12/07/23

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

This morning, I was a guest speaker for a class of 9th graders in an online school. The class was working on writing nonfiction, and the teacher asked me to come in for them, and for a group of 7th graders I’m meeting in February, share one of my nonfiction pieces, and talk about how I came to write them, and about my process. I love doing this sort of thing, and so I sat down at my desk and got onto Zoom with a sense of great anticipation.

The teacher and I met earlier and talked about what pieces I should share. We chose one of my recent blogs for the 9th graders, on the subject of my attending my 45th high school class reunion. For the 7th graders, we chose a flash memoir that is going to appear in the magazine Months To Years in the near future, on an interaction I had in Oregon with a woman whose son had recently died.

If you would like to revisit the blog on the 45th reunion, you can find it here: https://www.kathiegiorgio.org/9-28-23/

After being introduced to the class, I talked a little bit about how This Week’s Moment Of Happiness Despite The News came to be and why it continues today, well after the year-long life I planned for it to have. I read the piece in four chunks, and while I read it out loud, the students followed along and highlighted different parts that they particularly noticed and they wrote comments in the chat.

Watching these kids, seeing them highlight my words where they felt my emotion, where they felt moved, where they noted how I accomplished something with a phrase or a fragment…ohmygosh, what a gift. But even more, seeing them connect to this piece about my experiences 45 years ago…

One of the biggest challenges about writing is that writers don’t often actually see the impact of our own work. We know what we want our stories and essays and poems to do, but people read in the privacy of their own homes, and unless the reader reaches out to us, we don’t know if we succeeded.

I got to watch the connection today. I got to see the impact. I got to see the success.

And the teacher! She called me a “force”.

A force!

But there was more.

As we talked, the kids told me about the books they’re reading. As each title was mentioned and talked about with enthusiasm, I realized what they were.

Banned books. This online 9th grade class was reading banned books.

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. Sherman Alexie.

To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee.

Glass Castle. Jeanette Walls.

And so many more.

I’ve written in this blog before about how my own books have been removed from the shelves of my own high school’s library, despite the fact that I am included in the “Wall of Stars” showcasing successful alumni. I abhor book-banning, and now, banning has taken on a personal meaning. But here’s the thing.

The group I presented to? They’re part of the same district where I was banned.

Guess what? I’m still here.

And guess what? Kids are still reading.

Some of my moments feel very much like whispers. Some feel like the finale of the 4th of July fireworks. This was a finale. Filled with the colors of intelligence, open-mindedness, the freedom to read, and the freedom to think.

When it was all over, I said goodbye and moved ahead into my usual schedule. But then I received an email from the teacher, thanking me. At the bottom of the email was an image, taken of one of the comments from the students after I’d left the online room.

“I’m glad Kathie came in and read some of her writing with all of us. Her writing style and feelings throughout all of her experiences in some of her writing was really thought through and just overall a great experience to hear/read some of her writing. Her writing was relatable and truthful, sometimes a little raw that is awesome to read sometimes since it’s real life and it’s sometimes like that for some people.”

There it was.  That great big bright sonic boom that indicates the end of the fireworks.

When I met with one of my clients immediately after this appearance, I told him that my faith in humanity was restored. Well, no. That’s really overstating it, especially on a day when there is still an unholy war going on, when there was yet another school shooting, when some in our country are considering re-electing a man who should be in prison, when the Covid rate is soaring again, when this, when that, when every other thing. But while my faith in humanity wasn’t restored, I did feel a sudden infusion of hope.

In a world where the rising generation is able to read, able to open their minds to all ideas, able to feel compassion and empathy for everyone, able to grow and learn the way everyone should have the freedom to do so…there is hope.

Hope always rises.

And I’m not the only teacher who is a force.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Me on Zoom.

11/30/23

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

A couple years ago, when I bought my new car, I was really disappointed to see that it didn’t have a CD player. I played CDs constantly in the car – the car is really about the only time I listen to music, and my kids will tell you that I get “stuck” on CDs, playing the same one over and over and over again, and also likely hitting replay on certain special songs. With the purchase of this car, I suddenly had no place to put my music. My daughter Olivia encouraged me to subscribe to Spotify, and so I have, though it irks me to no end that I have to pay monthly to listen to music that I already own.

But this week, Spotify made me laugh. They put out a “your year in music” compilation, telling me what groups I listened to the most, what songs I played the most, what months I listened to the most music, what my longest streak of listening was (167 minutes!). There was even a recorded message from the group Coldplay, which was my most listened-to group, thanking me for being in the top 2% of their fans. The song I listened to most was “Clocks”, by Coldplay. I played it 64 times.

And absolutely none of it was a surprise to me.

I have always loved music, and as the years went by, music and writing became very intimately intwined. I don’t listen to music while I write, but I listen to it immediately before I write, and the songs are carefully chosen…and sometimes, the songs choose me.

Soon after being married for the first time, I began having children, and I had three in four years. This rocked my world in every way, but in particular, in writing. My daytimes were immersed in motherhood. But at 8:00, when the kids were in bed, I went down to my basement office and I tried to recapture who I was as a writer. It was hard – there were all these lists in my head over what I still had to do that day, in order to be the best possible mother I could be. But then I heard, for the first time, the song “Music of the Night” from Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. And these lines leaped out at me:

Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world

Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before

Let your soul take you where you long to be

Only then can you belong to me

And to me, this meant my mind was to go into the world of what I was writing, I had to leave behind my daytime life and go where I most wanted to be, and only then could I belong to my very own self.

Playing this song became a nightly ritual, and it helped me separate my mom-self from my writer-self and fall back into my story that much more quickly.

Years later, when I began to write my first novel, The Home For Wayward Clocks, I was in my (ick) minivan when a song came on the radio. It immediately grabbed me and I had to pull over to the side of the road to listen, and then to wait for the DJ to tell me what it was.

“Clocks” by Coldplay.

For the next three years, I played it every time I sat down to work on that book.

And so it became a ritual. With almost every one of my books (collections are excluded because I wrote those stories, poems, and essays individually, and then melded them into a book), there was a song. Readers and students have asked me over the years what they are. Here’s the list, and if applicable, the lines that grabbed me and pushed me forward.

  • Writing in general: “Music of the Night”, lines above.
  • The Home For Wayward Clocks: “Clocks” by Coldplay
  • Enlarged Hearts: “Robot Boy” by Linkin Park, “Hold on, the weight of the world will give you the strength to go.”
  • Learning To Tell (A Life)Time: “Sweetness Follows” by REM, “But sweetness follows.”
  • Rise From The River: “The Scientist” by Coldplay, “I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart. Questions of science, science and progress, could not speak as loud as my heart.”
  • In Grace’s Time: “One More Night” by Phil Collins.
  • If You Tame Me: “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, “Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life?”
  • All Told: Because there were many stories going on inside of All Told, there were several songs that I switched between. “Warning Sign” by Coldplay, “A Thousand Years” by Christi Perri, and “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins. The final chapter in that book required its own song, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and sung by the incomparable Grace Slick. The lines, “When logic and proportion Have fallen sloppy dead,” were exactly what was going on in that chapter.
  • Hope Always Rises: “Shallow” by Lady Gaga. “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in, I’ll never meet the ground.”
  • Don’t Let Me Keep You: the current book in progress, due out on October 3, 2024. “When I’m With You” by Sheriff. The whole damn song.

And every one of these songs was on my most played list for 2023. Why? Because when I’m in my car, going somewhere away from my desk, doing something away from my desk, I play this playlist to remind me, as I did so many years ago in a basement office, of who I am.

So two things brought me my moment of happiness this week, in the middle of listening to Spotify tell me what my most played songs were. First, when it comes to being a music-listener, they identified me as a “Vampire.” A vampire? But they went on to define this as, “When it comes to your listening, you like to embrace a little…darkness. You listen to emotional atmospheric music more than most.”

That made my jaw drop for a second, but then that turned into a “Well, of course.” My music is attached to my writing. And what do I write?

But then I got into my car, no longer a minivan, to drive home from a visit to my chiropractor. I was tired, still sick with acute bronchitis, still fighting out-of-control asthma, and all I wanted to do was sleep. I started the car, and my car connected to my cell phone, which connected to Spotify, and suddenly…

“Clocks” by Coldplay.

And I belonged to myself again. Who I am.

I drove home, sat down at my desk, and wrote.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

My vampire label on Spotify.
All the books. #15 is on the way.
At my desk. Writing. Who I am.

11/23/24 (Thanksgiving)

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

Good grief. Having to come up with a moment of happiness after a week of being really sick is a challenge. Not only a week of being sick, but a week of mishaps and mistakes by the medical industry that left me sicker instead of better, and it was during a week that I wasn’t teaching so that I could glue myself to the computer and work on the new novel. Which I still managed to do, just not as much as I planned.

Whew.

Well, actually, I can think of some things. It’s amazing how important creature comforts become during times like these. Two of my creature comforts were actually creatures! But here is a list of what helped.

  • Chicken soup. Now this one is a mixed bag for me. I actually purely hate chicken soup. Once, when I was about thirteen years old, my mother, never a great cook except for potato salad and cole slaw, took it upon herself to make homemade chicken soup. The house reeked of the cooking soup all day, and unbeknownst to us, I was in the process of getting the worst case of stomach flu. As the smell (note I do not say aroma) grew more and more pervasive, I grew more and more nauseous. About the time the soup was done, so was I. From that point on, I have associated the smell of chicken soup with vomiting. When my kids were little and sick, I had the hardest time not gagging while I fed them Campbell’s Chicken With Stars soup.

But on my first real visit to see Michael when he still lived in Omaha, he introduced me to, of all things. Maruchan ramen noodle soups. You know, the cheap ones in the cellophane package that you can pick up at the store for like ten for a dollar. The chicken noodle soup was amazing (so is the chili flavor!). And so that’s what I had (the chicken noodle, not the chili) at the height of illness this week. It felt so good on my throat and it cleared up my sinuses for a few minutes…and I know it’s probably the only chicken soup that isn’t all that healthy. But it was oh so good.

  • Root beer floats. I was about three or four days into this episode when I suddenly began to crave a root beer float. Not a shake, not ice cream…a float. We went to Culvers and I had to take Michael because my voice wasn’t working. I’ve had several floats this week, and with my latest visit to the doctor, I came home to find Michael had stocked the fridge with vanilla ice cream and root beer. I’m all set for recovery.
  • Sleep has never ever felt so good. It became a challenge to fall asleep between coughing fits, because once I was asleep, it seemed I could stay that way. But add to this sleep that I was covered to the nose with two blankets, but also had a fan blowing…heaven. When I woke in a fever sweat, I had the fan. When I had the chills, I was buried. And every now and then, I was joined by a little gray cat named Muse who perched on my shoulder and purred. Creature #1.
  • Watching reruns of the old television game show, Match Game. Michael discovered on the Freevee channel that there were several old TV game shows from our childhood being replayed. One was the classic Match Game, with Gene Rayburn, Richard Dawson, Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, and more. This was the game that introduced my young teenage self to the power of innuendo. And one week in 1973, the show featured Michael Learned and a young Richard Thomas from The Waltons. It’s hard to laugh and cough at the same time, but I was happy to do so.
  • Well, books are always a creature comfort, aren’t they. I ripped through Elizabeth Berg’s Earth’s The Right Place For Love like a mad woman, bringing it with me to every trip to the doctor.
  • Oh, my dog, Ursula. Creature comfort #2. Typically, if I sit down next to Ursula on the loveseat that serves as her bed, she flips onto her back, bares her teeth in a smile, and waits for a tummy rub. But on these mornings, she sat up, tucked herself under my arm, and leaned into me, tucking her head on my chest. What a hug. When I sat at my desk, she was beside me, with her concrete head on my knee. Now that I have a nebulizer for breathing treatments, she’s caught between running up to save me from the machine and tearing from the room in fear. She’s been choosing tearing from the room, but she always comes back to make sure I’m okay.

And through it all, I’m healing and I’m going to be okay. The hardest part was that my regular doctor, who has known me for over two decades, was out of town and I had to face off with new young doctors who seem to mostly think that the only illnesses in this world are Covid, RSV, and the flu. They would tick off each one, nope, nope, nope, declare me fine, just a little cold, and send me home, despite the fact that I was wheezing loud enough that people in the waiting room stood up and moved away from me. I kept telling them what it was, bronchitis that then throws my asthma out of control, but they didn’t listen. Luckily, my doctor came back into town yesterday, saw what was happening, and called me in, even though he had to stay after hours to fit me into his schedule. He listened, kept saying, “Yep, there it is, yep, there it is,” and set me up with a predisone burst, a breathing treatment, and antibiotics. He even got me an at-home nebulizer, which I’ve never had before, so I can have the breathing treatments throughout the holiday weekend and terrify my dog.

I have never been more grateful for a doctor who listens. And who realizes that at the age of 63, I am the one who is the most knowledgeable about my body.

All is well here. Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone. Be grateful for life and breath, and for all the people who love you.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Happy Thanksgiving from me to you!

11/16/23

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

Anyone who has read my books and stories knows that, usually, somewhere within the piece, Starbucks will appear. So will the grande cinnamon dolce latte, with only two pumps of cinnamon dolce, either iced or extra hot, depending on the season. That is my drink of choice.

Now before you yell that I don’t support the small business, I definitely do. I am one. And I frequent many independently owned coffee shops. My favorite is Espresso 101, right near my little house on the Oregon coast. It has a fabulous French toast latte. But Starbucks holds a place in my heart, for reasons that became apparent again this week, and I’ll show you why.

First, many years ago, when I was working on The Home For Wayward Clocks, I often wrote in a Starbucks because one near me had a fireplace. The baristas allowed me to come in, pull a table directly in front of the fireplace, and work. The fireplace would be on, night or day, summer or winter. Around me, the sounds of the coffee shop bolstered me and rocked me to its rhythm, but my eyes were locked on the screen. The baristas would quietly come by from time to time with a new drink for me…and not charge me.

By the time that book was published and released, I’d switched to another Starbucks, closer to my home, that had a drive-thru. Sometimes I sat inside, other times I whipped through the drive-thru and carried my drink home. But one day, after the book was published, I drove up to the drive-thru window and the barista leaned out. “Kathie,” he whispered, “there’s someone in the café reading your book!” Ohmygod. I got my drink, then parked my car and went inside. I sat where I could see the reader, and I watched her facial expressions and how quickly she turned the pages or hovered over one. When she prepared to leave, she picked up the book, hugged it to her chest, then put it in her backpack.

I was ecstatic.

In 2017, I was being treated for breast cancer. The baristas knew, because the day I was diagnosed, I went through the drive-thru. Tears were still streaming down my face. From that point on, everyone in that café was part of my support system. One barista, who realized she’d gone as long as I had without a mammogram, went in for hers and discovered she had breast cancer too. We went through it together.

But on the day of my partial mastectomy, after I came home from the hospital, I asked my son if he could go get me my favorite drink. I wasn’t allowed to drive right away and I was still too groggy from the anesthetic. My son drove up to the drive-thru and ordered an extra hot grande cinnamon dolce latte with just two pumps of cinnamon dolce. No one replied through the speaker for a minute, but then the barista said, “Is this for Kathie?”

“Yes,” my son answered. “She’s my mom.”

My son drove to the pick-up window, where several baristas were waiting. They wanted to know how I was. My latte was free. And when I held it after my son delivered it to me, I read all of the encouraging and supportive messages they’d written on my cup.

Amazing.

So this week. I’ve been fighting a cold for a while and, this week, it got worse. I coughed my voice away. When I pulled into the Starbucks drive-thru yesterday afternoon, I sounded like a frog with laryngitis. I croaked with a whisper. I was worried they wouldn’t be able to hear me over the speaker, and so I leaned out of my car as far as I could and did my best to whisper loudly.

There was a pause, and then a voice that I recognized said, “Kathie? Is that you?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Okay. I can see you through the screen. Do you want your usual? Give me a thumb’s up if you do.”

Thumb’s up.

“Do you want it iced?”

Thumb’s down.

“Hot?”

Thumb’s up.

“Extra hot?”

Thumb’s up.

“That’ll be great on a sore throat. Would you like something else?”

Thumb’s up.

“Okay. Let’s see. What do you like? The cheese danish?” (which has also appeared in my books)

Thumb’s up.

“Come on around.”

When I got to the window, I smiled at the barista whose voice I recognized. He recognized mine even when I didn’t sound like me. Several other baristas called hello and then told me to get better. When my barista handed out my drink, he said, “I wrote a message for you on the cup.”

As I drove home, I spun the cup, trying to see the message, but I didn’t see it. I thought maybe my stuffed ears heard wrong. But when I sat down at my desk, I looked a little closer and then tugged down the brown sleeve that my barista kindly tucked on so that I wouldn’t burn myself on my extra hot drink. There, under the sleeve, was, “Feel better soon!”

You know, sometimes it’s the little things that just make you feel better. Thank you, Reese at Starbucks.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

My Starbucks cup with its special message.
Espresso 101, my special little drive-thru coffee shop in Waldport, Oregon.

11/9/23

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

I have to admit, despite the Moments I’ve been writing, I’ve been having a difficult time. When so much of your life is focused on one thing – in my case, writing – and that one thing goes off the rails, it’s hard not to go off the rails with it.

For me, the knocks came fast and furious, like a one-two punch, and they weren’t small punches. Finding out that my books, all of my books, were banned from my local school district, including the school I graduated from, and where my name hangs on a wall featuring successful alumni, was the first punch. An uppercut, let’s say, firmly on my jaw. When I found out, I ran into my school and took a photo of the plaque with my name on it, just in case they would decide to take that down too. I still have the award, which is a pretty thing, sitting on a bookshelf in my office.

What’s so hard to accept with this (I have been banned before, but this time…), is that this is the administration that stood behind me when I was seventeen years old and a senior in that school. They had a creative writing magazine (they don’t anymore, nor a school newspaper) and they accepted a story I wrote. It was, amazingly, set in Heaven. God was a computer and Jesus was what I called a “computer mechanic” because “technician” wasn’t in general vocabulary yet. The end of days came, which was essentially the computer breaking down. The people of the earth looked up, shrugged, and then went about their lives.

Some parents found out about my story and said the school shouldn’t publish it, it was sacrilegious. The administration stood behind me and published it anyway. I felt protected, safe, lifted up…and respected.

And now…my books are banned. Hope Always Rises, which came out after the ban, never sat on a shelf in my school.

Soon after this, a list was published online, showing all of the 183,000 books that were stolen in order to train AI (artificial intelligence) programs for computers. Yes, stolen. The books were protected by copyright, but the books were taken without permission. And no compensation. I put my name in the search engine for the list, not expecting to find myself, but there I was, with my first book, The Home For Wayward Clocks.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s leading up to what happened this week, so bear with me.

I teach writers. I encourage and support them. I advocate for them. And suddenly, I found myself wondering if I should be. I wondered where the respect for writers was going, or if it even still existed at all. We’ve all seen commercials, television programs, and movies about people whose jobs were taken over by computers, and we’ve seen these people pack up their things and walk sadly away from places where they’ve worked hard, been faithful, been productive.

Suddenly, I pictured writers, pictured myself, closing my computer lid and walking away. My books were banned by a place that once supported me and had my back. And computers were writing books by stealing the words of real, hard-working writers.

It’s been difficult.

But last weekend, at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, I found myself surrounded with readers. They filled the hallways and the classrooms. At one point, when I stepped out of a room where I was presenting to go to another room where I was going to be on a panel, I found myself totally immersed in a crowd of people (all mostly taller than me, which isn’t hard to do), calling my name, asking questions, filling me with comments.

And, in one of my presentations, called Real Talk About The Writing Life, I heard myself saying that you have to choose to be a writer because you love it. You love words. You have passion for what you do and what you want to accomplish. And I heard myself. My voice, which started out shaky, built in power and conviction.

And respect. Respect for what writers do. Respect for what I do.

So where did that come from? Why did it come back?

The day before the festival, I received an email from a reader. Among other things, this reader said:

“I went into this book cautiously and came out in love with the characters and the story. I cried throughout most of the chapters as the story grabbed me by the throat and the heart and caused me to reflect so deeply on things and people I have lost. It caused me to look at suicide differently and that thought alone will take me some time to process. Thank you for writing this!”

Thank you for writing this. Oh, right back atcha.

And then, just a couple days later, I received another email from a different reader. And among other things, this reader said:

“First, I am a newer Christian and second, I was the wife of a man who committed suicide.   I wasn’t sure if your book would upset me by bringing back those memories but it was completely the opposite.  Your portal warmed my heart and brought peace to my remembering.  It just made sense! The way you captured the multitude of emotions and events that encompassed so many types of people – WOW!   But, oh, how you personified God!  It was perfect!  I still keep thinking of his flannel PJs. I have read books that I wanted to share with people but I have never had the overwhelming compulsion to buy your book for people in my life. Thank you for your creative genius and amazing imagination.  Truly, your book will never leave my heart!”

Trust me, this reader wasn’t the only one who cried.

This week, I gathered myself together. You know when a fighter falls into his corner and all those people work on him and lift him up and thrust him back into the ring?

I’ve been thrust back into the ring. And I’ve come out swinging.

Thank you to everyone who attended the book festival. Thank you to the mob that surrounded me. And thank you to the readers. Thank you to the readers. Thank you to the readers!

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Presenting at an earlier festival, as the keynote.
Photo taken when I was presenting as a featured reader.
And doing what I do best, what I love most: Writing.

11/2/23

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

This weekend is one of my favorite weekends of the year. I only have two – the first is the AllWriters’ Annual Retreat, when I bring in 20-some writers from around the country for a four-day retreat where we live, breathe, sleep and eat writing. But the second is the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, where I’m a part of bringing in over 60 writers to appear on panels and solo presentations…and bring in readers as well. I’ve been a part of the festival since its beginning 15 years ago, and I’ve been the program chair for the last three.

Why is it my favorite? Because there are WRITERS! And there are READERS! And it’s a lovefest to end all lovefests.

I know a lot of writers say they were a reader before they were a writer. I can’t really say that because I don’t know when I began writing. I was writing in my head and telling stories before I could read. And as soon as I could read, I latched on to it the way a baby latches on to a bottle – for sustenance. I’m of a generation where you learned to read in the first grade. I started with Dick and Jane like everyone else. But by the middle of first grade, my teacher was taking me to the library herself to get more challenging books, and a little after that, she was driving me to the junior high and high school during recesses so we could find books there for me to read.

But in my own head, what I was writing wasn’t the same as what I was reading. I just didn’t make the connection that I was doing what those amazing authors were doing, until the fifth grade when my teacher, Mrs. Fatticci, after hearing me read a story in front of the class, said from the back of the room, “Oh my god, Kathie. You’re a writer!”

And everything that went on in my head suddenly came together like the final piece of the puzzle. I BECAME a writer. It was ME. An identity.

But reading. So many books have meant so much to me. I fell in love with The Island Of The Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell when I was seven years old, even naming a special stuffed dog I received for Christmas Rantu, after the wild dog in the book. My dog was a dalmatian with a huge nose and bells in his ears, bought with S&H Green Stamps, but he and I were as close as Karana, the main character of the book, and the wild dog, Rontu. My Rontu sits on the top shelf of my closet and I see him every day. I scritch his nose. His ears still jingle.

I checked out A Candle In Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur from the Cloquet, Minnesota, public library so many times that the librarian finally just gave it to me and ordered a new copy for the library. Like my teachers, she took a special interest in me, wanting to provide me with books that challenged me, but didn’t let me know about certain things before I was ready to know about them. I took great pride in hunting through the shelves with her.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, used to read a book to us every day after recess, and when the book was done, we could raise our hands if we wanted to take the book home ourselves to read. I had to wait through two other students before I got to bring home Daddles by Ruth Sawyer. It was the first time I realized that books could have a sad ending, and I wept over that book repeatedly and did again when I read this book to my granddaughter. I kept forgetting to return this book to my third grade classroom, and when my mother marched me in to a PTA meeting with the book, demanding that I give it back to my teacher, Mrs. Campbell hugged me and told me to keep it as my very own.

Both of these books sit on a shelf behind me, right near my writing desk. They aren’t the originals, unfortunately. On one of my moves, I gave them away, thinking that as an adult, I shouldn’t have these books for younger readers. When I grew older and wiser, I sought them out and bought them again. These are friends that will stay with me forever.

Reading John Irving for the first time, with The World According To Garp, popped my eyes wide open to realistic writing with a quirky character, but it wasn’t until I read The Hotel New Hampshire that I started creating my own quirky characters. Irving made me realize that writers can write characters that are unlike anyone we’ve ever known, but are still so familiar, we know we’ve passed them on the street. Suzy The Bear in that book changed me forever – a woman who went through life dressed as a bear. Several reviewers have compared me to Irving, and I shiver with pleasure every time. The Hotel New Hampshire would be my one book that I could have on a desert island, though I hope to never find myself there.

And then Ellen Gilchrist. When I started reading her short stories, I learned that women, yes, women, can write openly and bluntly about sex and other “unmentionables”. I read her and wanted to be as brave, as forthright, as down-to-earth honest as she is. Like Gilchrist, I can write on the dark side – and bring light to it.

And I could go on to so many others. Ray Bradbury, with Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, which taught me how you can write reality, but bend it a little. And J.D. Salinger, with Seymour; An Introduction, where the main character tells his writer brother what he won’t be asked when he dies, but that he will be asked, “Were all of your stars out? Were you writing your heart out?” Lately, I’ve been reading that scene pretty much every day.

There is just nothing like words for squeezing my heart. Nothing like reading them. Nothing like writing them.

On Saturday, I will be fully surrounded by crowds of writers and crowds of readers and I will have a foot firmly in each group. There is just no greater joy than meeting readers who love you, and meeting writers who you love. Despite the fact that I will be running here, there and everywhere to make sure this festival goes off without a hitch, I will be running with wings on my feet.

I participated in an event at Barnes & Noble this week, and one of the writers said to me, “Oh, I saw you at that book festival once. You were EVERYWHERE!”

Oh, yes. And loving every minute of it.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

(You can see the details of this year’s Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books at www.sewibookfest.com)

A glimpse of the AllWriters’ classroom bookshelves. Yes, I’ve read them all.
My copies of Daddles and A Candle In Her Room
My signed copy of John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, a special gift from husband Michael Giorgio.

10/26/23

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

Remember the movie, On Golden Pond, where the father, played by Henry Fonda, is on a walk in the woods in a familiar place, but he becomes lost?

I was Henry Fonda last week, but I wasn’t in the woods. I was in a parking garage that I’ve been in many times before. Unlike the famous episode of Seinfeld, where the characters can’t find where they parked their car, I knew where my car was. I was in sight of it. But I had no idea where I was supposed to be, or how I was supposed to get there.

I was asked to come to one of Milwaukee’s tv/radio stations, to be recorded in an interview for a show called Conversations. I was delighted that I actually had to go to the station and be in a sound booth. My publicist told me that the station was housed in what used to be the Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee, a place that used to be a real showpiece, but was now simply called The Avenue. It’s mostly a home for offices and apartments, though there is a fabulous food court there.

I used to go to this mall often, when my husband worked downtown. We would shop there or have dinner, and we belonged to the Y at the very top of the building. So I was very familiar with the building as a mall, and I knew the parking garage inside and out.

My publicist sent me directions as to where to go from the parking garage to the station, but the directions came in photographs, which immediately raised red flags for me. If I get instructions in pictures instead of words for building anything, I know it’s a lost cause. I can’t interpret it. But here, I thought, well, you know the mall, you know the parking garage, how hard can it be?

I had to shift my schedule in order to do this. The interview was to be from 10 in the morning to 11. I moved a client to 11:30, figuring I’d have no trouble making it home. Remember that.

I found my way easily to the mall and the parking garage. It has several entrances, so I chose the one that looked the most like the picture. One of the pictures showed a sign that said, “3rd Street Market” with an arrow pointing straight. I found that sign…but it pointed to a guardrail several floors up. That was my first puzzle.

Deciding this meant I had to go to the nearby stairway, I parked my car and walked over. But the stairway only led to more parking spaces. Getting a little nervous, I returned to the floor with my car. It was creeping close to ten. I had to find the door that led to the mall which led to a skyway which led to my appointment. Looking out of the parking garage, I could see the skyway. But I couldn’t find any door that led to it.

This led to a search for a phone number. There was nothing from my publicist, and when I looked at the website for the station, there was no phone number. I finally found a number on Facebook, which brought me to someone in the newsroom. He was a newsguy waiting for someone else who was being interviewed, so he said someone would call me right back. She did, and she asked me where I was.

“3rd floor of the parking garage,” I said.

“Do you see the sign for the 3rd Street Market?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “But I don’t want to drive through a guardrail.”

“Oh, man. Someone must have moved it.” She asked me which direction I was facing.

This is a horrible thing to ask me. I have no idea about directions. I know left, right, straight, backwards. I looked out of the parking garage again. “I don’t see Lake Michigan,” I said. “So I have no idea which way I’m facing.” I described what I saw. Nothing sounded familiar to her.

“Do you see a doorway that has plywood on it?” she asked. I told her I did, and she told me to wait there, she’d come get me.

This was right up ten o’clock. I waited until 10:30. By this time, I noticed the door with the plywood was completely sealed off. No way in, no way out. The interview was now a half hour late, and even if it started right then, I wouldn’t have made it home for my 11:30 client.

I tried calling the newsroom again, but only got voicemail. Feeling between a rock and a hard place, I made the difficult decision to be unprofessional.

“I’m going home,” I said to the voicemail. “I don’t know where you are or how to get there. Someone was supposed to find me, but they haven’t. It’s a half-hour late, and I have to get back for a client. Please come up with directions with words, and not photogaphs.”

I was pretty close to tears when I left. I absolutely hate being lost. But even more, I hate being lost in a place that I know! I knew where I was. I just didn’t know how to get from here to there, because I didn’t know where there was.

I was about five minutes away when the person who was supposed to interview me called. “Where are you?” she asked. “There are two of us here, wandering around the parking garage, and we’ve been yelling your name.”

For some reason, the vision of this, two people wandering around a busy parking garage in downtown Milwaukee, my name echoing as they yelled, made me laugh. She began to laugh too. “Wasn’t there an episode of Seinfeld about this?” I gasped.

“We were just saying that!” she laughed back.

“Well, I left,” I said. “I’m sorry, I have to be back for a client.”

“Do you want to turn around and come back?”

No way in hell. “No, I’m sorry, but my client is at 11:30. I need to get there.”

So we arranged that I would go back on Friday, three days later. I had absolutely no confidence that I would find my way. She told me to call as soon as I arrived in the parking garage.

I returned and found a different entrance, with that same sign, but not pointing to a guardrail. I parked my car and called her. She said, “Do you see a doorway?” I did, and it didn’t have any plywood. “Go in there and wait in the vestibule. I’ll be right there.”

I went in an actual door and waited. While I did, I looked in at what used to the be mall’s rotunda. I knew that! I recognized that! I knew where I was!

She called. “Where are you?”

“I’m by the rotunda.”

“The what?”

Oh, dear lord. I described what I was seeing, she told me to wait, and finally, she popped out of the elevator. As we walked to the station, I realized I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be. And the inside of the mall was so different, I couldn’t say exactly where we were.

But I made it. And the interview went beautifully. It will air sometime in January.

And my moment of happiness? I made it back to my car. Without help.

I have never been so happy to see my car in my life. It was never lost. Only I was. I did a little happy dance, yelled my name out into the echoing parking garage, and then drove happily home.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

The Grand Avenue Mall in its heyday. I rode on the elevator pictured here on the right on the day of the interview – the Avenue looks nothing like Grand Avenue.
The rotunda, which I looked out on and recognized. I’m so glad it’s still there.

10/19/23

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

This week, my daughter Olivia turned 23 years old. 23 is amazing to me – at 23, I’d been married for a few years, and had a baby on the way. And while that marriage made me happy at the time, and that baby, my oldest son, Christopher, had me over the moon (and still does), that is definitely not what I want for my youngest daughter, or what I wanted for my oldest daughter, or for my boys.

I was so freaking young.

I am at both ends of the spectrum for motherhood. My first three kids were born when I was 23, 25, and 26. Olivia was born when I was 40. For a large part of my first three kids’ lives, I was a stay-at-home mom, sometimes working part-time, not working full-time until my youngest (then) was in kindergarten. With Olivia, I gave birth, and an hour later, I was sitting up in my hospital bed, husband sleeping on the pull-out sofa, baby sleeping in one of those clear plastic bassinets, and I was working on my laptop. I didn’t have the studio yet, but I was teaching everywhere, and when I returned to teaching, baby Olivia came with me, parked in the center of the workshop table in her car seat, and later, I brought a portacrib and she napped in the little kitchen just off my classroom. When I started AllWriters’, Olivia came with me every day to “Mama’s building”, and when her father arrived after work, I drove them home and then I returned to my building and kept on going.

And of course, I was writing all the while.

Now, I have these adult children. Christopher will turn 40 (40!) in January, Andy 38 in March, Katie 37 in April, and Olivia is 23. We talk a lot about diversity these days, and at least in representation in the work force, my kids ARE diversity. Christopher works at QuadGraphics. Andy is the assistant manager of a large grocery store. Katie is a math instructor at a university in Louisiana. And Olivia is currently getting her Masters in Art Therapy at Mount Mary University. One child did not go to college, three did, and one has advanced degrees and one is working on obtaining that advanced degree.

I value a college and graduate school education. But I also value individuality and excelling at who you are. As far as I’m concerned, my kids are the most brilliant creatures on this planet, and my granddaughter is following in their footsteps.

I feel under the gun right now because I’m working on my new novel, and for the first time ever, I have a deadline to finish that novel. It already has a release date, and I’m not even done with it yet! I’m enjoying the writing, but I’m not enjoying the pressure. I’ve always taught my students to keep their eyes on their words and not their word count or the page count. I tell them about the musical, You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, and about the character Schroeder who sings while writing a book report that has to be a pre-determined number of words. “I liked this book very, very, very, very, very, very much!” he sings and writes, and then anxiously counts the words. In a similar vein, I am writing with one eye on the calendar.

I don’t like it.

So while working on the new novel this week (it’s called Don’t Let Me Keep You, by the way), I came across these lines:

“Hildy still remembered her mother saying to her, when she arrived home from her elopement to Hank, and when she informed her parents of her very first pregnancy, ‘You only want to be a mother? Just a mother?’

There was no just in being a mother, there was no only. Hildy remembered looking at her mother then and realizing that just and only explained so much about her own upbringing.”

And I felt jarred. I felt like my own character, Hildy, reached out through the pages and throttled me.

Did you know that writers are in constant conversation with themselves? We are, and we are the worst possible nags. In my case, with this book, I sounded like Hildy’s mother when I talked to myself. I’ve wanted to write this book for a long time, ever since I touched on this topic a bit in a chapter in my novel, All Told, about a young woman who loved the Disney princesses, loved watching them, playing with toys based on them, wanted to be an artist and a dreamer, all while being pushed to play with Rubik’s Cubes and learn about science and math (which she hated), because her mother so wanted her to be a part of stepping up alongside men in predominantly male-oriented careers.

But when I started writing this book, with all my other books standing behind me and the storylines covering issues such as abuse and rape and body image and suicide and misogyny (I sound so cheerful, don’t I? Well, my work has been described as dark and disturbing, but also edgy, brave, and honest.), I heard myself saying to myself, “You’re just writing about motherhood? Just motherhood?”

And I struggled.

And then this week, my character Hildy shook her finger at me from the page, and said words that I wrote, but don’t remember writing: “There was no just in being a mother, there was no only.”

All alone in my office and in my home, I looked up from my computer and said out loud, “Oh my god. Are you listening? Did you just hear yourself?”

And then I got to work.

I prize my role as mother (“Mommy” and “Mom”, by my older kids, “Mama”, by Olivia) above everything else that I do. I enjoy being with my children more than anyone else; I loved talking to them as kids, I love talking to them as adults. They are adults, but I am still Mom and Mama, and Christopher is my boy, Andy is my boy, Katie is my girl, and Olivia is my baby. There is a lost little one in there too, before Olivia came along, and while I didn’t have the opportunity to raise him, I did house him for a while, my body the only shelter he ever knew, and I hold him dear as well.

There is no just in motherhood. It’s a lifelong role. My Moment this week was hugging the stuffing out of my youngest, wishing her a happy birthday, giving her gifts, and then watching her head off confidently back to her apartment at graduate school.

Amazing. Thanks, Hildy. I think I have it now.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

My 3 big kids. From left, Andy, Katie, Christopher.
And then came Olivia, when the big kids were 16, 14, and 13.
My four, back when Olivia was still small. Christopher in back, then Andy and Katie, then Olivia.
And next: me with Grandgirl Maya Mae.

 

 

10/12/23

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

This is going to be one of those “I’m not so sure this should have made me happy, but it did, so I guess I’m going to write about it” posts.

So in 2019, my novel, If You Tame Me, was published. This is the opening of the synopsis:

On some birthdays, there’s just nothing else to do but buy an iguana. For newly fifty-five year old Audrey, the world has become as befuddling as it was when she was fifteen. There’s a president in the White House whose name she can’t bring herself to say. Young women are wearing “Not The F-Word” t-shirts, declaring what Audrey considers herself – a (F)eminist – to be as awful as the crudest curse word. There’s been no marriage for Audrey, there’s been no children. At fifty-five, Audrey finds herself questioning all of her ideals and goals…and her own authenticity.

Basically, the book is about a woman who considers herself a feminist, but wonders if she can do so when she feels that her life is incomplete because she doesn’t have a husband. So she adopts an iguana and names him Newt.

Truly, this has something to do with my Moment, even though I don’t have an iguana. This wondering if I can be a feminist because…well, you’ll see.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about going to my 45th high school reunion. Specifically, I wrote about my eyes, how they were crossed because of strabismus until I had my fifth surgery when I was fifteen years old. Also, from the time I was six until I was twelve, I lived in a very northern Minnesota town where, the last year I was there, they finally allowed girls to wear pants on Tuesdays and Thursdays – as long as they were polyester pant suits or dress pants. No jeans. No corduroys. And up top, no t-shirts, just blouses. Consequently, when I went to my first day of sixth grade in a new town in Wisconsin, where kids wore Levis and bell-bottoms and t-shirts to school, and I was in a bright red polyester pants suit, I sorta stood out. Which led to lots of what we called then, “teasing.” I was in that town through sophomore year, and no one ever forgot the pantsuit or accepted my eyes…or me. The night before school pictures was a nightmare. My mother would practice with me for hours as to how to hold my head so the photo would look like I had straight eyes. It never worked. There were a couple years when she refused to buy my pictures, and so I bought them myself. I think every kid wants a record of who they were.

First semester junior year, we moved again and I attended Cedarburg high school. When I was sitting in the bleachers with the marching band, a blond-haired green-eyed boy came to sit next to me. “You’re new,” he said. “I wanted to meet you because you have the most beautiful eyes.”

That’s all it took. I married him a month before I turned twenty-one, when I was in between my junior and senior years of college. That marriage lasted seventeen years, before I walked away. He no longer saw me as beautiful.

In the middle of that marriage, I lost a ton of weight. I went to the Y every day, doing advanced step-aerobics and lifting weights. I considered training for body building and I was asked to be an instructor. One evening, as I walked from the Y to the library, I was still wearing, as was popular then, white capri skin-tight exercise leggings, a blue leotard, red legwarmers, and a black leather bomber jacket. As I approached the library doors, a man standing there watched me. He began to slowly nod. As I passed, he said, “Oh, that’s nice.”

I admit it. I grinned from ear to ear and called out, “Thank you!”

Was I a feminist? I thought I was.

I began working as a weight loss instructor. Every day, I had to dress like a model, complete with make-up that I learned how to apply professionally. And every day, I signed people on to the weight loss program I worked for, because people wanted to look like me. I was called beautiful.

Each time, I smiled and said, “Thank you!”

Was I a feminist?

And attending my first writing conference, in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, I turned thirty years old. On my birthday, I went into the cafeteria of the school to have lunch with my mentor, writer Ellen Hunnicutt, who was the person who encouraged me to go to the conference, and to fight back against my husband’s protests by applying for a full scholarship, which I received. As I got to the table, she looked up at me and smiled. “You know, you’re heading into a very handsome middle age,” she said.

I wasn’t nuts about the middle age, but the “handsome”  struck me. And my reaction was the same. I grinned from ear to ear and said, “Thank you!”

Was I a feminist?

It’s been a lot of years since then. I no longer wear make-up, and haven’t since the middle 90s. I still go to the gym several times a week, walking the treadmill and lifting weights, but I am no longer a size 4. And for the most part, I’m happier.

But that word, beautiful, isn’t used so much anymore.

Last week, I was coming home in my Chrysler 200 convertible. The top was down. The music was up. I wore my sunglasses and I felt relaxed and comfortable. As I waited at a light by a bar, I saw three relatively young men standing just outside the door. One of them turned and looked at me…or my car, I figured. But as I drove around the corner, he stepped away from his group and walked so he could see me. And then he called out, “Hello, beautiful!”

And without even thinking, I grinned from ear to ear and called out, “Thank you!”

A minute later, I pulled into my garage, turned off the car and the music, put away my sunglasses, and sat there for a moment.

And then I giggled like a 16-year old. As if I’d just been complimented by a really cute, blond-haired, green-eyed boy, or a man who’d nodded his appreciation outside the library door.

Which was immediately followed with the thought, just like Audrey in my book, could I still be considered a feminist if I turned into a blushing, giggling, and grateful woman, even at 63, when someone called me beautiful?

I was ready to come down hard on myself. But then I didn’t. Because…

I didn’t need to be called beautiful for validation. I know that I’m smart. I know that I’m creative, that I have talent, and that I have abilities. I’ve had 14 books published, and a 15th is on the way. I had an idea, plucked it out of the air, and turned it into an international business, soon to be 19 years old, all without losing my humanitarianism and compassion and desire to help people.

Nobody ever believed I could do these things. But I believed. And then I did it.

I also believe that I can stand next to any man and be an equal, even if there are things he can do that I can’t, because there are things I can do that he can’t. I believe that women should have control over their own bodies. I believe that a woman is a woman first, before she is a wife, a mother, or any other role.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being tickled about being called beautiful, even when I’m 63.

With no make-up.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

2nd grade picture. After 3 eye surgeries.
Engagement announcement photo, taken during my sophomore year in college.
Working as a weight loss instructor.
First author photo.
Now.

10/5/23

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

Man, I have been all over this week. And I don’t mean physically – I mean it’s been time to grab the seatbelt and buckle in for the rollercoaster ride of emotions. There have been many times I’ve wanted to shout, “Stop this ride! I wanna get off!”

Even sleep hasn’t been an escape. The dreams are in the rollercoaster seat behind me.

Ever since I found out that one of my novels, The Home For Wayward Clocks, is a part of the Books3 collection of 183,000 books that were stolen for AI training (and yes, I said stolen), I’ve been in a tizzy. That, combined with book banning, just really has me in an Orwell’s 1984-Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 state of mind.

For those who don’t know, The Home For Wayward Clocks’ being on the Books3 list means that it was used to train AI, and it was used without my permission, without my publisher’s permission, and without any compensation. It, and 183,000 others, despite being protected by copyright, were just used to teach AI how to write. Add that to, going back a few months, I found out that my own books have been removed from my school district’s library shelves. There is a plaque on the wall of my old high school, declaring me to be a successful alumni – but no one within the building can read what has made me successful. I now own a t-shirt that says, “I write banned books,” created for me by a very thoughtful student. My husband, Michael, brought me a pin that his workplace is handing out. It says, “I read banned books.” Michael had one modified to read, “I read and write banned books.”

I never wanted a t-shirt or a button. I never wanted to write banned books. But now, I’ve apparently done just that, and I also have apparently helped those behind the AI development to create what I consider to be a monster and a dark indication of where we could end up.

I can see where AI, in many fields, would be a good thing. But not in the arts. The arts belong to the creative and imaginative and innovative human mind, and to those who appreciate it.

Today was a culmination of this. It started when I double-booked myself; a piano tuner was showing up to tune my beloved piano, and at the same time, a reporter from a local paper was coming to interview me about what I thought about AI. The tuner showed up first, and for a while, I watched in amazement as he exposed the insides of my piano and then used a wonderful combination of his cell phone, which listened to the strike of each key and told him if it was sharp or flat, then manual tools to adjust the strings,  his ears to listen, and his hands to play. I was enthralled, but then had to run downstairs to the classroom when the reporter showed up.

As she and I talked about AI and what it means to writers, what it means to the publishing industry, and really, what it means to the world, we could hear the tuner upstairs. We heard notes go from sour to sweet. And from time to time, the tuner and the piano would burst into song.

We talked for quite a while, this young reporter and I. And while we were each from a different generation, and a different field of writing, I saw my anxiety echoed in her questions, and in her words.

In the meantime, in between the arrivals of tuner and reporter, I received a box in the mail. Inside was a beautiful painting, created by a friend. She saw my daily photographs, saying good morning to the Pacific Ocean, while I was in Oregon several weeks ago, and she was inspired to create her own unique vision of that, and then gift it to me. I held it in my hands and returned for a moment in my mind to that lovely magical place. This painting was created by human hands, and behind it was human emotion. How she felt when she saw my photos, recreated in a painting which then came to me, and recreated my own emotions, plus the feelings of gratitude for this friend.

All without any type of computer intervention. Just human thought and emotion.

Before he left, the piano tuner sat at my piano and played. I heard that piano sing in a way I’ve never heard it sing before. And it sang under the effort of human hands, and a mind that knew how to put, not just technically correct notes into the air, but emotion too.

Oh, it was lovely.

When everyone was gone and I was alone again, I went upstairs to my office, where I write, and where I reach out to people who want to write. I carried with me my copy of The Home For Wayward Clocks, the first one I lifted out of the box when it arrived in my home back in 2011. The one I signed to myself, This one is mine. Which is how I’ve signed every one of my first-books-out-of-the-box since then. I slid that book back in its place on my shelf, the first one in a line of fourteen. Soon to become fifteen.

They are mine. Created by an imagination and a brain that is uniquely my own. Created by hard work and hope and always passion. They are mine, and for others to read, not to abuse.

I have great respect for the human mind, for the creativity and imagination and emotion that it creates and shares. Knowing that there are people behind the books I read, the music I hear, the art I gaze at, just adds to my appreciation and absolute joy and gratitude of being a part of that world.

For a while this afternoon, I soaked it all in. With the passion of the journalist, wanting to get the words just right, the passion of the pianist as he made my piano sing, the passion of the artist who recreated my favorite place on this earth on a canvas that I can turn in my chair at any time and see.

Which means that for that same while, I was peaceful, I was hopeful, and I felt such a part of an incredible segment of our world.

I hope there are many, many others who share that, who feel it, and will let those behind AI and book banning know that we are not willing to give that up in our lifetimes, and for future generations.

Hope always rises.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

The piano tuner, working his magic.
The painting. Look familiar?
All 14 of my books. Created by me, my mind, with no unnecessary AI intervention. All me.
The Home For Wayward Clocks. The one that started it all.