Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I Don't Need a Daily Ritual--or a Different Life

The oddest thing I know is that sometimes what looks like obstacles are actually stepping-stones.

Right now I have a book in my office bathroom perfect for occasional reading. It's called Daily Rituals, and it's a compendium of one-page essays about great artists (primarily writers, but also painters and composers) and what sort of routine they kept. It's pretty interesting but bears absolutely no resemblance to my life.

I'm not saying I'm Monet, or Flaubert, or what have you. I'm saying I couldn't have a single daily routine if my work depended on it. I've noticed before that men who write seem to say, "This is my job, therefore I must have at least 8 hours a day to devote to it, uninterrupted." If they work at home, they have a dedicated office. And child care. And someone who makes them lunch (ok, maybe not now. But in the 1800s, certainly someone made them lunch.) Whereas the women writers, at least the ones I know, say, "This is my job, and I'm absolutely lucky that I'm able to fit it into short bits of time around my family obligations."

I've never once resented my family obligations. (Well, okay, maybe cooking, once or twice. And laundry, sometimes. But otherwise.) My children were and are a delight to me. There were days I was so tired that when it came time to write I longed for a nap--and some days I took the nap. I was primarily a journalist and ghostwriter before my second child was born, so I had pretty tight deadlines, but once I had the freedom to write as I pleased I could afford to be relaxed about time. The hard stuff from toddlerhood--the child that puked inside my bra while we were at the bank, the days when both were crying and I could only comfort one--they became part of my writing. As did everything else about our lives as my children grew.

I can't tell you how often I have to restrain myself from telling a really good true story about my children on this blog. We have an agreement: if it's not my story, I can't tell it without their permission. And they rarely give permission. Fair enough. It is their lives--but it's my life, too. Their stories blend with mine and enrich everything I write, whether or not they approve.

I've said before that I had a traumatic childhood, and it's true; while I never plan to go into the details here (again--not only my story) I've always known that I grew up on the edge of flight-or-fight, with a wariness and attention to detail, particularly to emotion and dialogue, that most people don't have. It leads to problems like depression and anxiety--but it also made me a writer. Some recent studies show that writers have different brain wiring that non-writers. I love neuroscience, so I'll be paying attention to that--I've always wanted to know how much of my odd brain is what I was born with, and how much is what happened to me afterwards. Yet it doesn't actually matter. The funky thing is that I've lately realized that if I could go back and change my childhood, take away the trauma, I'm not sure I would. Now, I'd do anything to keep one of my own children from being traumatized. I also know that without the help and love I received after my hard times, including to this day, not to mention modern pharmaceuticals, I'd be in a much worse place now than I am.

I like the place where I am. I like the writing I do from this place. I wouldn't want to change that.

You can only live life forward, so maybe you could argue that it doesn't matter what happens to you, how life shapes you, but I think that's incorrect. What happens to us does matter--and so does how we frame it. I'm grateful to be a writer, and I'm grateful for whatever shaped my writing--trauma, frenetic schedule, and all. I don't need a Daily Ritual; good thing, since I probably won't get one anytime soon.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

All Lauren Kieffer, All The Time

Kidding. But sheesh, the number of blog hits. It's like the adage that if you want teens to read your YA novel, stick a vampire in it. Clearly I should write about Lauren Kieffer a lot more often.

I'm not sure when I'll be able to post this. We had a storm last night that seems to have taken out the internet. I'm appalled by how much this has hampered my work. I'm supposed to be emailing my editor some last-minute corrections to The War That Saved My Life, but guess what? No email. I've typed the corrections and printed them out, and if I can get her to send me a fax number I'll fax them to her.

In the old days we used actual mail service for this sort of thing, and it was fast enough.

Meanwhile, my new laptop's trick of saving my new manuscript "on the cloud" is looking like a fairly stupid idea.

Speaking of stupid ideas, I had one the other day. I was writing a pretty funny scene in my new novel, and though I knew I'd gotten the basic idea from something I'd read elsewhere, I thought I'd gotten it from a Dorothy Sayers mystery novel written during WWII, so therefore practically research material, so therefore mostly legit. But I felt unsure about it, so I found myself recounting just that one scene to some of my book club members, who nodded and said, "Right. Like in The Guersney Literary and Sweet Potato Peel Pie Society."
Yikes. Busted. This is precisely why I try to stay away from all fiction pertaining to the setting or subject of my current novel. I read so much, and it all gets churned up in my head. Anyway, I think the humor of the scene was sort of leading the novel in the wrong direction anyway. I've been staying away from my keyboard in favor of surviving April doing a bit more research, and now I think it's time to move forward again. If only I could get my manuscript off the cloud.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Lauren Kieffer: Nine Years to An Overnight Sensation

So, my dears, I'm atypically at a loss for words. I've been both eager to write this blog post and puzzling over how to do it. The short form of the reading: Lauren Kieffer rode brilliantly in both cross country on Saturday and showjumping on Sunday; she finished on her dressage score, which is the best you can do; she finished in second place behind William Fox-Pitt, who I think is the number-one ranked eventer in the world, or if not should be, and if he'd had the grace to knock down just one showjumping rail Lauren would have won it. It was her second four-star and pretty much her horse's first (Veronica started Rolex two years ago with a different rider but was eliminated at the fifth xc fence).

On Saturday, my daughter and I watched Lauren through the first water complex, a series of three jumps. She rode it beautifully: steady, even strides and perfect lines. Our plan was to then go down to the finish line, watch her cross it, and head to the vet box where uber-groom Max Corcoran was scheduled to give a presentation. Vet boxes are only featured in international events and pony club rallies; my daughter, heading to pony club championships this summer, wanted some tips.

While we walked along the end of the course, we listened to Lauren's progress via the announcer. Clear through 7, the coffin complex. Clear through 13, the tobacco stripping barn. Through 14, the Hollow, though she took the long route there. (Why? Trouble?) Clear through 16, the devious offset brush. (Good girl!) Then, "hold on course," over the speakers.

Oh crap. Hold on course meant that riders were being stopped because either a horse or rider, or both, had fallen and was not expected to be able to get out of the way in time for the next rider. At Rolex riders are sent out at five minute intervals, which meant there are typically 3 on course at any one time. Oh crap. You never want to have a hold. Then, "Lauren Kieffer being held before the Head of the Lake," and it became an oh crap of a different kind. First, worry about the rider in front of her (it turned out that the rider was fine, but the horse had suddenly pulled up lame; it was loaded into an ambulance and later had hoof surgery at the vet hospital across the street, and is expected to make a full recovery). Second, being held is a completely lousy thing to have happen--the horse is in full gallop at this point, with a lovely rhythm, and suddenly is being asked to stand still for an indefinite amount of time, and then, hey! gallop on. Third, she was being held right before the Head of the Lake, the infamous Rolex water complex that is always just about the hardest thing on course. To have to go straight there from a stop, on an opinionated mare who probably was not thrilled about being held--ouch. Poor Lauren!

The hold went on long enough that we gave up on the finish and went to the side of the vet box (a roped-off field) where a woman with a sign about the presentation was looking around impatiently for Max.

"Do you know what Max Corcoran looks like?" she asked, scanning the crowds.
"Yes," I said, "But she's not going to come over here until Lauren gets in."

The woman gave me a puzzled look, but I knew I was right. Max used to be Veronica's groom. She loves the horse. Also, Max and Lauren both lived on the O'Connor farm for years. Max loves Lauren, too.

A few minutes later the hold was lifted. The announcer said, "Lauren Kieffer a bit sticky through the drop into the Head of the Lake, but she's made it out," and my daughter and I cheered. "A bit sticky" means "very nearly fell off," but you don't get style points in eventing. If you did, Lauren might have gotten some: I've since seen video and several photos of that drop--a jump that lands, in this case in the lake, several feet below the take-off. Veronica caught a back leg on the jump, which threw Lauren onto the horse's neck, her right foot out the stirrup, and threw Veronica to the left, making her very likely to miss the next jump, which was in the lake only three strides away. Lauren's reins were out to the buckle, because you've got to let them slip through your hands over a big drop. In the first stride after the near fiasco she had gotten her butt back in the saddle, her right leg, stirrupless, clamped to the horse's side, and both her hands behind her right hip, steering. Remarkable. Sometime after the next jump she put her foot back into the stirrup. It was, in the words of my daughter, "big levels of badass;" more refined pundits called it, "clutch."

My point is that she rode the snot out of that course. From the vet box we could see her cross the finish line, though in the distance. We saw her friends and groom swarm the horse, taking off saddle, boots, shoe studs as fast as possible. Heard Lauren let out an echoing war whoop. Saw Hannah Sue Burnett, still wearing her own xc gear, tackle her in a hug. "There's Max," I said to the woman with the sign. "In the green shirt, sponging off the horse."

My daughter and I drove home Saturday night, but we watched Sunday's showjumping on our laptops in a live feed. Allison Springer and Arthur, who'd led after dressage, had a mishap on xc, so Lauren was in second place. This meant she had to showjump second to last--plenty of pressure.

She jumped perfectly. I've been working hard to improve my own showjumping, so I notice details I missed before, and I'll tell you--Lauren did it exactly right. It's not easy. She was superb.

But now I come to my real point. Right now Lauren Kieffer sits at the top of the world. Team selections are always shrouded in mystery, but I'd guess she's getting strong consideration for this year's World Championships. If she makes the team, she gets to wear a red U. S. Event Team coat for the rest of her life. She'd be, to a large extent, made.

It didn't happen this weekend. It happened over the last nine years.

Lauren has always had talent, courage, and ambition. Anyone can see that. But what she's also had was dedication. Making a living riding event horses is the dream of a whole bunch of teenage girls, but is also unbelievably hard to do. You don't start out riding Veronica at Rolex. You start out shoveling manure, cleaning tack, taking horses on one-hour walk sets in which neither you nor the horse learn a thing and both of you are bored out of your mind. You get the occasional lesson. You work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, at minimum, and you get up at 6 or 5 or 4, depending on the day, and you never have enough money. Usually you hurt somewhere. Then you get the chance to ride some medium-talent horses, and you ride them as well as you possibly can every day even if it's raining or cold or you just got back from working 10 hours at a show grooming for people higher up the food chain. You do this for years. 

When people from your barn go to the World Equestrian Games, you stay on the farm keeping all the horses fit. When people from your barn go to the Olympics, you do the same. When your friend and roommate earns her red coat, you cheer for her, hoping that someday she'll tackle you with a hug at the Rolex finish line. You keep your head down and you keep working and you learn.

Eventually you get your chance. But it doesn't come wrapped in paper with a bow. It comes, as Thomas Edison once said, "Dressed in overalls, looking like work."  The horse is still somewhat unproven. You get to ride her, but due to qualification rules you've got to take her back down the levels, work your way up. And you do.

It takes nine years. Not nine years from the day you first dreamed of riding at Rolex, riding beautifully in front of cheering crowds, nine years from the day you started the serious work of getting there.

This, in the end, is why I understand Lauren Kieffer. Writing is like that, too. It took nine years from the first manuscript I sent to a publisher to the publication of my first novel. I call that my apprenticeship, and I don't regret it, and I don't think it's at all atypical. I always knew I had writing talent. I knew, too, that every year I didn't sell a book I still got better as a writer. And, in the end, the nine years would have passed, whether or not I worked hard all the way through them. A lot of people--a lot--tell me that they've got this great idea for a novel but they don't have time in their busy lives to write it, or they started to write it and it didn't come out they way they imagined, and what should they do? Get to work, buttercup. It's a privilege to make your living in a way a lot of people would like to be able to do, if only it weren't so hard.

After Lauren's dressage, I said to her, "Some day, I'm going to be able to say I knew you--"
"--when I was just a baby!" she finished for me, with a grin.

You bet, girlfriend. Kick on.

Friday, April 25, 2014

That Kid Named Lauren Kieffer

Once upon a time--June, 2006, to be exact--I met a kid named Lauren Kieffer. We were actually both campers at the O'Connor Event Camp in Lexington, VA, taught by world-renowned event riders David and Karen O'Connor. It was a fabulous week.

I know Lauren was there. I remember her vaguely from camp dinners and such, and also remember her from a particular day cross country. In truth, I was too busy trying to sort out my own riding problems to pay too much attention to my fellow campers, but it was hard to miss this intense firecracker 17-year-old, riding a half-Arab horse named Snooze Alarm (barn name Maggot), with a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas. Lauren desperately wanted to be fabulous, and she wasn't, and when in frustration she flipped her horse on the cross-country flat day, I could hear David O'Connor screaming at her from three fields away.

Lauren's become rather famous for what happened next. At the end of camp she asked Karen and David if she could work for them. They asked when she would be available. She said, "now." She followed them home.

I get it, somewhat. I've never been that intense child, but I can imagine being that intense, and I can see it in Lauren. She wanted to learn so much, so badly.

For years, after that first session of camp, I ran into Lauren either at the Virginia Horse Center or in my sojourn in Florida. I'll be honest, for years she annoyed the snot out of me. I'd say hi, and she'd roll her eyes. I'd make what I viewed as a friendly overture, and she'd walk away. Whatever, I'd think.

But I've always said that relationships are the key. I know that after awhile, even the most annoying and most bratty of the Holston Pony Clubbers seem to metamophasize. They may still be annoying brats, but they become my annoying brats. In the same way, I became Lauren's annoying middle-aged amateur. What can I say? We grew on each other. Two years ago when I went looking for a new horse, Lauren was my wingman. She loved Sarah before I did.

A few years back, Lauren rode her crazy horse Maggot at Rolex. It was a culmination of a childhood dream: buy a horse, train it to greatness. They didn't place high, but they finished respectably. I was proud of her. It seemed strange, because she'd pissed me off so much, but I was pulling for her pretty hard.

Then this year she had a Rolex horse again. I knew she had a logo now, I knew she had had shirts made up for herself and her groom and family and friends. I was working dressage. Could I have a Lauren Kieffer Eventing shirt in a white polo, to wear while I was working? Could I ever! The shirt arrived. Today I put it on.

Lauren was both completely calm and wildly nervous. I watched her warm up alongside her parents, meeting them for the first time. It rained, hard, and I stood in the rain. I stayed watching her warmup.

She went down to the ring. So many people I know and care about went with her. They crowded into the little space allocated for family and owners. I stood to one side, where the dressage volunteers could stand.

My girl rode. She laid it down. Halfway through, my daughter, standing beside me, gasped, "She's in the lead!" and I looked at the scoreboard and realized it was true. She was leading. Leading Rolex, the biggest competition in our country. Leading. She finished, and we all went wild--cheering, shouting. Twenty-six years old and on top of the world. I felt like her old great-aunt or something, not really involved but so wholly on her side.

It didn't quite last. Later in the day William Fox-Pitt rode the marvelous Bay My Hero to a slightly better score, and then Alison Springer and her quirky quixotic Arthur did even better. I've always loved Alison and Arthur, and I was so moved when her friends and owners shed tears of joy, that I couldn't begrudge them their higher placing. But eventing is never won on the dressage. Tomorrow my girl Lauren Kieffer kicks it into high cross-country gear, and all my prayers, all my best wishes, will go with her.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


1. It's Thursday night, which is $4 wine night at the Hilton Gardens Hotel in Georgetown, Kentucky. Quite a bargain.
2. On Wednesday night, my daughter played quite good tennis and her school beat their archrival, 5-4, thus putting them in the running for the state high school tournament.
3. We managed to leave for Lexington at 8 pm, which was the latest I'd hoped we'd leave and the earliest I thought possible.
4. While a 3-hour drive can easily take 5 hours, there's actually no legal or practical way to make a 5 hour drive take 3 hours, no matter how hard you want to.
5. Therefore, we picked up our Rolex credentials at 12:50 am Thursday, reached our own hotel at 1:04, showered, and turned off the light at 1:22.
6. The alarm went off at 6:30, and since I've pretty much got the horse show timing thing down, we had exactly enough time to dress, eat breakfast, and get to the Rolex dressage arena by the time we were supposed to be there.
7. It was cold.
8. There were a lot of famous event riders and we got to be really close to them. As official dressage volunteers we were allowed on the inner bleachers otherwise reserved for horse owners, grooms, and credentialed officials. My favorite moment of the day was when a small pony clubber made U.S. Olympic coach (and gold medalist) David O'Connor show his credentials before letting him into the bleachers.
9. My job was to sit and watch dressage. Really. I sat out on a folding chair in the arena, next to 3 small girls whose job it was to place and remove the rail at A to let the riders in and out, and whenever a rider came to the end of the test I said, "Okay, now," to the three small girls, and they went to move the rail.
10. I think I was really there to keep the three small girls from throwing dirt on each other, or kicking each other, or falling asleep instead of moving the rail.
11. I did a good job.
12. Once I pooper-scooped a load out of the main arena. This will be my claim to fame.
13. I'm writing this as a list because I'm too tired to write in paragraphs.
14. There are Famous Riders staying in our hotel.
15. I told them about the $4 glasses of wine

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Like Ball Girls At Wimbledon

So, picture this: an open town-hall type meeting at this winter's USEA (United States Eventing Association, my tiny fabulous sport) convention. Moderated by Jimmy Wofford, Olympic-rider-turned-legend. Maybe 300 people in the room, including the president of the USEA, the president of the United States Equestrian Federation (the national governing body for all horse sports), the president of the United States Pony Clubs, and a lot of other bigwigs. And me, sitting at the back.

Imagine that someone--I forget who--begins the familiar rant, kids these days. It starts innocuously enough, how do we interest young riders in eventing and thus insure the future of our sport? but quickly falls into kids these days. How they're too busy with other activities. How they don't learn horse management skills. How they all ride ridiculously expensive horses and don't learn anything and never, ever, volunteer. It actually became a full-scale rant involving all those presidents and other big names, about kids I didn't recognize, and the longer it went on, the more annoyed I got, and I stood up at the back of the room.

I stood until the legendary moderator invited me to speak. And I can't remember exactly what came out of my mouth, because I was annoyed and also because 300 people in the room, many of whom I honesty revere, but I told them about my pony club. About how I'd become by default the leader of a small, very inexperienced club that had been fractured by outside issues (mostly squabbles among parents). Actually I do remember what I said at that point. I said, "I inherited a club of six kids, none of them higher than a D3 (that meant something to my audience) and the most expensive horse any of them have is my daughter's, who cost-- (and I said out loud what the horse cost, which I won't repeat as it's private, or at least was until I told all the eventers, but trust me, it was a very low amount to the audience at hand--also, I wasn't being entirely truthful, as in the heat of the moment I'd forgotten about one member whose horse probably did cost more, though I don't know how much as that was private too)--anyway, I went on to say, what I did was throw those six kids together for 3 days on my farm, and what emerged was a team. I said that two and a half years later I had 13 members, including 3 C2s and an HB (again, this had meaning to those in the room, and it's pretty damned impressive, too), and that last year I took an eventing team to Midsouth that finished first in Horse Management (whupping Keeneland!), and that also these same kids were badgering me to find them volunteer opportunities because they wanted to be useful. I said that kids these days didn't need expensive horses, they needed community, and that my club was nothing like the kids everyone else was complaining about, and that if we want to insure the future of eventing what we need to do was create relationships and community.

And I sat down. My hands were shaking a little, because it was a pretty big impromptu rant, and I wasn't exactly sure if anyone cared. But before I could lean back into my seat, a woman was pressing her card into my hand. She told me she was in charge of the volunteers for dressage at Rolex, and if I wanted to bring my kids she'd give them jobs. And I gasped.

It's hard to explain how cool this is. The best comparison I've been able to come up with is that it's like being  the ball boys or ball girls at Wimbledon--the kids who dart across the court to pick up stray tennis balls, then stand statue-still in the corner. It's a chance to be very close to a very big stage. Rolex is eventing's U.S. Open, it's a huge deal for us.

When I left the meeting, I phoned my daughter and said, "We've been offered a chance to work dressage at Rolex." "Um, YES," she said. "Yes, yes, YES." Then I put it up on the club Facebook, since I couldn't access my group email from the meeting, and the girls went wild.

Of our 13 members at that time (we have 16 now) 1 is in college taking finals, 1 has quit riding, and 2 are flaming furious that school obligations prevent them from coming. The other 9 are taking two days off school, driving 5 hours each way, wearing regulation khaki pants, white polos, plain belts and polished paddock boots, and doing this:

And then on Saturday we'll get to watch this:


Six kinds of awesome, baby. Nobody deserves it more than my kids.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I Knew April Was Going to Be a Doozy

This morning, after my daughter left for school, my husband was checking a few things on the computer, so I lay down on the couch with my iPad to play Candy Crush check out important current events. It was pretty snug and comfortable, with a dog snuggled up against me, and I was quite tired from being up too late both the previous nights (once because I was flying in late, and once because my husband was.) I've been experimenting with meditation, but it keeps making me fall asleep; sure enough, soon after my husband left for work, I fell into a sound and dream-filled slumber.

I woke to discover that my phone had broken. Because right on the screen it said, 12:24 pm. As in, you've been asleep for nearly five hours.

I'm all for the restorative nap, but that was ridiculous. Still, after some internal debate, I decided not to feel guilty. April has been a humdinger of a month.

1. Varsity tennis. Every weeknight with the occasional weekend or full day thrown in, and the great big tourny in Murfreesboro which is nearly Nashville, which is five hours away, and which involved more hours of tennis than I thought could be crammed into a single day.

2. Easter. Not a time-consuming holiday but we did fly down to Florida to visit my in-laws. We had a lovely time.

3. Rolex. This is our next great adventure. If you're not a horseperson, "Rolex" is properly the Kentucky Rolex Three-Day Event, the biggest eventing competition in North America, the cream of the crop, baby. Riding at Rolex once is a lifetime achievement. Spectating is a bucket-list item. And, because I am constitutionally unable to keep my mouth shut, the members of Holston Pony Club are having an adventure at Rolex this year. I think I'll save that story for tomorrow's post.

Meanwhile, tomorrow looks like this: Take dogs to kennel, run errands, work a full shift at Faith in Action, do barn chores, watch my daughter's big tennis match against arch-rival Science Hill, then--I'm guessing it'll be around 8 pm--head to Lexington, Kentucky, five hours away. Then on Thursday, wake up at the latest at 6 am.

Looks like the nap might have been a good idea.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Weird Thing Is That It Happened On the Last Day of Lent

I don't know about you, but I find Lent sort of tough to get my brain around. Advent is easy. Advent is waiting for a baby; I did that, twice, with my own pregnancies. I am hardwired to understand the preparation, the anticipation, the joyous culmination of a special period of time.

Redemption and resurrection are tougher. When I was a kid, "giving up" something was what everyone did. Every single student at my Catholic middle school gave up something for Lent--chocolate was always popular, but I was more likely to pick popcorn, because my Mom made fabulous popcorn for nighttime snacks--and everyone in my group of friends knew what every other person gave up, so that when our parish nuns invited all the middle school girls to the convent for a short sales pitch on the joys of the sisterhood, and served popcorn, all of my friends looked at me, laughed, and spent the rest of the hour dangling popcorn in front of my face. (It wasn't much temptation; my mother's popcorn was far better than the nuns'.)

Anyway, I understand, metaphorically, why it's good to give something up for Lent, and I understand, too, why it can be physically a good thing. I took a break (gave up) video games this year, because sometimes when my family was talking to me I was playing a game instead of listening, and that's a bad habit. Lent, however, is about drawing closer to God, not about fixing bad habits.

For me, the surprising key to the whole thing was that place at the table. Not the blog post I intended to write, which, to be honest, was probably more intellectual. The one I did write, after I suddenly recalled being at my friend's house and seeing that place set, remembering how welcome I'd felt, how loved. If you can imagine that feeling only a hundred times more, a million times more, that's God welcoming us to God's table.

All of us.

Every one.

Despite our frailties, our insecurities, our lack of empathy, kindness, and compassion. Whether we voted Republican or Democrat or didn't vote at all. Fat or thin. Short or tall. Despite our persistent crankiness, our neediness, our outsized egos, or what have you. No matter where we stand on abortion. Our whole imperfect selves.

Every single one.

I can't tell you how strange this seems to me, to remember that happy joyous feeling from 33 years ago and, now, think, that's how welcome you are, you, yourself, at the table of the Word.

Every single day.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Place for All At the Table

Today is Holy Thursday, the day we commemorate the Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples. The day he took bread, broke it, and said, “this is my body, given up for you.” The day he got down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet.

It brings me to tears; some of happiness, some of frustration. Here is our God, the Word Incarnate, stripping off dusty sandals, bathing and anointing callused feet. I had my feet washed once, at a retreat when I was in high school. The intimacy of it caught me my surprise. I felt wholly joined to my church and to God at that moment; the frustration I feel now is for people I love who don’t feel that way, who think there is no place for them at the Lord’s table.

My daughter is preparing to receive the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation this May. It’s the final sacrament of initiation, the point where a person is considered adult enough to make an informed choice about his or her beliefs, to say, Yes, I am part of this Church.

One of my daughter’s friends, one of my friend’s children, has decided not to be confirmed at this time. Because I know my friend and her child, I know that this is not a product of laziness, sluggish faith, or rebellion: it’s a thoughtful act, one I wholly respect. But my church—and here I speak of my specific church, the one I attend on Sundays, not the global church—doesn’t see it that way. They’ve been giving my friend small scolds and nudges about how Good Parents would make sure (force? Surely they don’t mean that) their children to be confirmed, while not once asking the nearly-grown child why?

Why don’t you want this right now? What holds you away, not from God—because nothing can keep you from the love of God—but from this human institution trying to worship God? What have we done to make you feel that there isn’t a place here for you?

When I was in sixth grade I changed schools and made a new best friend. (That she’s still a good friend is one of my heart’s joys.) I had been lonely in my former school, and I was so glad to have this friend who felt so much like me. One Saturday morning I went over to her house. After awhile the most delicious smells started coming from the kitchen. We got up and went to the kitchen.  “Mom,” my friend said, “can Kim stay for lunch?”

Her mom smiled and nodded toward the table. A place had already been set for me.

I’ve never forgotten that moment, how loved and welcome I felt, how much that very small thing meant to me. It still means so much to me. It changed how I parent; it made me try to always welcome my children’s friends, to set them places at our table.

It taught me once and for always how we ought to be to each other. Come, your place is already here. I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to be in Heaven, and I live for the day it’s true on earth as well.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In Which I Want to Go Back to Haiti

Je veux retourner a Haiti.

I want to go back to Haiti.

I've never been there.

It's complicated.

My dear friend Sarah, sister of my heart, lived in Haiti for several years, long enough, she said, to realize she could do it, really do it. Life there is not like here. The electricity goes on, or off, mostly off, at random and uncontrollably. Transportation is challenging. They have no postal service. None. If I wanted to send something to Sarah while she was there, either a letter or a package, I sent it to an address in Florida linked to a private delivery service set up for missionaries. (Sarah is both a nun and a priest in the Episcopal church.) When the letter or package reached Haiti, someone (I never was exactly sure how this worked) let Sarah know, and Sarah went to the airport to get it.

Haiti, Sarah says, is beautiful. Mountains, ocean, colorful buildings. It's complicated, too. Tent cities still. The rubble from the earthquake slowly being cleared away. A large part of the economy is underground, people selling things on the street. Only 10% of Haitian children attend school. Supposedly the government gives free education, but the reality is that there aren't very many schools.

International aid pours into Haiti, but sometimes makes things worse instead of better. After the earthquake, well-meaning organizations flooded Haiti with free rice. This meant no one bought rice from the rice farmers, who were left destitute. Before the earthquake, Port-au-Prince had a large, well-equipped hospital. Immediately after the earthquake they used all the supplies they had, treating victims. Then Doctors Without Borders started offering free health services, and now the large hospital sits empty, closed.

It's complicated.

Several years ago I started paying attention to Haiti. It's hard to explain exactly what I mean. I started thinking I needed to know more about Haiti, so I read more, became more aware of opportunities to learn. I'd read internet blogs at random and they'd end up having a connection to Haiti. When Sarah was sent there I thought, aha, that's why I need to understand Haiti. But now Sarah's back, living in Massachusetts, and I still haven't been to Haiti.

I support two Haitian children through Help One Now, an organization I like very much. HON doesn't do short-term feel-good mission trips, which I despise. They're not interested in poverty tourism. They work through Haitians who are already doing amazing things, and help them continue and grow. For example, a man in Haiti had taken in a few dozen earthquake orphans and was running a tent school in one of the tent cities. HON raised money to build him a brick school. The school was built by Haitians using material bought in Haiti; it now employs 12 Haitian teachers and educates 250 children.

The girls I sponsor, Manese and Sajous, live in Drouin, a place of extreme poverty. Through my sponsorship they attend school where they also get a hot meal, every day. It doesn't sound like much unless it's something you don't have. Sajous would like to become a nurse someday.

Je veux retourner a Haiti.

I want to go back to Haiti.

Monday, April 14, 2014

How To Get Ready to Host Book Club

1. (well in advance) Chose the book.

I love books, so I feel like this one should be easy--I go with something that I really, really love. Unfortunately, I rarely pick something that the rest of my group really, really loves. Some of them still haven't forgiven me for Mansfield Park lo these many years ago (but come on! How can you NOT like Mansfield Park??!!) and they were a little stunned by the heft of Bill Bryson's At Home (592 pages, I just looked it up. But they went by fast.) though most of them enjoyed the first bit, which was all they got to.

This time, though, I've hit it out of the park. I dithered at first, nearly selecting The Ocean At the End of the Lane, but a lot of our club members had already read that one. In the end I chose Code Name Verity. If you haven't read it, please go do so immediately, and come back here when you're finished. Especially if you're a member of my book club. Trust me. This one has spoilers which will make you really sorry you didn't read though lunch today and finish it before our discussion. Also, it's brilliant. Also, it's short. I'm learning.

2. (not as far in advance) Chose the wine.

Self-explanatory, really. A nice chilled easy-drinking white, and a crowd-pleasing red. This isn't the time to get fancy with weird stuff from Argentina. California will do just fine; New Zealand if you're going Sauvingon Blanc.  Which I am.

3. (anytime up to day before) Chose the dessert.

In my club you get Hostess Bonus Points if your dessert collaborates with the book you've chosen. Like Water for Chocolate? Easy. That puppy has recipes right inside it. If you're reading something Southern, sweet potato pie. Bill Bryson's At Home? The obvious choice was sticky toffee pudding. Code Name Verity, however, is set in England during WWII, and though I'm an expert on that era just now (my new book, The War That Saved My Life, has the same setting) it's not a great one for food. In fact, it's lousy.  In CNV they mention bad sandwiches, scrambled eggs, and cups of tea. That's it. I thought of Eton Mess, a super British dessert, but one that does look as though it's been dropped onto the floor, scooped back up, and served, and since my book club wouldn't put my doing that past me I'd better not give them ideas. I flipped through my war-ration cookbooks. Trouble is, sugar-less egg-less fat-free cake is really barely edible during wartime; it's unconscionable in times of peace. Anyway, I'm thinking flourless chocolate torte. I can make it, I like it, and I don't often eat it. That, and some British cheese for nibbles.

4. (day of, because if you start earlier your family will only mess things up again) Clean.

The really excellent thing about hosting book club is that it forces you (me) to do something about the corners. You know, the ones in your (my) house that fill up no matter what you (I) do. The 2-liter bottle of Sprite opened and half-drunk at the pony club party in December, left on the counter for why? The golf balls. The pony tail holders. The knitting projects. The random papers, the Phillips head screwdriver, the tire gauge, brand new in its packaging. Why are these things in my kitchen? It's time to get them out. Ditto all the books in the living room, including that stash I like to think no one's been noticing beneath the coffee table.

One of my friends just squared up the stack of books in her living room, stuck a piece of glass on top, and called it a table. Kid you not. I'd try it except that I don't need that many tables.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

In Which I Learn to Swing My Hips (At Last!)

Dear Betty and Angelica,

Oh, how I wish you could have seen me yesterday! You would have been so proud. You know how you've both been telling me, in a thousand different ways, loudly and at length, that I am not supposed to freeze my body while riding? And how "freeze" is somehow my default position? You know the number of years we've worked on this concept? And remember how this winter in Florida I was FINALLY starting to get it?

Well. You know I've been very carefully rehabbing Sarah's ankle injury since we got home. She's had two more rounds of shockwave therapy. I handwalk her on the concrete driveway three times a week, and we've been working quite lightly under saddle, no hills, only a handful of jumps when I thought her mind would explode if she didn't jump something. I've been spending a lot of time at the walk, especially on that change-directions-through-a-circle exercise, and one of the things I'm concentrating on is keeping my hips moving no matter what else is happening.

For me this is really hard. I'll be swinging right along, and as soon as I add another variable--a turn, say--my mind goes entirely to the turn and my hips freeze. (You know this. I'm preaching to the choir.) So I've been working on that, a lot.

Swing the hips, swing the hips, swing the hips.

Yesterday: we were doing walk/trot transitions, hips swinging, and after awhile I decided not to post. I sat the trot and my hips kept swinging.  All on their own, too, like maybe I've changed the default value a bit. And it was wonderful.

You know I learned to ride in college, at a hunter barn (okay, maybe you don't, but now you do). I don't know where this sitting-frozen thing came from, but I'm guessing it was there from the start. In hunters you're allowed to freeze more. And somehow on those gentle lesson horses I was considered to be quite good at sitting the trot. However, I don't think either of you have ever said so. Also freezing in place works okay if you're sitting the trot hunter style, just trying to keep your heels down, but it's hell during a dressage test when you're also supposed to be doing other things.

Anyway, I wish you could have seen me, or Katie could have, or someone. I was all alone in my jump field except for the neighbors' two marauding goats, and they didn't care. It's not so much I wanted praise. I wanted a witness, someone who could see I was making progress at long last.

Love, Kim

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Maybe I'll Go Back to My Typewriter

The other day, in a fit of despair, I decided to hook up my new printer.

I despaired because I don't always like new things, particularly new electronic things. I still use my original Kindle from back when they were only books, no color, no internet. I happily drive a 2004 minivan. My laptop is five months old and still does these weird fits where I'm writing my manuscript and suddenly it shows me an email from several weeks ago, and I can't get the email off the screen, and I don't know why. However, the printer in my office had decided, after many smaller fits, to never work again, and it turns out I actually do need a printer. I bought one and carried it around in the minivan for a few days, and then realized I would actually have to take it out of the van and connect it to something.

It was a colossal pain in the neck. My previously reliable, though venerable (let's put it this way: we predate Windows XP) desktop computer kept insisting that it wasn't actually online, and the online thingy kept insisting that it was. Printers come with far too much intelligence these days, so I had to keep doing things--and then the computer would yell, "Offline!" even though it wasn't. My laptop was online and running smoothly, except that I kept getting frustrated when the desktop mouse wouldn't make the laptop cursor move--then I couldn't find a manuscript that I SWEAR I'd saved on my laptop, though as I type this I just had a brilliant thought, it might be on a USB stick. I might have written it when I was struggling with the Once and Former Laptop, ye of little memory and sluggish speed. Halleluia. Because of course that was the part that was pissing me off the most.

It wasn't an important manuscript. It wasn't a novel. But manuscripts of any sort are things I'm not supposed to lose.
After awhile, when everything seemed quite functional and normal (except the missing ms) I went away to brew a restorative cup of tea. When I returned the computer was broken. It seems to have committed suicide, which is startling, because I never knew it was feeling bad at all. Now this funky error message in a little box moves randomly across the screen, and that's absolutely all it does. I've restarted it several times. It does nothing else. I don't know what it means, and no buttons or combination of buttons or clicking or whathaveyou seems to affect it in any way.
Which means, probably, that I'll have to buy a new computer. And then I'll have to take it out of the box and plug it in, and probably teach it to go online and everything. It will be horrible. I've actually thought of abandoning the desktop machine and just using my laptop in my office. The problem is that I've got a lot of stuff taped to, leaning on, or hiding behind my desktop monitor. Get rid of it, and I'll have to clean. Hard to say which is worse.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The History Club

Yesterday I spoke at a meeting of the History Club of Bristol. The History Club was founded in 1931, and none of the current members recall why it was ever named the History Club, though some of them may have been members at the time.

From my perspective, it was lovely, and I hope they all thought so too, though I'm told I disappointed them by not bringing my dear husband along so they could admire the view. One woman, whom I'd not met before (I already knew several of the ladies there), upon hearing I was originally from Indiana, said, "Oh, so you must just love living here!" That, as my son pointed out when I repeated the comment to him later, is the essence of a Southern dig--sounds like a compliment, and it's only when you get home that you work out there's an insult in there somewhere. But it wasn't an insult to me, it was to my birthplace, over which I had no choice and can be given no blame. Plus, it was funny. Bless her heart.

From the meeting I went to Food City for groceries, but not my usual one--I was closer to one "by the Japanese restaurant." (This is how everyone in Bristol gives directions. Either "by" something else, or, worse, "by" where something else "used to be." I stopped at the fish counter to see what was fresh and the man working there said, "Hey, I recognize you from somewhere."

I took a look at him and suggested St. Anne's Church, at which point he started laughing and said of course St. Anne's. "You're the one that writes books," he said. (He recommended the potato-encrusted cod, which is the first time I've bought pre-encrusted anything. But it was very good.)

This is so typical in my small town. And I love it. I told the History Club the story of how I once fell sound asleep in the comfy chairs at our library, in front of one of the little gas fires, slept for two hours, nearly missed picking my children up from school, and woke to find a puddle of drool on my shirt. But at least my picture didn't get taken for the newspaper. It could have happened. Though I like to think that if one of the newspaper boys had dropped by, the YA librarian would have come to my defense.

Scratch that. I know her too well. She probably wasn't even at work that day. If she'd seen me snoring, she would have called up the newspaper boys herself.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What's a Sin?

When I was studying chemistry in college, I walked through the biochem labs one day and saw my friend Ruchira chopping up and blenderizing a very large heart. "Chira," I said, somewhat stunned, "is that a cow heart?"

Ruchira nodded. "I can never tell my mother," she said.

Ruchira's family is Hindi. Cows are sacred to them. Blenderizing cow hearts is, to them, a sin.

In pony club a few years ago, when we were making plans for the food for our end-of-the-year party, the mom of two of our members reminded us that they kept Kosher, which meant, in addition to no ham, no shrimp or other shellfish.  Eating ham or shrimp is, to them, a sin.

I grew up in a county with a high concentration of Amish people. They'll ride in a car if someone else drives it--say, to get to the downtown hospital, where there's nowhere to park their buggies--but to own a car, or drive it, would be a sin.

I'm Catholic. A few weeks ago, as I was driving a vanload of pony clubbers to quiz rally on a Friday evening, I told them we had to go to dinner somewhere I could get a decent vegetarian meal. I'm not a vegetarian, but on the Fridays of lent I don't eat meal; to do so would be a sin. We went to Ruby Tuesday's, where the Christians in my van who weren't Catholic--which is to say, everyone but me and my daughter, cheerfully ate non-sinful steak and turkey burgers while my daughter and I ate fish.

If I, a Catholic, marry via the justice of peace, my marriage is invalid in the church, although perfectly legal, and the relations I have within it are as sinful as if I were unmarried.  My atheist friend can be married beside a river by her best friend from kindergarten, and it's perfect okay.

I could go on.

I got some hate mail recently on the blog; it was, predictably, about my views on homosexuality. I understand that not everyone agrees with me, and I actually welcome conflicting views except when they're expressed with venom and hatred.

One person, instead of writing, "Kim Bradley, I disagree with you," wrote, "Writers must be unable to think." Really? All writers? Another--who may have been the same person, I haven't figured out how to tell--claimed that all gay people were "Tyrannical fascists."  Hmm. Some gay people, certainly. Every single one?

I could never tell you what All Gay People think, any more than I could tell you what All Straight People Think. I will point out that the Christian friend who reminded me not to judge Fred Phelps harshly is gay. I will say that my gay great-uncle was widely felt to be the kindest, most loving person in my family.

My husband called me out on doing the same thing recently, when he said that I was using the word Evangelical in my blog as though all evangelical people thought and acted the same way. He's right, and I'll try not to make that mistake again. One of the great things I've gained from working at Faith in Action is an understanding of how people of different beliefs can be united in Christ, not just divided by their differences. I don't know what doctrines Vic subscribes to, where he stands on gay marriage, transubstantiation, infant vs. adult baptism, predestination, or forgiveness of sins. I know Vic has the openest heart of anyone I've ever known, and I would never feel anything but love for him. I know that sweet Jackie, a Baptist, really does believe homosexuality is a sin, but also would never bring herself to condemn or judge another human being, not even me when I pointed out snarkily that Leviticus forbidsalso the eating of bacon. Jackie giggled, and said, "Well, I'll never understand it all," and that was the whole truth, so far as I could tell. We will never be certain. We will worship cows or avoid pigs or do whatever we feel we are called to. What we can't do is hate everyone who disagrees with us. You may believe something is sinful. I am not required to agree. We will not discover which of us is correct this side of heaven. ("For now I see as though through a glass, darkly, but then I shall see face to face.") I'm learning to be okay with that, and I hope that you are, too.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Ten Thousand Children: Two Days

Ten thousand children. That's how many lost their sponsorships in the two days between when World Vision publicly announced that they were willing to hire married gay employees, and when they reversed their decision.

World Vision had actually changed the policy several months ago, in recognition of the fact that many married gay Christians are fully accepted by their mainstream faiths. It was only when magazine Christianity Today threatened to make a big stink about the policy that the sponsorships hit the fan.

On the second of those two days, I sponsored a World Vision child. I didn't do it to make a statement about gay marriage. I did it because I'd been thinking about doing it, because I like World Vision's community approach, and because I could sponsor a girl in South Africa, one of my favorite countries in the world.

Her name is Sanele. She's seven. In her sponsorship photo she looks mutinous, as though objecting to her photo being taken. As soon as I hit the "sponsor" button I was invited to send her an email, which will be printed out in South Africa, translated into her language, and given to her.

I love World Vision because their approach works. Some of my monthly donation will go to Sanele, but most will be spent in her community supporting their specific needs. World Vision makes master plans for each community that involve working with local leaders, creating self-sufficiency, and ending their support within 15 years when the community has developed the resources to thrive on its own.

I love child sponsorship because it works, too, though not exactly how you'd expect. I read about it in a book--I think it was one of the Malcolm Gladwell ones, not sure--anyhow, they did a specific assessment of children who became sponsored when World Vision came into their community, and their very slightly older siblings, who weren't eligible to be matched. Everything else--home, family, community support--was the same. The sponsored children ended up staying in school longer and becoming more gainfully employed. The reason: because they'd been given hope. The biggest benefit to being sponsored was that, through the exchanges of letters and photos, they developed a relationship with an adult halfway around the world who cared for them and wanted them to succeed. I've always thought our relationships with each other were what mattered most, and this study, the first wholly independent one of any sponsorship program, proved it in spades.

Reaction to World Vision's announcement about not discriminating against gay couples was swift and furious. At World Vision headquarters, the phones rang 7000 times the first day.

A friend from my old writer's group has sponsored a child in Lesotho through World Visition for years. Eventually her relationship with that child turned into a love of Lesotho and a great interest in the children there. A few years later, she and her husband adopted their son from a Lesotho orphanage; while in the country, they also visited their sponsored child. The whole community came out to welcome them, cooking for them and sharing a meal. Their sponsored child was thrilled to actually meet them.

Yesterday that friend wrote on Facebook, "Ten thousand children just like my son."

The moment World Vision reversed their decision, their phones stopped ringing. They'd lost 10,000 child sponsorships in less than two days.

Once upon a time, in one of my stints as Acting Director at Faith in Action, the food pantry there ran exceptionally low, enough so that I went to Sam's Club and loaded up the shelves myself. My mother-in-law was helping me, as were my two children, who weren't yet in high school. As we worked, my MIL kept saying things like, "This is so wonderful, to be helping The Poor," and "Won't The Poor be grateful to have all this food?" It was getting on my last nerve, how she referred to The Poor as a separate type of human, wholly removed from herself, but I knew she meant well, more or less, so I ignored it.

My son did not. "Gram," he said, very politely, "Please quit calling them The Poor. We really don't know whether the people who come here are poor or not. All we know about them is that they're having trouble, and they need some help."

My son has always been capable of these moments of incandescent truth.

Many of the donors who dropped their World Vision children said that they made up for it by sponsoring a different child from a different organization. In other words, their sponsored child wasn't real to them. Despite the photos, despite the letters, despite the call to be in a relationship, they looked at the child they'd been matched with and saw The Poor. The faceless, undifferentiated Poor.

On Wednesday I sat on the back steps of Faith in Action talking with one of our clients. She wasn't eligible for financial assistance (we only give that every 6 months) but she'd come for some food. She works cleaning an elementary school, and didn't get paid because of spring break. Nothing left to eat, and her food stamps didn't renew until April 11th. We gave her what she could carry; she doesn't drive and it was a long walk home. Before she started out we talked for awhile. She needs a new job--school will be out for the summer soon--but her lack of transportation makes finding one difficult. Anyway, we talked for fifteen minutes or so. I didn't have anything to offer except that conversation. But I told her to come back next Wednesday if she wanted to. I'd be there.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

This is Not A Hobby, It's Our Job

Yesterday a friend of mine, a fellow children's book writer, put up on Facebook for discussion a message she'd gotten from an irate parent at a school she was scheduled to do a Skype talk with. Skype talks are a new thing; instead of paying an author to make a visit in person, one pays an author for a Skype visit--no travelling expenses involved.

I've shied away from Skype school visits so far. I'm not really computer savvy, and while I have full confidence in my ability to hold the interest of 200 middle school students packed into a gymnasium in person, I'm not convinced I could do it from a little screen. My style is not flamboyant.

I ought to also confess that while I think I'm good at school visits, they require lots of preparation time and lots of energy; I'm not convinced that the amount I charge, though in-line with others of my experience and background, is really worth it to me. So I don't market myself very intensely, or pursue this line of business very hard. Others differ; for some writers, speaking engagements are a big part of their income.

If I do start Skype visits, I'll charge a pretty good fee per hour, because of the prep time, because I think my presentations have value, and because I need to make it worth my while. Nearly every published author charges for Skype visits as well as in-person ones, and it's the official policy of the
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators that they should do so.

Apparently the school in which my friend is scheduled to speak decided to pass the cost of the Skype visit directly to the students: they charged $5 per child for the author Skype, and any child who didn't pay could not participate. Now I do think that is dreadful. I once, at a school visit, signed a book written by Betsy Byars, because a child asked me to--it turned out he was in foster care, he'd earned the book through participation in some school program, and it was the only book he'd ever owned. He was thrilled to have my signature on it. I don't think Betsy would have minded at all. I've been to plenty of Title One schools filled with kids who could never, ever, afford to buy one of my books themselves or pay for any part of my visit, and some of them are fantastic eager book-loving students who will get my books from the library and gain a lot from my presentation. But please note: it was the school's decision to charge the students, not my friend's.

So the parent email blasted my friend for not doing her Skype visit for free. The parent said that she volunteers at the school, so why wouldn't my friend?

Yesterday I also got yet another email asking me to contribute a signed book to a school's silent auction--this one was somewhere in Missouri. I get these emails so often you would not believe. Please note that the school, which I am not connected to in any way and have never heard of before, is asking me to take a book that I have personally paid for (I get a discount, but I don't get unlimited free copies), sign it, buy a padded envelope, drive to the post office, and pay for the postage to send it to them, which sounds like a damn lot of work given that they probably won't make more than ten bucks for it. So I don't give books. I'll happily give signatures. My standard response is that if they send me one of my books with a paid envelope, I'll sign it and mail it back. I've never had a school willing to do that.

Here are the things that the parent who blasted my friend doesn't understand, and the people who email me don't understand: 1) this is not a hobby, this is our job. Our real job, our bill-paying job. It's no more incumbent upon us to give their child's school something for free than it is for the teachers there to teach for free, or the custodians to clean the school for free, or the crossing guard at the school to wave her arms for free. I'm not being facetious: I love the crossing guard at my daughter's school, who is always cheerful and always keeps the students safe. I think she deserves to be paid. I think I deserve to be paid as well.

2) your school is not my children's school. Of COURSE I didn't charge my children's school for visits. Of COURSE I gave them signed books for fundraisers. But there are an awful lot of schools in the world. The parent who thought my friend owed her child's school something was not realizing that my friend has children and grandchildren of her own--that she has volunteered plenty where it matters to her.

I give signed books in support of any charity I feel personally called to. I'm speaking at a meeting of Bristol's History Club on Monday, and they've graciously invited me to bring books to sell. I could take the profits, but instead I'll ask club members to donate to Faith in Action, which will be win-win all around.

I'm sorry my friend got called out; I know she felt grieved. She didn't need to. I've heard her speak; the woman's amazing, and I would definitely pay to Skype with her.

P.S. When I speak at the Bristol Public Library, they honor me by insistently paying me the same as any other speaker who was not from our town. I pay them back in overdue fines.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Eggs with a Side of Grit

On days when my husband performs surgery, he leaves the house at 6:30 am. Since we have always eaten breakfast together as a family, this means that on surgery days we wake up at 5:30. However, between 5-hour tennis matches and homework, the last two nights have been kind of rough on our daughter, so this morning we let her sleep until 6 am. Because I'm such a good parent, I slept in, too--I'm generous like that. Then I roamed the house in search of a functional shower (oh, don't ask), got dressed, hollered a few times to be certain my daughter was awake, received reassuring replies, and went down to figure out what I could have for breakfast given that I needed to go to the grocery about a month ago and haven't.

"You want eggs?" I yelled.
"Sure," my daughter replied. She came down the stairs looking harassed. She'd had a nosebleed, she said, and it wouldn't stop. No big deal, she gets them all the time. I was happily chopping fresh parsley and green onions. "Are those eggs going to be ready soon?" my daughter asked, rather pointedly for someone who was getting a hot breakfast cooked for her.

I assured her that the eggs would be ready soon. She took the dogs outside, and when she came back in with them made a sort of noise at me which sounded like profound impatience. I was stirring eggs. You don't want to cook scrambled eggs too quickly, it curdles them. I poured myself some coffee and clicked on my phone to check Facebook. Stir, stir. Then I saw the time on the top of my phone.

"Is it seriously 7 o'clock?"

"Yes," my daughter hissed. Suddenly her impatience made a lot more sense. She leaves for school at seven o'clock.

Okay, so she ate the eggs, slurped coffee, and was out the door at 7:04. Crisis averted.

Here is the thing about my children: they amaze me. They are a long way off perfect--in fact, they are often annoyingly imperfect--but oh, my, are they amazing. Smart as whips, both of them. And both of them played, or play, high school sports. When they were little playing different sports in rec leagues I would have said that apart from getting exercise, their playing sports wasn't important to me. Now I see that I was wrong.

I've never been the sort of mother who gets angry on the sidelines. I still see athletic events as a chance to get a lot of knitting done.  I never charted my kids' stats, I didn't keep track of their league standings. I sometimes forgot to bring snacks when it was my turn. Especially in the soccer and little league years, I never cared how well they did, because it seemed miraculous to me that they could do any of it at all. My son could catch a ball! My daughter could run and kick! Honestly, my mental bar was set pretty low. I just loved to watch them play.

Yesterday I realized that I am glad they play sports for a different reason. Sports aren't easy. Sports are a struggle. Both of my children have found school work easy, at least through high school, and while we've always stressed the importance of hard work, there's really no way to make homework difficult when it simply isn't. When your kid breezes through it. But I want my children to know the value of not doing well, of fighting and struggling and sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong. I want them to understand that the world doesn't end if they fail at something. I want them to understand what failure feels like, and also success; I want them to know that they can work really hard at something and still not be as good as the talented slacker next to them. Forget stats. I'm about grit, and grit is something sports have taught my children.

Yesterday my daughter's tennis team played one of their divisional arch-rivals. In singles my daughter went down 3 games very quickly. She muttered to herself, hands on hips, got her game face on, kept trying. She fought back. She lost. At the end of singles, the teams were tied, 3-3.

My daughter has a new partner for doubles this year and they suit each other well. They went ahead early, but the other team came back, and then it was tied. Then my daughter served and won. It doesn't sound like a big deal, and in the grand scheme of things it wasn't, but I'll say that her serve is the weakest part of her game. That her overall play is much better this year. That performing under pressure isn't easy, and that she played very well when it mattered most.

She threw her arms in the air, and then she threw them around her partner, and then she threw them around her coach.  One of the other doubles pairs won, and one lost, so my daughter's team won the match. Later her coach came up to me. "She's a fighter," he said. "I like that."

Oh, me too. Me too.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An April Morning on the Farm

Usually when the rest of the family leaves, I settle down to writing first thing. I work best that way. But this morning I'd agreed to do morning chores for my friend who boards his horse, Syd, on our farm. All I had to do was give Syd his morning grain, give a token handful of grain to Shakespeare, our elderly pony, who is Syd's best friend and spends the night in the barn with him, and then turn them both out into the back pasture.

But it was such a lovely morning. Overcast, with more than a promise of rain, and yet warm enough that even I could be outside with just a sweatshirt (and pants. I promise I wore pants). The air smelled of the newly greening grass and the robins were fighting for good spots to build their nests. The plum trees in the orchard, which I have been planning to prune for months now, are blooming, meaning I won't be pruning them anytime soon. It was a fine morning to be outside.

So, after I fed Syd and Shakey, I decided to move Gully and Hot Wheels into the old sheep pasture. Gully, my first event horse, and Hot Wheels, my son's old pony, are both retired. They're also both metabolically challenged, in that they could grow fat on a asphalt parking lot, and keeping them to a weight that doesn't kill them is a perpetual issue. I let them graze in the big field in the dead of winter, when the grass was sere and brown: they plumped up like Thanksgiving turkeys. A month ago I moved them into the "pony paddock," a third of an acredirt  lot at the back of the barn. I put them on a strict diet of 8 oz grain and 2 flakes grass hay per day, and guess what? They've barely lost a pound.

Anyway the pony paddock needs a break--it's a mess. What it really needs is a good hard rainstorm and then a few days baking in the sun, which it might get, given the forecast. So I poured 8 oz grain in two buckets and went out to the ponies. They milled around me, desperate for food, until I opened the door to the adjoining sheep paddock, which is also about a third of an acre in size. We tilled it last fall, because our sheep dog had dug so many deep holes in it. I really need to reseed it but I haven't done that, either, so it's perfect for the chubby ponies, little sparse tufts of grass but nothing overwhelming. Grain graingrain, they thought as they followed me to the gate. Grain grain OH. Grass. Both ponies slammed their heads to the ground, ignoring the grain buckets entirely. I moved a water trough into the field and filled it, but for today giving them hay will be a colossal waste of time. And hay. They're happy.

Back in the pony paddock, I dumped the trough there and left it on its side to drain. Put Shakey's grazing muzzle--sugar is bad for him, so we have to restrict his grass intake, too--on him, then let him turn himself out while I haltered Syd and led him to the field. Syd danced and cavorted. Shakey looked disapproving. He usually does. "C'mon, Boo-Boo," I said. He cut his eyes at me. Don't call me Boo-boo, bitch.

I called the other horses--Sarah, Mickey, and Pal--up from the big field, then tended to chores in the barn, cleaning Shakey's stall and rebedding it, and making his hay mush for the night (he's so old he doesn't have many teeth left, so he can't chew hay that hasn't first been soaked). It was too early to feed the cats but I gave up and fed them anyhow, after tripping over them half a dozen times. I straightened up the manure pile (why am I the only one who straightens the manure pile?), cleared away the hoof shavings in the wash stall (ditto; why??), set up the grain for Sarah, Mickey, Pal. Then I went out to the big field.

They were far down in the bottom, ignoring me. They like me, and they like grain, but grain is nothing really compared to the glory of spring grass. "Saaar---ahhhh!" I called again.  "Dinnnnnner!" Sarah looked up. She loves me, adores me, usually comes running when I call. She bobbed forward happily, then disappeared from view as she got to the base of the small hill in the field. I waited to see her ears coming over the crest of it. Meanwhile my daughter's horse, Mickey, turned his back to me. Old Pal, another retiree (for the record, that's 4 retired horses, 2 we can ride, and Syd), looked up quietly. He conserves his energy, and I knew he'd never move until Mickey did.

I waited. Waited. No ears. Then I saw Sarah trotting away from the base of the hill, ears perked gaily, tail held high. It was one of those days. Spring gets to them, I swear.

"Sarah!" This time I went with the Authoritative Voice. She swished her tail. Mickey, unexpectedly, wheeled around and began to run toward me, which made Sarah run (everything's a race) and even Pal start forward at his steady walk.

They got to the top of the hill and slammed to a stop, staring at me. "Oh, for heaven's sake," I said.  "Come on."

Nope. Nope. Dancing, prancing, a whole bunch of snorting. Meanwhile Pal continued forward progress, and it was only because the other two couldn't stand to have him pass them that they approached the barn at all.

WILD SPOOK!  Horrors!  There was something Very Scary near the barn! The water trough in the pony paddock was laying on its side. Clearly it had eaten Gully and Hot Wheels, and was coming after the three of them next.

Huh. Eventually I got them all inside. Sarah finished quickly--big mouth, small serving--and I haltered her for our planned work for the day, which was 15 minutes of walking on the concrete driveway. We're doing that 3 times a week now--Sarah has a weak ankle ligament and this strengthens it. We march down the drive to the second lamppost (just before the drive gets steep) and back, over and over. Sarah finds this inutterably boring. But, she says, better than that effing dressage.

Yesterday I rode her very carefully and precisely in our dressage arena, mostly at the walk, mostly working on an exercise Betty gave me in Florida that is easy to do but hard to do right. Chin up, I tell myself. A boob on each shoulder. (Don't ask; it makes sense to me.) Keep your hips swinging. But doing all that at once is like walking and chewing gum at the same time, and I manage to screw it up. Sarah's back goes tense: I've stopped my hips. I lose her shoulder: I'm looking down. I lose her hind end: could be anything. After awhile Sarah, who actually only wants to jump things, grew so frustrated she let out a huge buck and nearly had me off.

"I hope you smacked her," my daughter said. I said no; it had not been a smacking sort of a day. You pick your battles with horses. Especially mares.

So now we're walking, walking, clomp clomp on the concrete, and Sarah is sighing with the sameness of it all. I'd latched the stall doors but not double latched them, and Mickey, who's done eating and is dying to know why Sarah's on the driveway, wiggles the bolt loose. He bursts into the field like the racehorse he used to be. This livens things up. Sarah wheels around. Mickey farts, bucks, rears. He races along the pasture fence beside the driveway. See, Sarah, I'm faster. I'm faster. I'm winning.

It's so annoying. Sarah can't go faster, because I'm holding her back. She never does beat him anyway. Pal hangs his head over his stall door, chewing. He could be watching a good movie from the look on his face. Mickey runs, spooks at the overturned trough--"it's not even in your field, doofus," I yell--bucks, runs some more. It's no wonder that of all the horses, he's the only one we can't keep weight on. He never stops moving.

Sarah and I finish her walk. She sighs and lowers her head so I'll pet her. When I turn her out, she marches straight to the pony paddock side of the pasture. She stares hard at the overturned water trough, then, snorting, runs down the field, Mickey and Pal trailing behind her.

It's very good to be on a farm in the spring.