Boys that grow up without fathers become homosexual.”

My jaw hit my lap.

And Willie, wise, sensitive, wanna-be writer Willie, didn’t tell her that this was ridiculous, that you don’t “become” homosexual, and that it’s not a cause/effect of divorce. No. He said, “Timmy will be okay. That’s not how you become homosexual.”

And my jaw fell through my recliner to the floor.

This episode was in the first season, so 1976. I was either 15 or 16 years old when I saw this for the first time. And I don’t remember being shocked by it, or even questioning it.  Now, I was glad my daughter Olivia wasn’t in the room when I saw this, as she likely would have gone through the roof.

So there’s been a lot I’ve been horrified by in our country and our world over the last few years. I’ve been shocked over the country’s attitudes toward racism, LGBTQ+, women’s rights, gun control, violence, even the reaction to the pandemic. The January 6th  insurrection. I’ve been horrified, sickened, infuriated, and many times, felt completely helpless. I’ve even seriously considered giving up writing, feeling like there’s really nothing I can do, on my own, that would effect any change at all. Which, you know, giving up writing would be like giving up myself. But it’s been a really horrifying few years.

But then this episode. As I sat there afterwards, the tv screen gone dark, I thought about how I’m seeing more and more commercials that include gay couples, biracial couples, and all sorts of couples, and they go by and I don’t even really notice them, because it’s just a part of my life. I just saw the fabulous movie, Spoiler Alert, based on the memoir by Michael Ausiello, about a gay relationship where one of the men dies of cancer. My daughter has the bisexual flag hanging in her college dorm room. She talks about it freely.

So maybe, maybe, we’ve moved ahead, just a little bit. And that little bit gave me a glimmer of hope. A very important, very necessary, very welcomed glimmer.

Now granted, I just saw a news article yesterday about my own town’s school system passing a new rule that says that students can only be called by their preferred pronouns if they have their parents’ permission. And this is the same school system that no longer allows any LGBTQ+ information or support in the schools, no Black Lives Matter, nothing, because they feel it would interfere with education. A teacher last year was suspended twice for wearing a small rainbow pin on her blazer lapel.

So we have such a long way to go. A long, long way.

But there was a glimmer. Just a moment. Showing me that we have made some advances. Which helped.

Which is what this blog is all about.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Family, on my television.
Olivia with her bisexuality flag, taken for her photography project at school. Photo by Olivia Giorgio.
Olivia wearing her bisexuality pride earrings. Photo by Olivia Giorgio, for her photography project in college.

01/05/23

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I’ve not been a fan of Christmas for some time, but this Christmas was different. I actually looked forward to putting up the decorations, and I enjoyed flipping the switches on the lights every day. Outdoor decorations, indoor decorations, flip, flip, flip, bask in the light. I enjoyed the preparations, the planning, the shopping, the wrapping. I enjoyed Christmas Eve, with our traditional visit to an outdoor light show, followed by a viewing of the movie, The Homecoming. I enjoyed Christmas day with my family. The day after Christmas, my husband Michael, my daughter Olivia, and my son Andy went to another outdoor light show at the zoo, held at night after the zoo’s regular hours were closed, so the lights would be at their most brilliant. It was a walking tour, and it was freezing, but it was so much fun.

It was all fun. But then…but then…

There is just something so satisfying about taking it all down and putting it away for another year.

I know some people keep their Christmas stuff up for Epiphany, and some for even longer. The 12 Days of Christmas is more than a song for some, and for others, “Let’s make our Christmas tree into an Easter tree!” is a feasibility.

For me, everything comes down on New Year’s Day. The stuff is up for that final celebration on New Year’s Eve, but then…gone. Pick up, pack up, clean up, move into the new year.

I wondered if I would feel differently this year, since I did actually look forward to and enjoy the season. But I found I looked forward to putting it all away as much as I looked forward to getting it out.

Michael and Olivia both worked on New Year’s Day, which provided a challenge. But Olivia started us off by taking all of the ornaments off the tree and the stair banister and packing them away. I followed through next with the rest of the indoor stuff. The stockings, stocking holders, Christmas storybooks, the nativity scene, the lit-up nativity scene, the small tree on the kitchen island. The small decorative tree in my office. The tree skirt. The ceramic Santa sitting and snoozing in his golden chair under the tree. Then Michael came home and he dismantled the tree itself, then dismantled and packed away the outdoor decorations. From there, we all three loaded the stuff into my car so it could be returned to the storage unit. We did that the next day, when I picked Michael up from work and we drove over and unloaded.

“Bye, Christmas stuff,” I called as we walked back to the car. “See you next year.”

As we drove home, Michael wondered what would be the one thing that we forgot to take down and put away. It happens every year. But as I combed through my home in my mind, I didn’t see anything out of place. I figured we actually succeeded this year.

That night, the condo seemed quiet. There were no festive lights spilling in from outside. No soft lights in the corner of our living room, white lights on a golden tree. But it was neat and tidy, everything back in its place, and I heaved a great sigh of satisfaction. The gentle joy I felt the first night the decorations were up, when I sat and gazed at the Christmas tree, was back as I looked at my home, looking the way my home was supposed to look.

Home.

The next morning, Monday, everything really was back to normal. I had the week between Christmas and New Year’s off, but that day, January 2nd, I started in with a full load of clients and classes at 9:00 that morning. My alarm clock, not set for a week, got me up and moving. First thing I did was boot my computer, since the morning clients were all on Zoom. Then I dressed, patted the dog and both cats, then went down to get my breakfast.

Which is when I saw it.

Hanging from my oven’s handle was a bright green dish towel, featuring a large Grinch face. It was a gift several years ago from my sister, in homage of my usual Grinchy frame of mind during the holidays.

There was the one thing we missed.

I laughed and gave the Grinch a tug as I went about making my oatmeal and pouring my coffee.

Later, I pointed out the towel to Olivia. She considered it thoughtfully.

“Don’t you think it’s okay if we leave it?” she said. “I mean, it is practical.”

More practical than ornaments and stars and lights and stockings and a peacefully snoozing Santa Claus.

A little bit of Christmas left out in my house year round.

“You’re right,” I said. “Okay, we’ll leave it.”

“Well, plus,” she said, “if you get sick of it, you can always stuff it in a drawer.”

There’s that too.

So for now, the Grinch stays. And I am going to move ahead into 2023. Hopefully, my face will not match the Grinch’s very often.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

 

Michael, Olivia, and me in a lit-up clam shell at the zoo’s light show.

 

Olivia decorating the Christmas tree.
Back to normal. Yes, that’s a ceramic jacko’lantern. I love it and can’t bear to put it away.
And…the Grinch.

12/29/22

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

So now I’ve discovered that it’s very, very hard to focus on writing about a moment of happiness when your cat is in the ICU at the emergency vet clinic. However, I can assure you now that this story will have a reasonably happy ending, at least for now, so don’t be afraid to read on.

My cat, Edgar Allen Paw, also known as Eddie, Eddie Freddy, Eddie-grrrrr, Mr. Ed, and Bowling Ball, is 14 years old. He’s a polydactyl, meaning he has extra toes, and he also has an extra kink in his tail, a head that is too small for his body, and balance issues. Our vet calls him a genetic anomaly. We call him a sweetheart.

I noticed on Christmas Eve that he didn’t react to his traditional new catnip mouse. On Christmas day, he didn’t come down for the festivities, but he did come down after the hubbub was done. The day after Christmas, he seemed to always be in the big bed under my desk. And by the 27th, I noticed he wasn’t coming downstairs at all, he wasn’t eating or drinking, and when he did walk, which was only a few feet, he wobbled. Yesterday, when my regular vet office was too full to bring him in, I brought him to the emergency vet. I ended up leaving him there. The vet said they wanted to run an ultrasound, after seeing some of his bloodwork. The ultrasound would show if he had pancreatitis, kidney (renal) disease, or cancer. While the tests cost pretty big bucks, that I really shouldn’t be spending, I just couldn’t move ahead to helping Edgar to the other side, when there was a chance he could be treated and come home.

So today, waiting for the results, was a long day. And it’s why this blog is so late.

When my cat Cornelius, Corny for short, died of a fast-moving cancer 13 years ago, I set out to find another cat. It’s not about replacement; I sincerely believe in honoring a pet’s memory by saving another life. I put myself through college by working as a kennelworker at the local humane society, so I know firsthand the sadness of animals left behind. When Corny died, my remaining cat, Muse, was 6 years old. I wanted to find another 6-year old cat, as Corny was significantly older than Muse, and I thought it would help long-term if we had cats that were in the same stage of life. One of our local humane societies had two cats that were six, so I went in.

When I went into the cat room, a big orange tabby on the bottom shelf of cages pressed himself fervently against the door. I bent down to say hello and have a conversation. As best I could, I scrubbed his ears and under his chin. His purr sounded like a train rolling by with square wheels. No rhythm. He offered plenty of silent meows. But he was only a year old, so I gave him a final pat and stood to search out the two six-year olds.

But that orange cat stuck his paw through the bars of his cage and snagged his claws into my pant leg.

What could I do?

The shelter had given the cat the name of Trivium, who was the muse of grammar, weirdly enough. I went to the front desk and said, “I’d like to see Trivium please.” The shelter worker said, “Of course, but be aware that he’s shy. He might not come to you right away.”

I laughed and said, “Like hell. He just chose me.”

They also told me that Edgar had been found as a kitten on the side of a highway in Washington County. He had a collar, but no identifiers. He stayed in the humane society there for six months, then, when they were over-full, they sent him to one of our humane societies, where he remained for another four months. Almost a full year in a shelter.

He came home that day, and by bedtime that night, his name was changed to Edgar Allen Paw.

With extra toes, an extra kink, and a too-small head, he’s been anything but typical. He doesn’t jump up on things because he will inevitably fall off. He has a huge appetite. And he is more than loving. Cats are supposed to ignore you. Not Edgar. He demands attention…from me, Michael, Olivia, from Muse, from the beagles when they were still with us, and from Ursula.

To leave him at the emergency vet yesterday…to see him unable to walk with his hind legs…to realize he might not be coming home…devastating. It’s been a day of tears and memories.

“Remember when Edgar…”

“Remember when Eddie…”

“Remember…remember…”

Thirteen years of memories.

And it’s also been a day of self-doubt. Should I be spending the exorbitant amount that I am just to determine if he lives or dies? What if I spent all that and ended up, not with recovery, but with no orange kitty at all?

What an awful, awful day.

But then, a phone call.

Edgar is coming home. Again.

The ultrasound didn’t show anything too alarming. The most likely culprit is kidney disease, which means he could decline rapidly, or he could live for years. We’ve dealt with kidney disease before, in one cat (Einstein) and two dogs (Penny and Blossom). He has regained the use of his back legs. He’s purring like a broken train again and the vet says he’s “bright and alert.” She also said repeatedly, “I love him. What a good boy!”

Yes, he is.

And while I’m going to worry and fret, ultimately, this was money well-spent. Because I heard the vet say to me, “No, Kathie. It’s not time to put him down yet. Not yet.”

My moment of happiness? That phone call. And there’s a moment to come: when he is carried out to me and I can see for myself that he’s bright and alert and using his hind legs.

I love him. What a good boy!

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Edgar and me, on the day of his adoption.
On his first day, he felt safest in our “kitty closet”. He watched us all through the kitty door.
But it didn’t take him very long to settle in. One of his best talents is making sleep look so good!
See? Good boy, Edgar!
To give you an idea of his size, here he is relaxing with Donnie, our beagle. Donnie is no longer with us.
Another Edgar talent is pretending to be roadkill.
Edgar and Muse corner Red Dot.
One of my favorite Edgar photos: looking out the window to the 3rd floor deck.

 

12/22/22 (the real one)

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Many of you know that we adopted a dog, Ursula, from a shelter, almost four years ago now. For that matter, all of our pets are rescues, as far as we are concerned. Edgar Allen Paw, our bowling ball orange polydactyl cat, came from a different shelter. Muse, our 5-pound alpha of the house (also a cat), has been with us since she was a baby. She came from a student’s friend who was driving from one coast to the other, and whose cat had kittens along the way. So technically, Muse isn’t a rescue – but we were so happy to take her in.

Before Ursula, there were two beagles, Blossom and Donnie. Blossom came from a shelter, and Donnie came from a rescue organization. Jake the cat came from a shelter, as did Cornelius. Einstein, another orange kitty, was born in my parents’ drainage ditch that ran beneath their driveway. My parents found homes for the mama kitty and for all the babies except Einstein, and so I took him in. And there was Cocoa, my chihuahua, who also came from a shelter.

To say we believe in pet rescue is an understatement. While the animals have all come with their quirks and challenges, the love we receive in return is just boundless.

So back to Ursula. Paired with her severe anxiety, which has gotten better over the years, is separation anxiety. Over the last year, this has gotten worse, to the point where we can pretty much count on finding a puddle whenever we leave her alone, even if it’s only for a few minutes. We have concrete floors, so it’s not difficult to clean up, but, you know…ew. She knows she’s done wrong. She won’t look us in the eye when we get home, and she’s the definition of the word hangdog. But the puddles continued.

We do have a crate, but the crate door is almost always open. She goes in there as her security place. We have tried putting her in there when we’re not at home, but it just makes me sad.

Also in the last year, Ursula began to act more dog-like in terms of food…meaning she’s much more likely to beg now, to ask for food, and she will actually wait eagerly for dinner, instead of eating with an eye to the ceiling in case it crashes down or someone steals it from her. She has breakfast now, given to her by Michael before he goes to work, where before, after being taken for her morning constitutional, she used to dash upstairs and return to her loveseat until I would go down later.

So a few weeks ago, I decided to start treat therapy.

Whenever we’re going to be gone, even for a little bit of time, she is now given a Milk Bone dog biscuit. She does not get a biscuit at any other time, for any other reason, so that she would start associating that biscuit with being home alone. She is told specifically, “We will be home soon. Here is your treat. There’s more when you’re a good girl.” When we get home, if the house is puddle-free, we hold a potty party, jumping up and down, cheering “Good girl, Ursula! Good girl! What a good girl!”, with tons of pats and pets and butt scritches, and then, not one, but TWO more biscuits.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.

But…the last two days, it’s worked. With it being the Christmas season, we are in and out a lot more, and yesterday in particular, she was left alone three times. No puddles! A total of NINE biscuits! Today, so far, I was out once, and likely won’t be out again, because of the !@#$ blizzard. But when I came back…

She dashed around the house with zoomies! She doesn’t do zoomies! Her tail was a blur! She made her special Ursula sound, which is a cross between a whine and a banshee scream! All while I checked the house and found no puddles. None. Zero!

Potty party! While she wiggled and jiggled and sashayed and…did whatever her noise is, I cheered. What a good girl! What a good girl, Ursula! What a good, good, GOOD girl!

And treats.

Having a dry floor is wonderful. But I have to tell you, seeing joy in this dog, seeing her dance and prance and charge around the house with a sense of confidence and good-girl self esteem, back to joy, seeing that JOY, ohmygosh.

Granted, it’s over not peeing and doggie biscuits. But it’s joy. And I am overjoyed to see it.

I hope you all have a joyful holiday season. I hope you get zoomies and butt scritches and that you have your own special sound that you make when you just can’t hold in happiness any longer. Merry, merry, merry, from me, from all my family, from Ursula, Edgar Allen Paw, and Muse.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Ursula, with her raggedy pink blankie.
Ursula in the shelter, the day we met her. Could I resist that face, even though I said, “No more dogs!” No, I could not.
First day home.
Happy, happy Ursula.

12/22/22

FOR THOSE WAITING TO SEE THIS WEEK’S MOMENT OF HAPPINESS DESPITE THE NEWS!

It’s coming! Between Christmas preparations, the ongoing blizzard, and being temporarily locked out of my own site, I’m behind! Keep checking back! I usually have it posted in between morning and evening clients, and now I’m having to write it in between clients. But it will be here!

Its coming!

12/15/22

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

This past weekend, we put up our Christmas stuff. This is no small feat; since we don’t have a basement, our “extra” stuff is stored in a storeroom a few miles from here. We have to drive there, hope that the security gate works, drive through, then walk through, the snow that often goes unplowed, haul the stuff to the car, reverse our direction, bring it home and haul it all upstairs. Last year, the gate on the way out wouldn’t open and we had to call the police to rescue us.

But once we did all that, I happily watched it all come together. Olivia and I decorated the tree. My husband and my son Andy set up outdoor decorations on the 2nd and 3rd floor decks. I set out and decorated a small tabletop tree on my kitchen island, facing into the living room. I put a light-up nativity scene on the piano, and my regular nativity scene on the coffee table. A ceramic Santa asleep in his chair, reminiscent of the one in my childhood home, went under the tree. A light-up star was strapped to the banister going upstairs, and some random ornaments, featuring my kids’ young faces, went on the banister too.

And that night, after it was all done, after we’d watched Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without A Santa Claus, I turned all the lights out, except the Christmas ones, and sat in the glow from the tree and from the fireplace. I just sat and basked and thought about previous Christmases.

Years ago, I was a decorating fiend. In my first house with my first husband, there was at least one Santa in every room, including the bathroom. Lights, garland, music boxes, figurines, everywhere. Then changes came into my life. The joy of Christmas was pretty much replaced with the need to be busy, to keep a roof over my head and my kids’ heads, and any reference to that joy was met with an “About what?” from me. All Christmas meant was more work.

The year of Covid and a Zoom Christmas left me just fraught with sadness. That year, Christmas became little boxes on a computer screen. The Christmas tree remained in the storeroom. But the next year, out it came. With it came a renewed sense of joy. When the joy of Christmas is brought up now, I want to just wave my arms like Vanna White and say, “Look! Just look!” At the center of my game show arm sweep would be four children, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and one phenomenal granddaughter.

So I sat in the glow and thought. One certain Christmas comes immediately to my mind when I even think the word.

My son Andy, now 36, was a pretty mild-mannered baby and toddler. He is my middle child among my big kids. One day, in the middle of summer, this mild-mannered baby, who I never even buckled into the high chair because he would never try to get out of it, started shouting during lunch. I turned to find him standing in the high chair. He pointed at the television. “Want that!” he shouted. “Want that!” On the screen was an ad for Playskool’s Definitely Dinosaurs, realistic-looking dinosaur toys. I didn’t wait. I swept Andy and his siblings up and off we went to that mecca, Toys R Us. We found the dinosaurs and Andy picked out his first three.

Which became a full zoo of dinosaurs over the next several years. On a spring day, when Andy was in kindergarten, he told me he wanted the Definitely Dinosaurs ultrasaurus. I did my research and discovered that this was the largest dinosaur Playskool made, and I knew the price was far over what my then-husband would allow. I also found out that Playskool was discontinuing the line, and so what was in the stores that May was all there would be. I told Andy that it might be hard to get the ultrasaurus for Christmas. He confidently said, “Santa will get it.”

Oh, lord.

This is before the internet, so I wrote to all of my friends and family around the country, asking them to scour their toy stores for all of the dinosaurs they could get, but especially the ultrasaurus. I was able to collect a lot of them this way, but not the big guy, who I wouldn’t be allowed to buy anyway.

But Santa.

Going to the library, I asked the librarians to help me locate the name and address of the head of Playskool. Then I wrote to the man, telling him about my son, who was wishing on dandelions, throwing coins into fountains, and working on being as good as he could possibly be, six months before Christmas, so that Santa would bring him an ultrasaurus. “Please,” I wrote. “If you have one anywhere in any of your warehouses, please tell me where it is. I will find a way to get there.”

I received a letter back. The man told me that about a week before he received my letter, he received another letter from “Himself at the North Pole.” The man said, “He wrote me about a little boy in Wisconsin, who was wishing on dandelions and throwing coins into fountains, and who was as good as a little boy could possibly be. He asked me to send this little boy an ultrasaurus. You should be receiving it within the next two weeks.”

For free. I didn’t even get in trouble with my husband.

I never thought I would cry over a dinosaur. But I did over that one. The box showed up on my birthday, July 29, and so it served as two presents, one for me, and one for my son, who never had a doubt.

My son is 36. He still has the ultrasaurus. And I am forever grateful to that man at Playskool.

I sat last weekend in the glow of the tree, and I’ve sat there every night since, and I rejoice that the joy in Christmas came back to me. I am still suffused with the need to be busy, to keep a roof over my head and a safe haven for my kids, even as three out of the four have grown up and left home. My home does not have a Santa in every room. But it does have joy.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

The ultrasaurus.
Little Andy, about the same time that he demanded Definitely Dinosaurs.
My grown-up Andy with the ultrasaurus.
My favorite Christmas photo ever. Little Olivia kneeling in front of one of our old Christmas trees.
Olivia decorating the tree this year.

12/8/22

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

It’s no secret that I love the old television series, The Waltons. I suppose the weirdest thing about that is that I never watched the show when it was not a rerun. It wasn’t “cool” to watch The Waltons when I was in high school. But what made me connect to The Waltons was the actual logistics between me and John Boy. On Thursday nights, I would be up in my room, writing in my journal or working on a story, and I’d be listening to my family, who were down in the family room, watching The Waltons. On The Waltons, John Boy was up in his room, writing in his journal or working on a story, and he’d be listening to his family, down in the living room, listening to a show on the radio.

I felt that connection, up in my room, between me and a character who wanted to be a writer as well, back during the Depression. It was the first time, really, that I felt that connection. It made me feel less alone.

I started watching The Waltons for real when I was pregnant with my first son. By then, it was in rerun, and over the years, as my family grew, I continued to watch The Waltons as it bounced from channel to channel, and each time, I felt less alone. I also found more to connect with, as my life experiences increased and paralleled with John Boy, but also with other members of the family. Especially Olivia, the mother. Yes, there’s a reason why my Olivia was given that name.

Eventually, the show went on video, and I bought every season. When it went on DVD, I replaced my VHS tapes with DVDs. I own every season, plus every special.

But that’s not all. I also own the Waltons Barbie-type dolls, the Little Golden Books, the illustrated novels, the LPs, the board game, the lunchbox, the Viewmaster reels, some of the scripts, and on and on. I’ve visited the real Walton’s Mountain, and I stood outside the real Walton’s house. While there, I corrected the tour guide for the Walton’s Mountain museum, who had her details wrong on an episode where Olivia had polio. I also met Earl Hamner’s aunt, who graciously took me outside to show me a trailing arbutus, a plant that Grandpa Walton often rhapsodized about. Earl Hamner is the creator of the Waltons. Much of the show is autobiographical, and Earl Hamner is the original John Boy.

But the most incredible moment was the day Earl Hamner himself friended me on Facebook. We remained friends until his death on March 24, 2016.

And Earl Hamner was John Boy. And John Boy was Richard Thomas.

Which leads to this week’s moment.

A friend who lives in Appleton found out that the traveling tour of To Kill A Mockingbird, a play based on the novel by Harper Lee, was coming to her town. And who is playing Atticus Finch? Richard Thomas.

John Boy.

And she bought tickets. And invited me.

On February 25th, 2023, I am going to be looking up at a stage and seeing the real live John Boy. Everyone else might be seeing Atticus Finch, but I am going to seeing the young man who wrote alongside me, in his own era, when I was in high school. I will be seeing the character who has kept me company all these years.

I didn’t mention earlier, but among the Waltons paraphernalia I own is a slender volume of poetry, called, appropriately enough, Poems. It was written by Richard Thomas while he was playing the young John Boy, early in the nine seasons of the show. And I am hoping, hoping, hoping, to get him to sign it.

But here’s the thing. My Moment this week isn’t just about John Boy. It’s also about friendship. And having a friend who knows me so well that she would understand the way my heart would just about explode at the idea of even being in the same room with Richard Thomas. And knowing that, she still doesn’t laugh at me, but instead goes out of her way to get those tickets.

February 25th. I’m gonna see John Boy!

Thank you, Karen.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Me with my John Boy doll and the book of poems by Richard Thomas.

12/1/22

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Moments come from everywhere.

Last Saturday, Michael, Olivia, and my middle son, Andy, and I took a drive through an outdoor Christmas light show. We had a nice dinner out at a Wisconsin supper club, which was having a crab leg special. All around us, there were the cracking sounds of crabs having their joints broken so the meat could be found.

That was definitely not my Moment. I cringed every time.

But then we went home, sat around the television, and watched…

…the new Blue’s Clues movie. Blue’s Big City Adventure.

Yep. An almost 58-year old man, a firmly 62-year old woman, a 36-year old man, and a 22-year old woman. Blue’s Clues. A children’s show. Which we loved. And we sat there and just howled with laughter.

Blue’s Clues wasn’t around yet when my big kids were little. But it was definitely around when Livvy was a baby, toddler, and little girl. The show debuted in 1996, four years before she was born. The big kids, Christopher, Andy, and Katie, were 16, 14, and 13 respectively when Olivia arrived. Because we lived in a small house, and because the kids were such a huge help with this little girl, we all watched what Olivia watched. And Blue’s Clues was #1 in all of our books.

The first Blue’s Clues movie, Blue’s Big Musical Movie, came out on video the same year Olivia was born. Yes, video. VHS. For Olivia’s snack before bed, I would set up her high chair in the living room, put the movie into the VCR, and she would watch, mesmerized, as I spooned cereal into her mouth. It was one of the few ways I could get her to eat. Very often, while she watched and ate, everyone appeared from wherever they were, sat in the living room, and watched as Steve, played by Steve Burns, the blue dog’s “owner”, managed to find his very first clue on his own.

While we watched the new movie on Saturday, Michael said, “I still tear up when I think of Steve finding his first clue.”

And yes, we still own the video.

I was totally caught up in Steve. He was clueless (ha!) and so funny. And gentle. And encouraging. He was everything you wanted your children to be influenced by. And as a harried mother of three teenagers, a challenging baby, and then my adding grad school to my already stuffed schedule, and then starting my own business, sometimes Steve was just what I needed too. When he looked out of the tv screen and told “you” that you were special, that “you” could do it, that everything would be okay, I would think, That’s just what I needed to hear. Thank you.

Years earlier, when I was a much younger harried mother, with three children born over a 4-year period (Christopher and Andy are 26 months apart; Andy and Katie are 13 months apart), there was another tv show that caught the kids’, and my, attention. It was Today’s Special. This was a Canadian children’s show, set in a department store. At night, while a woman named Jody set up the displays for the next day, Jeff, a mannequin played by Jeff Hyslop, would come to life. Like Steve, he was clueless and funny, due to a lack of life experiences outside the store, but he also sang and danced up a storm. He also looked out of the tv screen and told this mother, who wondered if she was doing anything right with these three incredible children, so different from each other, that it was all going to be okay. That it was all right to make mistakes. He said “you” could do it too. And so I did.

And yes, I still have those videos too, that I actually bought years after my kids stopped watching the show, but I would watch them on my own sometimes.

It’s amazing, really, where we get our encouragement from. Where we seek help. I know full well that these two men, Steve Burns and Jeff Hyslop, have absolutely no idea who I am. And yet, on those afternoons and evenings when I was exhausted, when something happened with a child that I had no clue (clueless!) how to handle, when I wondered if I’d totally ruined the little life that I was trying to raise with absolutely no sense of how to be a good mom, they told me I could do it. Just when that was exactly what I needed to hear.

And for the most part, I think I did do it. Now that my kids are 38, 36, 35, and 22, I look at them with the greatest of love and admiration. But I also still feel a lot of doubt from time to time. Should I have done this? Should I have done that? Are they okay?

They’re okay.

After the movie, I watched a video on YouTube with Steve Burns talking about his role as Steve, and what Blue’s Clues meant to him. He talked about how the show was quietly modeled after Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. And I thought, Of course it was!

There was another man, who looked out of the tv screen and told everyone watching that “you” are special. “You” could do it. Everything would be okay.

Watching the new Blue’s Clues movie on Saturday night, with two out of four of my kids, the 2nd and the 4th, all I could think was how much I’d like to say thank you to Steve. And to Jeff. And even to Mr. Rogers, though only Christopher watched him regularly, every day while he had lunch as a toddler. They must have helped so many kids with the growing-up process. And they helped so many moms too, I bet.

At least this twenty-something mom with three kids, and then an older, but still scared forty-something mom with three teenagers and one wild baby.

Thanks, guys.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Baby Christopher.
Adult Christopher, with wife Amber and Grandbaby Maya Mae.
Baby Andy.
Adult Andy.
Baby Katie.
Adult Katie.
All three big kids.
Baby Olivia.
Adult Olivia.