Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dear Manese: A Letter I Won't Send to my Sponsored Child

Dear Manese,

I got my first letter from you the other day--scrawling cursive Haitian Creole (helpfully translated by a someone else into English at the bottom). I couldn't tell, reading it, whether you'd written it before or after getting your first letter from me.  It wasn't dated.  It was a lovely letter, though.  You thanked me for helping you stay in school.  You wrote "God bless you," and I noticed that the Creole word for God, Bondye, actually comes from the French bon Dieu, which translates not as "God" but as "good God."

I thought of what I would write to you next.  I also thought of the things I could never say.  Such as: we're going to Hawaii over spring break.  Or, I need to lose a few pounds.  Or, we've been so busy this winter we haven't had time to visit our mountain house at all. 

I ate fresh blueberries on my breakfast cereal today, even though it isn't blueberry season.  It's too cold to ride my horse.  Yesterday I watched my daughter play her second match for her high school tennis team; the coach surprised them by handing out long-sleeved shirts, in the team colors, embroidered with 'Viking Tennis,' beforehand.  To go with the two short-sleeved shirts, two skorts, tennis dress, and warmups she'd already received.   When I wondered out loud why the county schools didn't have stronger tennis teams, my son said, casually, "Tennis is a rich kid's sport."  I'd truly never thought of it that way.

Manese, you are exactly my daughter's age.   I know.  It's one of the reasons I chose you out of the children awaiting sponsorship at Help One Now.  I also liked your photograph, the way you stood with one hand on your hip, chin lifted, unsmiling, as though really, you had more important things to do.  My daughter might have posed the same way, felt the same awkwardness I imagined you were feeling at the time.

I know that you go to school at the orphanage at Drouin, but are not yourself an orphan.  I know that Help One Now started out only sponsoring the orphans there, but that one day, when a Help One Now staffer was visiting the school, a small child fainted in one of the classrooms.  Why?  Because her parents were only able to feed her every other day.  And that the teacher told the HON staffer that the girl would probably become an orphan in a month or two--not because her parents would die, but because, in desperation, they would abandon her at the orphanage so that she might eat every day.  Good God.  The staff member walked out into the fields and sobbed, and later flew back to the United States and rewrote the sponsorship program so that children could get schooling and meals and still stay with their families.

I know that Haitians are supposed to get free education but fewer than 10% actually do.  I know that most Haitian teachers themselves have not gotten through high school, and that the standards of education there are woefully inadequate.  I know that education is a way out of poverty.

Manese, I have such hope for you.  You are strong and tough.  My daughter, too, is strong and tough.  I see parallels between you that neither of you might ever see:  a black Haitian girl and a white Tennessean.  For starters, you both are loved equally by a very good God.

That, and you both have terrible handwriting.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Raising them Right, Raising them Safely

I have no idea what I'm going to say.

This week, the internet--at least, the parts I read--is a-swirl.  On the one hand, Kristen Howerton made a plea to her children's schools and the world at large to quit using every random calendar holiday as a reason to smother kids with candy and gifts.  Somehow her children had gotten the idea that St. Patrick's day was always celebrated with leprechaun traps, green glitter, and gold coins, and when that didn't happen in their home they were disgruntled in the extreme.

Kristen's post generated over a thousand comments and was reprinted in the Huffington Post.  Oddly, at least to me, a lot of the comments were from crafty mothers outraged that she'd dissed the Elf-on-a-Shelf.

Meanwhile, CNN  infamously decided to feel sorry for the Steubenville rapists, two 16-year-old boys who were convicted of repeatedly assaulting a 16-year-old girl by the photos of the assault that they and their friends posted online.  Because, you know, it's funny to put rape photos on Twitter.

If you're wondering what sort of scars are caused by sexual abuse--if you're still uncertain whether or not it's that big of a deal--I suggest you head over to Rachel Held Evans's blog.  She's running a week-long series on recovering from sexual abuse; there are already several excellent posts there.  Spoiler alert:  it is that big of a deal.

I'm trying to decide whether I think all these things are related.  I'm not sure.  The homeschooling moms who so hotly defended their right to celebrate everything with their own craftiness would be appalled, I'm sure.  But isn't the overwhelming theme one of entitlement?  I'm entitled to candy.  I'm entitled to--rape?  to treat a classmate with such overwhelming contempt, such non-humanness?  It's a big leap--but to me not an unthinkable one, as the CNN reporter laments not that these boys and their companions were able to act with such callousness, but that their "promising" futures were going to be compromised by felony convictions.

Hey--you don't want your future compromised by a felony conviction?  Don't commit a felony.  You don't want to be on the sex offenders list?  Don't commit a sex offense.  It speaks volumes that these children didn't get it to the point that they not only committed the crime, they publicized it.  They took their unconscious victim around to several different parties--parties with alcohol and parents who were willing to look the other way.

I promise, I'm really not trying to say that if you give your children too many presents they'll turn into rapists.  But I do think that at some point we've got to make life less about indulging the little darlings and more about expecting things from them.  Expecting moral behavior.  Expecting them to suffer consequences--when they're still tiny, when the stakes are low.  Expecting them to be disappointed, and whine, and get over it, because the universe doesn't actually revolve around them, and life isn't going to shower them with glitter all the time.

Am I making any sense at all?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sarah Vs. Lizard Brain

Strike that.  Reverse it.  (Bonus points if you get the reference.)

Sarah is still not Gully, of course; she never will be.   After Saturday's superlative foxhunt I'm more appreciative of her wonderful qualities and the partnership we've developed so far.  I've also developed some insight into my Lizard Brain. 

Yes, I said foxhunt.  You can stop that about the poor foxes.  Of course we don't kill them.  If we killed them, what would we chase next time?  In this particular hunt, hounds ran one fox to earth (translate, "into his underground den, where we left him alone") early, then ran a coyote off the property we're allowed to hunt over, then may or may not have found another scent, but didn't find another quarry. 

Between family commitments, bad weather, and spending 2 weeks in Florida, I hadn't ridden to hounds since late December, and this was my last chance this season.  I went out first flight--that means fast and jumping--and we had the most ridiculously fun run, across open fields, up and down a few wooded ravines, a quick canter down a paved road, more open fields, a few bogs--flying.  Flying.  Sarah was in her element, happy, sure-footed, and brave.  At a brief pause, the 13-year-old girl riding ahead of me turned to grin and say, "Good thing we have good horses," and she and I laughed, not because it was funny, but out of sheer joy.  It's a wonderful thing, to ride good horses doing what they love.

On Sunday, not surprisingly, my butt hurt.  You don't use your gluteus maximus much when you ride in a ring, but going downhill fast you have to push your hips forward to stay in balance.  Apparently I'd stayed in balance quite well.   Now, I have complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This is related to but not quite the same as the PTSD suffered by battlefield combatants: in complex PTSD, repeated trauma actually causes physical changes to a child's developing brain.  The good news is that the changes aren't absolutely permanent, but the science behind reversing them is in its infancy. While  I've been able to make progress with some of the modern treatments, I'm still not wired like most people.

Whenever I've had a traumatic trigger, my legs cramp in specific ways.  I don't know exactly why--I'd guess either muscle memory or that my Lizard Brain (the tiny ancient brain we all have, camped out beneath our big Emotive Human Brains) thinks it's time to Flee.  You know, Flight or Fright.  The Lizard Brain--yours, mine, everyone's--is never particularly sophisticated.  Mine tends to be both stubborn and frantic.   This thing with my legs cramping is reliable enough that I use it to gauge why I'm really upset about something.  Is my husband at fault, or is he the innocent victim of a hit-and-run from my past?  (Do my legs hurt?  Why, yes.  Yes, they do.  Then it isn't his fault.)  I can't sleep when I'm triggered.  Neither could you if your Lizard Brain was skittering madly inside your skull, shrieking, "Run!  Run!  Run While You Still Can!"

We have a neurotic elderly dog who panics and pees inappropriately during thunderstorms.  For awhile we tried him in a Thundershirt, a tight swaddling band that was supposed to reduce his anxiety.  It didn't seem to do a damn bit of good.  However, at the same time I was taking some medicine (prednisone, for asthma) which caused a huge and wholly predicable surge in my anxiety levels.  My Lizard Brain was tap-dancing, and I couldn't sleep.  So when I saw the dog walk by in a Thundershirt, I thought, I need a Thundershirt.  So I went online.

They actually make things very like Thundershirts for humans, mostly for autistic children.  They also make weighted blankets.  My Lizard Brain licked its lips.  Mmmmm.  Heavy blanket.   MMmmm.  I ordered one immediately.  It's the size of a zipped sleeping bag and weighs 25 pounds.  I don't sleep with it every night, in part because to my husband it seems like I'm locked away in a cloth sarcophagus, and in part because since I can't travel with it I don't want to become too dependent on it.  But it's fabulous, I tell you.  Supposedly it helps the body's proprioception, which is to say awareness of itself in space (gymnasts have very good proprioception) and also activates deep pressure sensors, which in turn causes a release of serotonin.  In any case, it has the effect of slapping my Lizard Brain into a little tiny jar and screwing on the lid.

Which is good, because it turns out the leg thing works both ways:  when I'm triggered, my legs hurt, but also, when my legs hurt, I'm triggered.  And the glutes must be close enough to the legs.  I lay awake last night, perfectly content with my day, my life, even my past, and my Lizard Brain went running up and down the hall, yelling, "Her legs hurt!  It must be worse than we thought!  Run!"

"No, you idiot," I told my Lizard Brain.  "I went foxhunting.  It was fabulous."

Lizard Brains must be preverbal.  Mine ran in circles and wailed.  I stretched my legs, futilely, watched the ceiling, thought about Sarah jumping the coop.  Thought about Sarah's perfect happiness; about the way she came up to me when I went out to feed on Sunday, thought about how she said, quite clearly, (when horses know you well they speak to you), "Wasn't that fun, Mom?  Can we do it again?  Wasn't that fun?" 

Sleep was nowhere.  Lizard Brain rampant.  Then I remembered the heavy blanket.  I fetched it and tucked it all around me.  Ohhhh.  Lizard Brain sighed in relief.  It curled itself up neatly, at the base of my head where it belongs, and within moments we were both sound asleep.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Not Gully

Yesterday I had to talk myself into going out to ride.  I had plenty of time for it, I'd done quite a bit of good work on my novel, the sun was shining and my horse needed exercise.  On the other hand, I've still got this cough I can't quite lose, it was cold and windy, and it was a day when I was acutely aware that the horse I'd be riding was Not Gully.

I could have ridden Gully, my beloved brown pony.  He was out in the front field.  If I'd groomed him and saddled him and climbed aboard, he would have been very pleased.  He also would have limped.  He's limped more or less constantly for a year now, despite everything the vets have tried; I know what the basic problem is, and I know he's unlikely to ever be sound again.  It breaks my heart.

Sarah, my new mare, is the bomb.  She's bright and smart and willing and sweet.  She comes running when I call her.  She's implacable in the hunt field, she loves to jump, and she tries hard to please me.  Even her occasional 1200-lb hissy fits are mostly amusing.

But she is not Gully.  She's not Botswana, either.  I very nearly bought a horse named Botswana, once I'd faced the truth about Gully, but the deal fell through.  When I went to try Sarah, I kept comparing her to Botswana.  We were spending the night near the farm where Sarah'd been raised, so that I could ride her again in the morning, and at dinner I kept ruminating to my daughter how Sarah was or was not like Botswana.  Finally my daughter had had enough.  "Mom," she said firmly, "Botswana is off.  The.  Table.  Please quit comparing a horse you can buy to one that you can't."

She was right, of course, and the next day, when I bopped around fields and over fences on Sarah, I thought, what more do I want than this?  She's the nicest horse I've ever owned.  She's the first one I've bought for myself (as opposed to for my children) who already had knew how to jump before I got her.  She's young; we should have many happy years ahead.

When I bought Gully I didn't have a clue.  I got him untried over the internet, from 2000 miles away, because I wanted a Connemara.  He'd had six weeks of under saddle training in Western tack.  I bought him to be my first event horse, because I thought eventing looked cool.

This should have been a recipe for disaster, but I was lucky indeed.  I made mistakes, but Gully forgave them, and he loved whatever we did.  He loved to go to new places.  He loved eventing.  He loved me with a strange singular intensity.  I remain the one human in the world that he cares about.  He pours all his affection into me.

That Sarah was Not Gully was obvious from the start.  Forget that she's a 16.2 hand grey mare instead of a 15.1 hand bay gelding.  When I ask her to go, she keeps going--I don't have to kick every stride.  Her natural gallop swallows the ground.  Gully had to be made to gallop, and he never achieved the ease of Sarah's stride.  Gully liked to hang the weight of his head onto my hands; Sarah, thank God, doesn't do that.  In time she'll be a much easier horse to ride.

But when I took her down to Florida she was thrown out of her comfort zone; not entirely trusting me yet, she whinnied and fretted and bolted during lessons.  She saved her worst moments for our lessons with Angelica, which was just golden, as anytime I show up at Angelica's barn I look slightly outclassed anyhow. ("She's teaching you?" more than one person said while I was there.)  She was a big 'ol whopping pile of Not Gully; Gully'd loved our trips to Florida, and always, always behaved beautifully there.

Of course, Sarah was five years old.  When Gully was five I'd ridden him for eighteen months already, but barely taken him away from the barn where he was boarded.  He was six the first time we evented; twelve the first time we went to Florida. 

I rode Sarah 4 times at Beginner Novice, the lowest recognized level of eventing:  a starter trial last August, three weeks after I got her, in which she threw the biggest hissy fit of her life in the dressage warmup, bless her, then romped over the cross country course; a recognized trial in September, another in late October, and one at the end of our first week in Florida.  Then, the second week, I bumped her up to Novice.  It was a challenging Novice track and she did great.

I can't remember exactly how many times I rode Gully at Beginner Novice, but I know the competitions were spread out over more than two years--and only after I'd owned him two years already.  I've got Sarah on a much faster trajectory, because she and I both know much more than Gully and I did back when.  Gully did have baby horse hissy fits--I remember them--but mostly I remember all our long glorious days together, the moments when we felt in perfect partnership, the long years I felt so happy and lucky to be riding him.

Yesterday I talked myself into going out to the barn.  I rode Sarah in our ring, practicing a technique Angelica taught me for keeping my hands still and my elbows loose.  Sarah loved my hands being still and my elbows loose: before long, she was giving me the best trot she's done to date, loose and through and straight, and then she gave me a dose of the best possible canter.  Afterward I rubbed her face, which she likes, and then she laid her head gently against my chest so that I could use both hands to rub behind her ears.   Gully never did this.  But then, Sarah is not Gully.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Easter in the Osa

Well, that was exciting.  We all of us (husband, son, daughter, me) got home yesterday in time to watch the new Pope be announced, by an ancient cardinal who mumbled something in Latin no one could understand, not even the TV commentators who knew Latin, and then to watch Francis I himself come out and ask the people packed into St. Peter's square to pray for him. 

I think I'm going to like him.  Seems like a stand-up guy.  First non-European pope in over 1200 years (and the other non-Europeans came from right around the Mediterranean).  First Jesuit, and I tend to admire Jesuits.  Probably the first with a degree in chemistry, which means he and I have at least one thing in common besides being Catholic and liking red shoes.

So, in honor of Francis I, I thought I'd tell the story of my one experience with the church in Latin America.  This was in the most remote part of Costa Rica, the Osa peninsula.  From the capital city of St. Jose, there are two ways to get to the Osa:  twelve hours of driving on mostly unpaved roads, or prop plane.  The landing strip in the airport at Puerto Jimenez was the only paved surface there; our 12 mile trip from the airport took 45 minutes over dirt roads in the back of a pickup truck.  (Lest you imagine we were roughing it:  we were not.  We were staying at a gorgeous EcoLodge, Lapa Rios.)

Easter Sunday occurred during our stay at Lapa Rios.  I might miss Mass sometimes when traveling, but not on Easter.   The folks at the lodge assured us that there was a Catholic church in Puerto Jimenez, but they didn't know the Mass schedule.  So they made up a time, and drove us there in the back of a pickup truck, and dropped us off.

The church was a cinderblock building painted a cheerful yellow.  (It's rainforest.  If you want a building to last, build it of something insects can't eat.)  The windows and doors were wide open, fans blowing, a group of musicians playing in the corner.  We were early, but people were wandering in, and a young couple had their baby there to be baptized.

To say we stood out would be an understatement.  We'd dressed appropriately, my daughter and I in light dresses and sandals, my son in khaki shorts.  But we were rather pale-skinned compared to the rest of the congregation.  My daughter's blond hair stood out like the sun.  Puerto Jimenez is not a tourist town.  People stared. 

The priest, a man with tan skin and silver hair, came down the aisle, fully robed, pausing to shake hands and speak to people.  I saw him notice us, and I mentally girded my loins.  I'd spent the month before the trip attempting to learn some Spanish from tapes I played in the car.  I reviewed greetings in my head.  I tried to think of how to say, "We're from Tennessee."

The priest smiled at me and extended his hand.  He leaned forward.  He said, "I take it you folks are Americans."

He was from Wisconsin.

I'd brought handy-dandy Mass response cheat sheets that I'd printed off the internet:  the Mass in Spanish on one side of the page, English on the other.  Between the Easter service and the baptism those proved utterly useless.  I'd been to Mass in France, where I partially speak the language, and in Italian, where we could follow along in a book.  Here we had to just stand, sit, kneel, and listen.  Which was fine. 

At the sign of peace, the baptismal parents, holding their baby, boldly came to us and shook our hands.  After that, everyone around us was willing to shake our hands, too.  Then the priest said something I didn't understand at all, but, amazingly, my children, with their once-a-week Spanish classes in their Catholic elementary school, did.  Before I knew it both children had slipped out of the pew and were heading up the aisle, along with every other child in attendance.  The priest gathered them all around the altar, holding hands, and they prayed the Our Father together in Spanish.  My children knew it. 

Suddenly, we didn't stand out as much anymore.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Evangelical Catholicism--Oxymoron or No?

Warning:  this post will be about religion.  It's also a little bit whack.  If you're not in the mood for that sort of thing, go back to looking at the cat pictures.   There seem to be a lot of them on Facebook just now.

The other day, I asked a priest friend of mine who he hoped would be the next pope.  He replied that while he didn't have a specific cardinal in mind, he really hoped that the next pope would be evangelical.  My first thought was that it sounded like he wanted the pope to be Southern Baptist.

In further conversation, it turned out my priest friend and I had both stumbled upon the same book (I'd picked it up as part of my Lenten reading):  Forming Intentional Disciples: the Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.  I'm not sure what I expected the book to be, but it wasn't what I got, which was a careful, data-supported view of why people leave the Catholic church, where they go once they leave, and how to get them to stay.  According to the book, the biggest source of dissatisfaction most Catholics have is that they don't feel a personal relationship with Jesus.  They don't have a feeling that they are using their gifts in service to God.

Personal relationship with Jesus is right up there with evangelical on the list of phrases you don't often hear Catholics say.  Which is probably why, despite feeling that I DO have a personal relationship with Jesus, and DO strive to listen for a calling and use my gifts in His service, I feel fairly uncomfortable writing this blog post about it.

I'm going to tell you one of my Jesus stories.

Several years ago, a note in our parish bulletin said that Faith In Action was holding a volunteer training at a particular date and time.  FIA actually works out of a building owned by St. Anne Church, and I knew some people who worked there, but I'd never thought about working there myself.  My children were still in elementary and middle school, and I was busy.  Very busy.  But a voice in my head--let's call that voice Jesus--I told you this post would be whack--said go.

Go to the volunteer training?  Why on earth?
I asked why several more times.  I didn't really want to.  I had nothing against FIA, but it was nearly summertime, and I was very busy.

So I went to the two-hour training session.  I didn't realize it at the time, but FIA very rarely asks for new volunteers.  Right now we don't have space enough to take on any more.  This was, I believe, the last training session ever held.

Good, said the voice.  (We'll call it Jesus.)
Ok, what next?  Was I now supposed to volunteer?  In summer?  Vacation time?
No.  The voice was quiet.  I was puzzled, but relieved.

I had a nice summer with my children.  Then, once school started again, the Voice in my head suggested I give FIA a call.
Well, okay.  Turned out they did need a volunteer, they were one short on Wednesdays.  Fine.  So I came in and worked for, I think, 3 consecutive Wednesdays.  It was fine.

The next week I was sitting at my desk, working on my latest novel, when I got a phone call from a woman I'd never met.  She sounded extremely hesitant, almost embarrassed to be making the call.  Her name was Donna, and she was, she told me, the president of the board of FIA.  The director--the person who handed out the money each day--had just quit.  The director, whom I'd met 4 times, (most of the volunteers had worked there for years) had told her I was the person she should ask to be temporary director.  Clearly, Donna thought this was whack.

My very first thought was that I had longstanding commitments on Tuesdays and Thursdays I would hate to give up, even temporarily.

Before I could say so, Donna added, "of course, we're closed on Tuesdays, and Jim White has offered to work Thursdays, so I'm actually only asking you for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays."

Cue creepy music.  Cue the Voice in my head--we'll call it Jesus--grinning.

"You probably are being called to do it," my husband said, "because I can't think of a single other reason why they would ever ask you."

I was the program director for eight weeks, until the board had time to hire a good replacement.  They did offer me the job.  Please say no, I said to the Voice.  Jesus.  I love doing this but I need time to write.

No worries, said Jesus.  Go back to your books.  But thanks for stepping in.

I told you it was whack.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Peeper Time

This morning, when I sat down to my desk in the post-Daylight-Savings-change darkness, I heard the happiest sound.  The peepers are back.

This is a peeper:

Truthfully, they probably never left, but they were hibernating, along our creek, and now they're awake and ready to mate, and they are LOUD.  Your standard peeper is about an inch long, and I've probably got a couple dozen in my creek.  The creek's a tenth of a mile from my house, and I have no trouble at all hearing them with all the windows shut.

Later in the spring we'll see tadpoles in the creek, especially at the place where the horses cross the water.  Then, in late summer, adult peepers will leap out of the horses' way just as the horses step into the water.  This is always exciting the first few times it happens.

I looked Peeprs up on Wikipedia just now; their formal name is "Spring Peeper," and there are two subspecies, Northern and Southern.  I've actually probably got Northern ones.  They're ubiquitous in the Eastern U.S.

I love them because they're the first real sign we have that spring is here.  Eventually the orchard will bloom.  The barn swallows will come back, and the red hawk will leave.  The grass will grow fast and high, and the horses will shed their winter coats and be sleek again.  But the peepers come first.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Coffee, By the Ocean

We had a pretty fabulous weekend.  On the last day of my husband and son's California golf trip, my son made a hole-in-one.  According to Golf Magazine, the odds of an amateur player making a hole-in-one are 12,000 to one.  I add that statistic for those of you who are thinking, "oh, that's nice," instead of "Wow!  How amazing!"  They arrived home safe without incident, although the 4-hour time difference (an extra hour due to the Daylight Savings Time change) was really messing with them.

Meanwhile my daughter and her BFF, competing as a two-person team in the C division at the Old Dominion Region Pony Club regional qualifying rally (say that ten times fast), went for World Domination, snagging first place by a mile.  My daughter was High Point competitor for their division, with the BFF right on her tail.  This sort of surprised me, honestly, because moving to the C division (which means they are C-rated pony clubbers, which is really too complicated to explain) meant that, after years of competing in the D divisions, they suddenly had much different and harder material to learn.  Instead of being asked to identify a horse's external body parts (mane, withers, pastern, croup) for example, they had to name the bones in a horse's foreleg, starting with the top.  They had to identify equine intestinal parisites from photos, and also toxic plants.  (My daughter's ace at toxic plants.  A few years ago she got on a weird toxic plant jag and memorized the entire reference book.)  So the BFF's mom, my friend Trish, and I really didn't know what to expect. 

For the girls, doing so well was fabulous because it means they will get to compete at Pony Club Championships this summer.  Both would prefer to go in a riding discipline, but if they don't qualify in those they'll be able to compete in quiz. 

Our quiz entire contigent consisted of myself, my daughter, the BFF, Trish, and BK, a lovely teenager who's clearly been raised right, given what a joy she is to take anywhere.  BK's team finished second in the Senior D division, which was fantastic--but what was even better was BK's attitude from the start.  She was teamed with two brand-new pony clubbers from another club, whom she didn't meet until the morning of the rally, and since the others were brand-new they didn't know a lot.  At lunchtime they were in last place.  BK didn't mind.  "I'm not trying to qualify for championships, we're all just here to have fun," she said.  They were having fun, and then in the afternoon they had fun and did better, and wound up second, and we were proud.

We stayed in a hotel right on the water.  Trish and I in one room, the girls in another.  We got there staggeringly late on Friday night, courtesy of a wreck on I-81, and shuffled into bed.  In the morning the ocean looked lovely.  The hotel breakfast room was a morass of girls, pony clubbers and soccer players and a junior field hockey team.  We went inland to the school where the competition was held, and stayed there forever, due to the usual scoring snafus and delays.  By chance we lucked upon a fabulous little local Italian restaurant, then went back to the hotel in the dark.  The girls went swimming in the indoor pool.  Trish and I opened the balcony door, so we could hear the ocean, and cranked up the heater, so we didn't freeze to death from the wind.  It was all good.

In the morning part of me wanted to hit the road at dawn, get home with all possible speed.  Another part was pole-axed by that stupid time change.  We compromised by hitting the snooze buttons on our alarms for half an hour.

Here's the thing.  Trish has said before that I've inspired her.  She recently bought a horse for herself, for example.  I appreciate that, but I want to say right now:  Trish, you also inspire me.

When we did get up, and woke the girls, I was definitely in my hurry mode.  I could have been packed, grabbed breakfast, and been on the road in twenty minutes.  I often speed through things like that. 

Trish, on the other hand, went down to the lobby for coffee.  She came back up with three cups--one for me, and two for her.  Then she put on her coat, opened the balcony door, and went outside.  "I thought I'd drink this out here," she said. 

No.  I was in hurry mode.  She was supposed to slurp coffee while throwing on her blue jeans.  It was time to go

But the sun was rising over the ocean, and the waves were crashing onto the shore.  Spindrift blew up from the crests of the waves, catching the light.  Gulls wheeled overhead.

It was lovely, and I would have missed it.  I would have rushed past the ocean, which you might have guessed we don't have in Bristol, TN, so that I could get home at 4:30 instead of 5:00 pm. 

I looked at Trish, sitting peacefully in the sun, and I wrapped myself in a blanket, took my coffee, and sat down in the other balcony chair.  I enjoyed the ocean.  And then, at a reasonable pace, we began our day.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Quiz Rally, Eleven Times

Today I'm at the Old Dominion Region Pony Club's annual Quiz Rally, held this year at Virginia Beach.  Why, yes, that is a seven-hour drive from my home.  It's the eleventh straight year in a row that I've taken my daughter to quiz rally, which makes quiz the only thing I can think of that I've done for eleven straight years in a row.  Maybe our fourth of July party, but that's it.

That first quiz, my daughter was five years old, but, because of the age cutoff for pony club, she actually competed as a four-year-old.  I've not seen any other child compete that young.  But my 7-year-old son was competing (he was in pony club until age eleven), and I was going to have to drive 2 children to Virginia Beach by myself, and my daughter was begging me, constantly and with tears, to allow her to join pony club.  I figured either I could let her compete, or I could spend the entire day with her hanging onto my leg and crying.

My daughter was still in preschool.  She could read, quite well, but she couldn't write.  She couldn't button her own khaki pants, either, but I remember how she seriously she brushed her hair the morning of the competition, and slid her headband into place.  I remember how nervous they both were as I helped them into their car seats.  I remember my son laughing hysterically when he came out of Mega room, which is a room where the kids have to match the names on a list with the items on tables.  "Guess who got the highest score in Mega room!" he said.  It was my daughter.  Later I asked her how she'd possibly known all those things.  "Flannel bandages?" I said.  She gave me a scornful look.  "They were made of flannel," she said.

Ever since my daughter was old enough to qualify for pony club championships, she's wanted to go for quiz.  We haven't always been able to--last year, going to the London Olympics took precedence--but three years ago her team finished 2nd in regional competition, and two years ago, at a full national championship, her team finished 5th out of 40.  This year, for the first time, she hopes to go to championships in eventing, a riding discipline.  Our quiz days are waning; she's in high school now.  No matter what, I don't think we'll extend our streak beyond 14 years in a row.

She knows a lot, but that's not why I'm glad she does quiz.  One of the sections of quiz is called classroom:  competitors have to stand and answer questions in a filled room.  Learning to speak in front of a crowd is tough, but my daughter's gotten good at it.  Also, in quiz, if competitors aren't given points for their answer but are pretty sure they've got grounds to argue, they're allowed-even encouraged--to protest to the judges.  Standing up for yourself and arguing your own case?  Good skills for children to have.

(I have quiz stories about my son, too, but he'd rather I not share them.  Just so you know.)

Friday, March 8, 2013

St. Catherines, Betty, and Angelica: an International Women's Day Sychroblog

So, Sarah Bessey, who I totally want to have coffee with except that she lives in western Canada, is hosting a Sychroblog for International Women's Day, which is today.  This means a whole bunch of blog posts relating to the question, "Who is your patron saint, and who were your spiritual midwives?" are being put up on her blog today, and I thought, heck, might as well be one of them.

My patron saint, which I chose before my confirmation in the 8th grade, is St. Catherine.  There are a whole slew of St. Catherines in the Catholic Church, and as I remembered it, the one I had picked for my patron was Catherine of Siena.  (We could chose any patron we wanted, but had to write an extensive report on that saint's life.  Because there was no internet in the dark ages of my childhood, all we had for research was the saint biographies in our little Catholic school library.  I was lucky to snag a St. Catherine.  Two of my friends got stuck with the confirmation name Bernadette.)  However, a quick perusal of the online Catholic Encyclopedia this morning tells me that I'm wrong: my patron, whom I distinctly remembered as being married to a louse, is actually St. Catherine of Genoa.  Siena/Genoa, you can see how a girl might make a mistake.

Anyway, they were both known, oddly enough, for the practice of taking Holy Eucharist every single day, which during the Medieval period in which they both lived was exceedingly rare.  This was around the time that the Church issued an edict that every Catholic was expected to receive the Eucharist at least once a year.  Both were known for their service:  SCofG eventually became the manager and treasurer of a hospital, and SCofS was an ardent letter-writer whose missives influenced the Pope and other leaders of her time.  She's known as someone who spoke the truth to power, which is a pretty cool way to be remembered.

That said, both women were also pretty much whacked.  The Medieval term for this was "mystical."  SCofG had visions and revelations; SCofS starved herself, supposedly living off a daily spoonful of herbs and the Eucharist.  Also whacked is what happened to SCofS after her death:  the pope wanted her buried in Rome, while the people of her hometown, Siena, wanted her buried there.  So they cut off her head, (after she was dead) and let Rome have the body and Siena the head.  O--k--k-ay.

Sarah Bessey uses the term "Spiritual Midwives" to denote those women who somehow influenced your spiritual journey, who called out or helped birth a new and better part of you.  The obvious one for me is my friend Sarah, the nun/priest in Haiti.  Sarah's been my friend since forever; I've stayed up all night more times in her company than all other instances combined.  I've always been able to talk about anything with Sarah, including religion, including while sitting on her kitchen countertop at 3am waiting for a carrot cake to finish baking.  Sarah's become a better version of herself since joining the Society of St. Margaret, and I hope, through her intercession, that I have, too.  And I know she'll get me to Haiti some day.

Oddly enough, in my adult life (in my childhood I had mentors, but I'm not sure they'd count as midwives) I'm going to have to count my two main trainers, Angelica and Betty, too.  They're both sort of religious but hardly go around discussing it all day long.  What they do is tell the truth.  If you grew up, as I did, in a house where truth was a rare and dangerous commodity, this is as shocking and welcome as rain ending a drought.  When I was wildly nervous warming up in show jumping one horse show, years ago, I said to Betty, "I hate warmup rings."  She said back, "I can see."  That's all, in a completely neutral tone of voice.  And suddenly my nervousness was okay; I could accept it instead of fighting it.  As soon as I accepted it, it started to dissipate.

Angelica's tougher: she mixes her truth with snarky remarks and sometimes downright rudeness.  But she has this ability to see what I could be, and to push me toward that vision.  She also refuses to allow me or any of her students to be dependent on her in any way.  For a long time after I started competing I couldn't imagine doing it without a coach to help me, but Angelica broke it down for me.  First she only walked a course with me after  I had already walked it myself.  Next she wouldn't walk it at all, but she'd discuss it with me.  Now she might discuss a problem fence, but mostly, until I move up to a harder level where I actually need some guidance, I'm on my own where she's concerned.  The first time she expected me to warm myself up for cross country, I nearly panicked, but I realized she (and Betty) had taught me exactly how to do it, what I needed to get from my horse to know we were ready.  And after that, I wasn't panicked anymore.  And I can't tell you how empowering that feels, and how much it's carried over to my daily life.  I don't have to panic.  I know what to do.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Half a Snow Day is Better Than None At All

My daughter and I were all set for a snow day today.  We were ready.  We had good snacks on hand, we were prepared to sleep in, and, as a bonus, yesterday I'd gone to the library and checked out the DVDs for the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.  You know, the one where young, handsome Colin Firth goes swimming and his thin white shirt clings to him, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story but no one cares because it's Colin Firth in a clinging wet shirt.  Yeah.  That one. 

I also found out I'm on the library's List.  Apparently they don't like the fact that I've been hanging onto all the Egyptian research books I'd borrowed, regardless of their due dates.  But I digress.

The local news station texts my cell phone if my daughter's school is delayed.  (It's my son's school too; he and his dad are out of town.)  So I put my phone on the nightstand, and as soon as my alarm went off in the morning I checked it.  Nothing.  I sat up in bed and looked out, and saw a smattering of snow across the grass, and none at all on our long driveway.  But it was very early.  I hit "snooze" and went back to sleep.

Twenty minutes later I was forced to accept that the Bristol, TN, schools had nothing.  Not even a five-minute delay.  I woke my daughter and she grumbled off to school.  I put the horses out to play in the snow--more was falling--and sat down to work on my novel.

At 9:15 I left for Faith in Action, as I always do on Wednesdays.  Snow was still falling fast, but sticking only to the grass, not the roads, which were presumably still too warm.  When I got to FIA I was surprised to see only Toni and Tyler's cars--I usually arrive earlier than Jane, who dashes in at the last minute, but it's rare indeed that I get there ahead of Jackie or Vic.  Toni and Tyler are the two part-time paid employees; they arrive earlier than the rest of us. 

I rang the bell.  Toni let me in, saying, "Didn't you hear?  We're closed!"  I looked back over my shoulder, at the Catholic church and school my children attended, with its completely full parking lot.  "Bristol Virginia schools are out!" Toni said.

One of the oddities about living in a city that sits smack on a state line is that most government agencies have to be duplicated on both sides.  Bristol has a single library and one post office building, but the two sides--Tennessee and Virginia--have separate courthouses, mayors, city councils, and school systems.  The two high schools are called, appropriately enough, Tennessee High and Virginia High.

Virginia school systems must be wimps, because they are always getting off.  When I'd woken, Bristol, VA, and indeed most of the independent area schools except for St. Anne's, were on a two-hour delay.  I'd never imagined they would close, not in the annoying but hardly threatening weather, and yet, they did.

So here I am with my own private snowday.  I'd already returned the P&P DVDs on my way to work, since I don't need to be in any more trouble with the library.  It's far to cruddy to ride.  I went home, and I--catch your breath--put in a load of laundry.  Then I emptied the dishwasher.  I returned an email from my editor--I've sent her a bunch of photos of teenagers with neglected clubfeet, she loves me for that--and now I'm writing this blog post.  And it isn't even lunchtime yet.

I've got big plans for the afternoon.  I'm going to work on my novel.  I might read some of my research books, or start one of the ones I need to review.  And--I might just make a pot of tea.

It's thrilling, this life.   I love it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

An Editor Like That

Once upon a time--I stopped to do the math in my head, and it was actually TEN YEARS ago--once upon a time, I was invited to speak at a quite fancy conference in Los Angeles.  All the speakers were writers who were also alumnae or professors of Smith College--I was the only children's book writer, a last-minute replacement for the much more famous Ann M. Martin, who made a mint with the Babysitters Club and then went on to write a bunch of critically-acclaimed Newbery Honor books.

All us speakers were East-coasters, so we all got up really early by the California clocks, long before we needed to.  We pestered the hotel into giving us coffee and sat around one big table in the dining room, talking writing.  

I started to rant.  "You would not BELIEVE what my editor said about my latest!  It's a journey story--an emotional journey and a physical one, along the Appalachian Trail.  In the original draft--the draft she ACCEPTED, the draft she PAID MONEY FOR--the story covers the whole Trail over a time span of six months.  And my editor says, 'the point is not whether your characters make it to the end.  The point is what happens to them along the way.  And right now the time gaps between your scenes are making the story lag.'  So, she says, she wants me to compress all the action into 3 months, into half the trail.  You understand what that means, don't you? I had to change the setting of every single scene.  And setting is really important to this book.  I HAD TO REWRITE THE ENTIRE THING!"

There is respectful silence, while my fellow writers contemplate the enormous amount of labor involved.  Then one woman leans forward to ask the classic writer's question:  "And then what happened?"

"I did it," I said, "and it was a much better book."

A long sigh goes around the table.  Another writer says, "I wish I had an editor like that," and all the rest nod their heads.

"I know," I said quietly.  "I'm really lucky."

I am still lucky.  I've had a lot of editors in my fifteen years as a novelist--they change publishing houses, they get promoted, they leave to do something else--and they've nearly all been good.  Liz Waniewski at Dial, with whom I'm working now, is very, very good, indeed.

On Friday while I was working a few extra hours at FIA, an email came up on my phone: the long-awaited editorial letter for my England book.  Printed out on regular paper it runs four pages, single-spaced; on my phone's screen it went on forever. 

The letter is extraordinary.  Liz has a gift for seeing possibilities, for looking at my story and seeing not what it is, but what it might be.  Later that afternoon, while my daughter and I were waiting at the DMV, I showed her the letter.  My daughter's read the manuscript.  As she read Liz's suggestions, her eyes got wider and wider.  "Wow, Mom, I see what you mean," she said.  "This part about Billy, and Ada's mother?  That's really good.  I mean, I never would have thought of it, but it's really a great idea."

Most people think writing is all about inspiration, but inspiration is step one of twenty-seven.  For me, the hard work, the exciting work, starts now.  Liz wasn't the editor for my Appalachian Trail book, Halfway to the Sky, but, like that editor, she doesn't hesitate to push me.  Her first letter about Jefferson's Sons included, "let's see what it would be like in third person," when the entire manuscript at that point was in first.  Like Halfway, a complete rewrite.  And it was better in third.