Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Let's Talk About Allergies and Mental Illness

I'm having my worst fall allergy season in over a decade.

No one knows why. I'm taking my usual antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays. I'm doing all my routine protocols, showering in the evenings to wash the pollen off, using a neti pot to rinse my nose, sleeping on freshly-washed sheets in a bedroom prepared for an allergy sufferer with a wood floor and a mattress encased in a dust-mite protective cloth. I started another round of immunotherapy ("allergy shots")--the fourth multi-year round of my lifetime--last spring.

Yet last night I was sneezing so hard and so frequently in my bed that I finally got up, clutching my box of tissues, and fled to the guest room to sneeze in private, so that my poor husband, who has a full day of operating on other peoples' eyeballs ahead of him, could actually sleep. In the morning when he came to wake me, he looked at the dozens of used tissues littering the floor and said, "Maybe it's time for prednisone."

I agreed. I went to my stash of prednisone (with allergies and asthma like mine, you keep prednisone on hand) and I took some, and now I'm sitting here typing this, sneezing, and waiting for the drugs to kick in. Prednisone is awesome stuff, but it has side effects that keep it from being the first line of defense.

Meanwhile, yesterday I got an email from a woman scheduling contributions to a blog about mental health issues as presented in young adult literature. I'm all in on this. I have mental health issues (chronic PTSD, depression), many of my family members have mental health issues, and many young adults I know have mental health issues. It drives me batshit crazy when these aren't addressed with openness and honesty.

There should be no shame.

In the past 10 years I've done an awful lot to manage and improve my mental health. I get a massage every week (this was an idea my therapist had a decade ago--interestingly enough, some of the latest neuroscience confirms that it's very helpful in treating chronic PTSD, which, despite the name, is biochemically quite different from the sort of PTSD soldiers get, and has to be treated differently). I take yoga classes four to six times a week. I did several years of talk therapy, and I still get therapy occasionally. (For the record: traditional CBT doesn't do much for chronic PTSD, and EMR doesn't work in most cases; however, electric brain retraining--there's a better way to put that, I just can't remember--and neurofeedback methods such as brainspotting really help. This again according to the latest research. I am a huge fan of neuroscience.)

I also take an antidepressant medication. Every day. I came off meds once and relapsed; it was very difficult for me and for my family. Right now under my doctor's advice I'm seeing if I can lower the dose of the medicine I talk, because we think it's raising my blood pressure, but the truth is, since I relapsed once I'm very likely to relapse again, so I'm looking at staying on some kind of antidepressant forever.

I have always been, since earliest memory, the person with the worst allergy symptoms in whatever group I'm in. I was  the worst in grade school, high school, college. The only girl who bought a bigger purse to have somewhere to hold all the Kleenex. I'm the reason my yoga studio owner stocked all the classrooms with tissues. Throughout my life I have felt annoyed, embarrassed, irritated, and occasionally even angry that for reasons unknown my immune system lives in hyperdrive. However, I have never once felt ashamed.

Taking antihistamines or even prednisone does not embarrass me. Taking allergy meds does not mean I'm unable to sneeze or that nothing ever comes out of my nose. When they work really well, allergy meds restore me to a more normal baseline.

The same is true of my antidepressant. It's not a happy pill. It doesn't make me cheerful all the time (family members can attest to this) nor does it make me incapable of real, deep, penetrating sorrow. What it does do is allow my brain to process events and emotions in a more neurotypical ("normal") fashion. It brings me up to a baseline most people maintain all the time.

Lately there have been a lot more books, especially for young people, discussing depression and other mental illnesses, which should be good, except that way too many of tehm have carried very stupid, potentially harmful messages: that pills are evil, that medicine should be avoided at all costs. That there's something noble in being paralyzed by depression. That suicide is somehow meaningful, or anything but a tragic waste. That people with mental illness should feel ashamed; that if they seek help they should feel more so.

Sorry. I'm not ashamed. Neither of my runny nose nor my traumatically-rewired brain. I've got what I've got. Yoga has enabled me to see my body much more clearly. I've got long legs, a short torso, and short arms, which means I have to use a block to do Half Moon Pose and I really struggle with Eagle Arms. On the other hand, I absolutely rock at Cobbler Pose. In a similar way, I can look at my brain and see that I'm really fabulous with empathy. I don't remember faces well but I can read emotions like you wouldn't believe. I pay attention to the musical rhythms of words, which means I remember conversations accurately, which makes me excellent at creating dialogue and a better than usual writer in general. I lack my husband's and son's near photographic memory for details, but I pick up on patterns easily. I'm not as good as I'd like to be at reading a map. My lizard brain startles easily; I have to deal with a permanently overreactive stress response. Also, ragweed pollen makes my nose run like a hose.

I'm grateful for the medicines that help me.

That's the way it is.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The First Year of Fred

Fred, my youngest beloved godson and nephew, turned one last week. His Uncle Bart and I were a little late getting his birthday gift to him, in part because I'm disorganized, but also because I was actually aiming for the gifts to arrive in time for this weekend's birthday party, which he will share with his big brother Louie, who's turning 3. Also I know Fred won't mind, partially because he's only 1, and partially because he's Fred.

He's a lovely easygoing soul. Most things delight him; those that don't mostly don't rattle him. The only recent photo I've seen of him crying (he lives in Wisconsin so I don't see him in person often) actually made me laugh, because it was identical to one of my own son at the same age: a stripped-down baby in a high chair, presented with his gaudily-decorated very first birthday cake, who touched the cake, got frosting on his hand, and burst into tears. It remains to be seen if Fred ends up as texturally-oriented as my son, who, as a toddler, wouldn't eat anything that stuck to his fingers.

Fred and I go way back. When he was a newborn we spent four days soaking up each other's company. He was especially fascinated with my eyeglasses, and would stare at them fixedly. Fred was a sturdy baby, absolutely determined to be as mobile as his big brother, so by the time of his baptism he was already sitting up by himself. He'd fall forward onto his belly and try to crawl. He looked like a stranded turtle.

At our Fourth of July party he was hoisting himself up onto our coffee table, balancing himself, and the letting go--standing, at nine months old. With my daughter holding his hands he walked a circuit of the house. He was still too young to have any real fear of strangers, but I like to think I wasn't a stranger to him. I still wore my glasses; now he grabbed them and laughed.

I won't make his birthday party--a pirate-themed party, because Louie loves the Disney character Jake, who is apparently a pirate (all the shows my children watched are gone--no more Bear In The Big Blue House, no more Blue's Clues--and there's a whole whack of new ones)--but I hope to see Fred soon. He's moving to Charlotte in a month, along with Louie and their mom and dad.

Odd to think that just over a year ago there was no Fred. What did we ever do without him?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Team Bradley

Yesterday my daughter and I rode in the Biltmore Hunter Pace. A hunter pace is a sort of glorified trail ride--somewhere, there's an optimum time, and the team of two or three riders (or four or five: yesterday they didn't seem to care) that comes closest gets a ribbon. The ribbons are so meaningless that the results aren't even calculated until the day after the pace; the ribbons are awarded by mail.

Biltmore House, in Asheville, is that gorgeous mansion/tourist destination. In the time I've lived in the south it's grown exponentially, with all sorts of outdoor activities, food, and now a second hotel under construction. Tourists can take carriage rides and nose-to-tail trail rides from a big beautiful carriage barn. Most tourists, however, miss the small signs that say "BEC." That would be the Biltmore Equestrian Center, a real, non-touristy, non-pretentious facility somewhat hidden on the grounds. BEC has a boarding barn and a lesson program. Since the estate has always maintained over 100 miles of riding trails, BEC also offers public access to them: for $25, you can bring in your own horse and ride at will. You can also rent a small paddock to keep your horse overnight, and you can camp in your trailer yourself if you like.

This sounds like a great deal: the catch is that to actually drive onto the grounds with your horse, you have to buy a day ticket as though you're going to tour the house. That's $65, which brings the cost of your trail ride to $90. Ouch. Now, you can buy an annual grounds pass, or an annual equestrian pass, if you're going to be there often. However, the hunter pace was a handy way around that. It cost $40 and included a very tasty lunch.

My daughter and I had never done one of these hunter paces before (there's a whole fall series near here) and so we misunderstood the directions. When it said it went from 9 am until 2 pm, we thought everyone had to start at 9 am. Actually, riders could start anytime between 9 and 2; they could have lunch first if they liked. So when we pulled up on the grounds at 8:30 am, we were the very first (of over 100) to arrive.

It was fantastic. Our horses are hunting-fit and they love adventure. Since we didn't know the mythical optimum time, and didn't really care about getting a ribbon, we just rode as the trail and our horses dictated--galloping through the long flat bits, walking up and down the steep rocky bits. We saw turkeys and deer. We jumped whatever jumps we could. We had a perfectly good time.

The best part, though, came early. Very early. As usual, we walked ourselves backward through the schedule: ready to ride at 9, so pulling in by 8:15, so leaving in the trailer at 6:30, so at the barn at 6-- "Ugh," said my daughter. "Wake up at 5." I countered that if we were really together we could sleep until 5:15, because, you know, that extra quarter-hour makes a difference. So we got up, got dressed. I made scrambled eggs, the breakfast of early-morning rides; she filled our water bottles (one for drinking, one for cleaning tack on the drive) and found the travel coffee mugs. On our walk to the barn in the early-morning darkness she called to her horse, and by the time we reached the barn the herd was waiting by the doors.

I started feeding while my daughter filled hay nets for the trip. I brought the horses in. She pulled the fly sheet off her horse, found the shipping boots. We loaded our tack, opened up the trailer. Loaded the horses. We did everything without talking, without needing to talk. As we climbed into the truck my daughter checked the time. 6:29. We high-fived and hit the road.

Next year at this time she'll be gone. I'll miss the teamwork we've learned. When I said so she reminded me that I have lots and lots of eventing friends--she named them, and she's right. She suggested friends who'd be glad to go to next year's Biltmore pace with me. I agreed. I told her again how much she was going to enjoy college, four years of freedom to learn whatever she pleased. I didn't get caught, as I sometimes do, worrying about the future. I just enjoyed the morning.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Problems with Crenshaw (and poverty in children's books)

Yesterday I read Katherine Applegate's new novel Crenshaw. It's about a boy whose family has fallen on hard times, and his large imaginary cat named Crenshaw.

First I want to say that the writing is impeccable. Gorgeously so. The book is clearly intended for the lower age range of middle-grades--probably grades 3 through 5. For an awful lot of children it will be thought-provoking: it will give them access to the idea that some children go to bed hungry, but it won't completely freak them out.

My fear is that for children that do go to bed hungry, it's not realistic.

The main character, Jackson, seems naive for a 10-year-old. His family's been homeless before, and are on the verge of being homeless again to the point where they're selling their furniture to try to make rent--but the children, Jackson and his little sister Robyn, are somewhat detached from it all. Their parents are resolutely making light of the situation--but the children aren't stupid. I would think their worries would be more to the forefront.

Also, they're hungry. The children are hungry. The parents are working several part-time jobs apiece, but can't make ends meet--around here you probably could, but the family lives in California. They go to local food pantries, but they don't sign up for food stamps or attempt to get any other form of assistance.

That's the part I'm having trouble with. First there's a comment that they're too proud for that. They're not too proud for the dad to be panhandling--with help from the kids, and commentary that it might generate more money if the family dog sat beside him--but they're too proud to get real help. At one point one of the parents adds that it's too late, they wouldn't get benefits quickly enough--but they would have, if they'd asked for help before they sold their daughter's bed. I don't know what resources specifically exist in California. Let's say they could have been eligible for $400/month in food stamps. Certainly, though they're not buying much food, they're buying that much. Then the $400 could have gone toward rent. Wouldn't have paid all the rent, but it would have made a difference. They might have sought job placement assistance. They might have gotten commodity food items. The children's day care situation was never mentioned--they could have gone to Boys and Girls Clubs, say, very cheaply and with full meals served. Or, if they're in a low-income area, they might have found a summer program that served meals. There are places serving meals to the poor.

Over and over, in children's fiction, I find middle-class writers who create characters that are "too proud" to accept government assistance. In real life, I've hardly ever met a lower-income family that was "too proud." Maybe it's because I work in a social justice center, where people come because they need help; maybe my experiences are skewed the opposite direction. But there is no virtue in making your children suffer when they don't have to. No virtue in having your children be dizzy from hunger, while you are capable of signing up for food stamps and refuse to do so.

The ending of Crenshaw, too, is deus ex machina. Just when the family is actually going to be evicted--which is treated rather casually, when in fact not having an address to receive mail is going to make a real mess of the parents' ability to continue to hold jobs--someone offers the dad a job and a small apartment.

Nothing has changed, except that the protagonist told his parents they needed to be more honest with him, and they said they would. The parents aren't doing a better job. The kids aren't more secure.

I had such hopes for Crenshaw. It's being lauded as an important book about a rarely-discussed issue. Instead it's a facile book about a rarely-discussed issue. It's Poverty Lite. We need to do better than this. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Oh, No! A Book Tour!

Yesterday I received the schedule for my NY/CT book tour taking place the last week of October. Some writer I can't remember well enough to credit once said, "The only thing worse than going on a book tour is not going on a book tour."

I understand this, because I mostly don't go on book tours. I'm actually pretty good at speaking to groups of people--I can stand on stage and talk about as well as I can sit on my couch and talk--but the thing about book tours is, the publisher pays me to go--pays my travel expenses, sets the whole thing up, presents me with an itinerary--and the truth is, they have to be making a decentish profit on my book before it makes sense for them to invest the cash.

However. Looking over this list of events, it occurs to me: I am going to have to prepare some talks. Not just one talk. Several talks. The only talking I've done about this book so far was last week, when my friends' bookclub invited me to drink wine with them. They asked questions; I answered. That's not going to get me far in a room of 100 5th graders. I am going to have to find something to said.

Also--there's a suggestion about Powerpoint. I have always been a very low-tech speaker. Yet I can see how Powerpoint could be my friend. One photo of an unresolved clubfoot in an adolescent child would be worth several paragraphs of explanation. Ditto the sidesaddle. You can't really understand sidesaddles without seeing them. But I'm not sure where the internet and plagiarism intersect. I know it's fair game for me to look at sidesaddles on the internet. I'm fairly sure it's not fair game for me to turn those photos willy-nilly into a Powerpoint presentation.

I shall have to research this. Any suggestions? If you knew nothing whatsoever about my book-which presumably is true for most of you--what would you want to be told about it?

Also, as long as I live, I will never learn to spell presumably. Thank you, God, for spell check.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bomb Damage

I love research. I love cool, esoteric books. I love learning.

Here's something I pondered for a long time: why did you always used to hear about people in England, back in the day, killing themselves by putting their heads in the oven (see: Sylvia Plath), but you never heard about modern Brits doing it, or any Americans ever?

Answer: before the 1960s, "gas" ovens in England were powered by coal gas, produced at local gasworks, and it contained 10% carbon monoxide. America always used natural gas, and England switched over in the 60s; as they did, suicide rates fell, because people no longer had such an easy method at hand.

Ok, macabre, but interesting.

People still die of pneumonia all the time, but recently I wanted something concrete that would make the difference in the medical care of someone with pneumonia in, say, 1936, and someone in 1940. This is ridiculously precise and I thought I'd just have to make something up, but history is my friend: the widespread use of sulfa drugs to treat pneumonia started in 1937.

Along those notes, I've just taken possession of one of the coolest books ever: The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945. It's a whole spread of the city of London--one hundred very detailed maps--as it was during World War II (the recent blitz bomb map online, which I do love, shows the city streets as they currently are, post-reconstruction), with the buildings damaged by bombs colored in with markers. Yellow means the windows got knocked out; orange is blast damage but no structural damage. Black means obliterated. Gone. You can flip through it and see how entire neighborhoods disappeared. I'm having a terrific time over here staring at teeny little street names written out long ago by hand. It's wonderfully satisfying.

You can't buy the book online in America yet, but delivers to the States, much to my satisfaction. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Imaginary Cats and Childhood Hunger

Oddly enough, one of the things that has changed since The War That Saved My Life is the sense of connectedness I feel toward other authors. I mean in a personal way. Mostly this is due to other writers' generosity--I've been getting emails and tweets from people I truly, deeply admire.

Yesterday, for example, I had a Twitter conversation with Elizabeth Wein, author of none other than Code Name Verity. (If you haven't read it, put this blog down immediately and don't come back until you have. Talk about your unreliable narrators!) Elizabeth lives in Scotland and flies airplanes for fun. How badass is that? I tried to counter by telling her I once rode an ostrich (true story), but ostrich-riding, while interesting, is not exactly badass. When your ostrich crashes you are not very far from the ground. (No, my ostrich did not crash. Sheesh.)

Anyhow, Katherine Applegate, an author I deeply admire (she wrote The One and Only Ivan), has a new book just out, called Crenshaw. I bought a copy on Saturday but haven't read it yet. It's about a near-homeless boy and his imaginary best friend, an extremely large cat named Crenshaw. To celebrate the release, Katherine's asking independent bookstores nationwide to host food drives.

Childhood hunger shouldn't happen in the country, but it does, far more often than most people reading this might think. In my city some local groups run backpack programs, sending students home on Friday afternoons with backpacks full of healthy food, so that the children are guaranteed something to eat over the weekend. In my city, the grocery stores on the poor side of town stay open until 2 am on the last day of the month--because when the clock clicks over past midnight, SNAP (food stamp) benefits reappear in peoples' accounts, and many peoples' refrigerators are empty enough by then that walking to the grocery at midnight makes sense. In my town of 40,000, the local food pantry serves hundreds every month, and the Salvation Army feeds 40 to 50 each day. There are high chairs in the Salvation Army dining room.

So I love what Katherine Applegate is doing. She's taking a hey-look-at-me-and-my-shiny-new-book moment, and deflecting the attention to an important issue. She's making positive change.

For those of us who don't have local independent bookstores, Katherine suggests donating personally to local charities.

In Bristol, you can give money or food to the Bristol Emergency Food Pantry (it's on the VA side of State St., just over the railroad tracks under the Bristol sign, a big white building) or Bristol Faith in Action (across from DeVault Stadium, where the Bristol Pirates play). We could use cereal, peanut butter, canned meat, canned meals, canned fruits and vegetables, pasta, crackers, tortillas, baby food. I think the Food Pantry can take perishable items. If your garden is still overflowing and you're done canning, drop the extra off. We'll use it.

And thanks. From a big imaginary cat, and Katherine Applegate, and me.

Learn more at

Monday, September 21, 2015

How My Breakout Book Is Changing My World

The other day a friend who was visiting for the first time in several years asked my daughter what she thought about my writing. (The friend is a riding friend, and doesn't know my books at all.) My daughter replied brightly, "Well--she's getting better!" which sounded like faint praise. You know, the kind that damns. I knew my daughter didn't mean it that way. I laughed.

But on the other hand it's true.

The War That Saved My Life is my 16th published book. It's also my first big book. Biggish, anyhow. It remains to be seen how big. It's not on the New York Times bestseller list, but it was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. It's already sold more hardcovers than any of my previous books, many of which were quite well-reviewed and some of which stayed in print for years.

The praise is very nice. It's also--and I mean this truly, I'm not just saying it--unimportant.

The important part was the writing.

For many years I wrote a novel a year. Then came Jefferson's Sons, a four-year odyssey of research and revision, during which I learned a lot about patience, nuance, and voice.

Then after four years wrestling with a plot that mostly really happened (and thus was something I didn't have to invent) I sat down to make sense of a small girl with a clubfoot and a fierce heart, at war with her circumstances, and a lonely, depressed woman in an old brick house, and a bright yellow pony. The first part of the first draft made my editor say, "This isn't really your next book, is it?"

Anytime before Jefferson's Sons that might have convinced me to set the story aside, but I had written Jefferson's Sons. So I said, "This is absolutely my next book," and I trashed the first part and rewrote it. Six times. And then I had Ada's voice, but not her story--we went through several more drafts to find that. It was a ton of work, far more work than I'd ever done on a manuscript, and it was glorious. I loved the work; doing it changed who I am as a writer. I'm writing on the sequel now. The first draft was mostly dreck, a rough outline of the time span of the novel, with a few key plot elements loosely hung together. The second draft cut back on the navel-gazing and added some substance. But the third draft! The third draft is starting to tell a story--a real one, another story about loss and love and hope in hard circumstances. The third draft may be where the magic is.

Or not. There's always a fourth draft, after all.

Twenty years ago I poured out a lot of difficult stuff in a manuscript that I sent to my then-editor, Lauri Hornik (She's now President of Penguin BFYR, so my current editor's boss, but still and always a true friend.) Lauri sent it back to me and said, "You're not ready to tell this story yet. Maybe in five years, or ten."

It took twenty. If you read that old manuscript--which you won't, I'm not even sure I have a copy, and I know I'd wince to read it--you wouldn't see the connection to TWTSML, but I do. I know it's there. I became the writer who could tell the story well.  Whatever else happens with this book, writing it has made me better. For always. It's such a joy.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Black Lives Matter.

I drove my daughter to school today, which I usually don't do. (She drives herself, but we're leaving this afternoon for a quick trip to see Philadelphia-area colleges.) (Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Swarthmore. But I digress.) On the way there we discussed Ahmed Mohammed, the fourteen-year-old who was arrested and handcuffed because he brought a clock he'd made himself to school. He thought his teacher would be impressed. She though he'd brought in a bomb.

I asked my daughter, "Do you think they'd have arrested a white boy for the same thing? Or a white girl?" My daughter said, "Of course they wouldn't have arrested a white kid! They looked at a Muslim and saw terrorist! It's what's bleeping wrong with this bleeping country!" (She didn't say "bleeping." In my house we are not offended by cuss words. Some of you may be.)

I said, "Everybody in this country needs to go to Egypt." My daughter said, "Well, maybe not now..." which is true (it's still a titch unsettled there) but honestly, we all need to go where we are the minority. The racial minority, the religious minority, the cultural minority. The only white folks around. Because then maybe we'd get it, and maybe we'd stop the privileged snotty white response that yes, really does make us sound racist. Somebody says or posts Black Lives Matter, and we're all like, All Lives Matter or White Lives Matter Too. We're making Jesus, who was not a white man and in fact probably looked a lot like an older version of Ahmed Mohammed, bang his head against the wall.

Black Lives Matter is a slogan to attract attention to the fact that black people are routinely treated far worse than white people in this country. That's all it is. When a black person says Black Lives Matter, he or she is not saying White Lives Don't Matter. He or she is saying Black Lives Matter Too. Black Lives Matter Just As Much As The Rest of You.

When I attended Smith, a women's college, a man once asked me how I could be in favor of all-women schools but not all-men schools. (This was back in the day, right after the shift of the Ivies and schools like Notre Dame from all-male to coed.) I told him, "In the same way that I can support an all-black school, but not an all-white one."

Muslim kids matter. Muslim grownups matter. Black Lives Matter. That's all.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Accidental Saints: a Giveaway

I read constantly. All the time. You'd not think it, given the size of my TBR pile, but I probably average more than five books read per week.

I don't suffer foolish books lightly. Also given the size of my TBR pile, you wouldn't think I'd ever hesitate to buy a book, but I do. Lots of volumes get tagged in my head as "library books only." The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Library book. Go, Set a Watchman? Library book. (Like I'm giving Harper Lee's lawyers one damn penny.) Girl On a Train? Library book. (Because it kept being compared to Gone Girl and I really hated Gone Girl. Good call, too. I really hated Girl On A Train and only got through a third of it.)

This week has been full of amazing reads. Astonishing, fulfilling, I'm-so-glad-I-read-that reads. Today I want to praise Accidental Saints, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a female, liberal, heavily-tattooed, gorgeously fit recovering addict who's also a theologically-conservative Lutheran pastor. I can't tell you how much I love that combination. Her faith is so grounded in doctrine, yet her church--one she began, called House For All Sinners and Saints, in Colorado--is so open to everyone.

In her previous awesome book, Pastrix, Nadia talks of the disconnect she originally felt when HFASS started attracting not just transgender youth and former drag queens, but also regular frumpy middle-class Christians. Then one of the transgender kids said, "I want people who look like my parents here. My parents can't love me yet, but maybe these people can."

Anyhow, Accidental Saints is a book of beauty. I somehow accidentally ordered two copies--this happens occasionally when I get over-zealous about a book release, apparently Amazon has quit asking me, "are you sure?" This means I'm supposed to give a copy away. I thought that one of my atheist friends would really like it--I'm serious--and I also thought about my friend who's a healer, but in the end decided to go with Ye Old Random Number Generator. Leave a comment, and you've got a chance.

And here's a quote, one of my favorites:

"As anyone for whom the poor are not an abstraction but actual flesh-and-blood people knows, the poor and hungry and imprisoned are not a romantic special class of Christlike people. And those who meet their needs are not a romantic special class of Christlike people. We all are equally as saintly and sinful as the other. No, Christ comes to us in the needs of the poor and hungry, needs that are met by another so that the gleaming redemption of God might be known.

No one gets to play Jesus."

Monday, September 14, 2015

Gulliver and Winn

I would feel it first: the breath of air, the faint exhalation against my elbow. I'd turn my head and be eye-to-eye with my horse. Gulliver: the horse I was luckiest with. I bought him as a barely-started three-and-a-half-year old, sight unseen off the internet from western Canada. He was a Connemara, a breed I'd always loved, and I thought he'd be perfect as my new event horse even though he'd never jumped a fence yet and I'd never evented before.

Years later, when I told my trainers Betty and Angelica how I came to acquire Gully, they shook their heads with identical expressions of amazement. "You were lucky," they said, but by then I knew how much I was.

Gully was my fellow adventurer, my partner in crime. I always felt safe on his back; he never, ever did anything to harm me. He adored me, and only me: when my daughter brought her classmates to the barn, the other horses would hang their necks over the stall doors, long and low like brontasaurii, hoping for treats. Gulliver would stand against the back wall of his stall, tail clamped between his legs, head up, eyes wary.

He loved to explore. He loved to go new places. He loved to jump. Eventing was fun for him, until it started hurting. If you look at our competition record you see toward the end a bunch of withdrawals--the time I pulled him in cross-country warmup, because he lacked enthusiasm (he was lame the next day). The time--several times--that we got through cross-country like champions, then started limping in show-jumping warmup. When first Angelica, then Betty, began calling to tell me about other horses for sale, I knew what they were really trying to say.

The vet's diagnosis was "navicular syndrome." Unfortunately that can mean a bunch of things. Horses' feet are complicated structures. Neither xrays nor ultrasound showed any huge abnormalities, but the truth was that both Gully's front feet hurt, and nothing we tried made made him better. I retired him far earlier than I hoped to, and bought Sarah, my lovely mare.

Gully lived outside on our farm, with his long-term herd. He had a good enough life, but he hated the inactivity. Sometimes I rode him, but though he seemed happy to be under saddle he also limped, which told me I was hurting him, which I couldn't bear.

Two years passed. Then one day, several months ago, the farrier went to trim the sole of Gully's right front hoof, preparatory to putting on new shoes, and his knife slid into a pocket of space that shouldn't have been there. A separated sole? My farrier'd seen something like that once before, in 30 years. He trimmed Gully's other front hoof and found the same thing. Afterwards, Gully was sound. He was unfit, hairy, dirty--but he didn't limp. No one can really explain this.

I still didn't ride him much. It turns out I don't have time to keep two horses in eventing work right now. In a year or two, perhaps, but not right now. But last week, with my daughter's horse off as he heals from cellulitis, she rode Gully out with me and Sarah, and from the expression of delight on the horse's face it was obvious that he really, really, wanted a job.

And I thought of Winn. (That's not her real name.) Winn is one of my lovely pony clubbers, a smart and thoughtful teen who right now needs something to ride that's both sound and won't scare her to death. As quirky as Gully is about relationships, I thought he really might like Winn, and while I can't absolutely guarantee he'll stay sound, I knew he would be safe and lovely for her.

She came and tried him, and they did get along, so she rode him again at Saturday's pony club clinic. Gully was making happy faces at her, and listening to her, and she was grinning ear-to-ear, when suddenly Gully slid on a wet patch of grass, and fell. It's a crazy thing, but it happens sometimes. They went down together--my view was blocked by other people, but Winn rolled free and Gully did his best to not hurt her. It wasn't anyone's fault, but I hoped it wouldn't scare either of them.

It didn't seem to. Winn remounted and they jumped one teeny fence together, to end on a good note. Then she dismounted, ran Gully's stirrups up, and walked him back to the barn. Later my daughter told me that Winn said to her, "The whole way down, Gully kept saying he was sorry, and I kept telling him, buddy, it's okay." If Gully was already talking to her, and she could already hear him, that boded very well, but in truth I already knew how well-suited they were. As they walked away from me, Gully kept his nose exactly behind Winn's elbow, the whole way home.

Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11 Memorials

Last summer, when I was in New York on business, I took a free morning to go to the 9/11 museum.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd seen the World Trade towers, many times, but never been inside them. I'd wanted to see Ground Zero but never got the chance. The whole area is still under reconstruction, but the memorial and museum sit tranquilly in the middle of the bustle.

The memorial has so many names. I've been to the American cemetery that overlooks Omaha beach, where the D-Day landings took place. They have a wall there with more names than the 9/11 memorial, strictly of those presumed dead in the D-Day landings whose bodies were never recovered. The recovered dead are buried in strict military rows. What shook me about the 9/11 memorial was the realization that none of the dead named there were soldiers. They were ordinary people. I saw one name that included "and her unborn child."

The museum is entirely underground, in the concrete foundations of one of the buildings. It's very well done. Many of the more difficult aspects of the day--including answering machine message left by people on the doomed airplanes, and videos of people who jumped from the tops of the buildings--are secluded in side alcoves, clearly marked by warnings of what's inside. You can decide how much you can bear to know. I liked that.

(Burn or jump? I'm afraid of heights; I can not imagine flinging myself into open air. On the other hand, perhaps it felt more merciful. I hope I'll never know.)

I wasn't aware before I went to the museum just how much debris fell from the fractured buildings while they still stood. An airplane engine. Thousands and thousands of pieces of paper. Window glass. I didn't realize how harrowing it was for the survivors, as they poured out onto streets littered with debris, more falling from the sky.

Fourteen years ago, on 9/11/2001, I happened to take one of my dear friends to the airport in Bristol. She was returning home to California after visiting me. I walked with her to the gate, as you could back then, and sat until the plane she was to take to Chicago landed in Bristol and its passengers disembarked. "Well, everything looks good," I said, giving her a hug. "I guess I'll go."

An airport employee came into the building and looked around at the people at the gate. He said, "Did you all hear what just happened in New York?"

We didn't have smart phones. There weren't televisions at the gate. No one had heard anything. I thought, "New York? What could happen in New York that would actually matter in Bristol?"

Sam and I got back to my house just in time to turn on the television and watch the second tower fall.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair

Sorry, guys.

My original game plan was to write a long, impassioned blog post about something important, like world hunger or the Confederate flag, or maybe my horse, and then go off and attempt Hot Yoga Detox instead of my usual Thursday Yoga for Everybody, and then, in the limited time between a hot shower and leaving for lunch with my husband, and an afternoon working at Faith in Action, work on my book.

But I dreamed about Ada again last night. When the alarm went off I was deep inside her head, feeling her feelings and thinking her thoughts. I hit snooze three times so I could stay there, in that dream world with her. And now I have to put the seat of my pants onto the seat of my chair. Sorry. No big blog posts, no yoga. Writing is work and needs to be treated as such, but sometimes the muse really does grant you gifts, and you would be such a fool to turn them down. For any reason, even Hot Yoga Detox.

P.S. Ada's the only character I've ever consistently dreamed about. What this means is anyone's guess.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Aylan Kurdi Against Kim Davis

It's not like I was going to vote for Mike Huckabee anyway, before his recent decision to visit Kim Davis in jail (can you say photo op?) but in today's paper I read that he also favors using federal troops to prevent women from entering abortion clinics.

Again, for the record, I oppose abortion.

Everybody repeat after me: separation of church and state.

More than that: we are arguing over the wrong things.

Did you see the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler, washed up on a beach? I didn't go looking for it, and I would have paid money not to see it, but I did see it, and it's haunting. As it should be. Someone's baby, face down in the water. Then yesterday I saw a photo of bombed-out, utterly destroyed city that the little boy's family was fleeing--and I understood why they risked their lives, and indeed lost them, on the journey.

In this world we have babies dying, not just in Syria, but in Africa, in Asia--in underdeveloped countries all over the world, from diseases and conditions we could easily prevent. In this country we have children who dread weekends because there's no food in their homes. In my city we have people who work forty hours a week, and spend nearly half their month's salary on rent--and rent is cheap where I live. Last Friday I served lunch at the Salvation Army. Forty people came to eat. One had a beautiful two-week old baby in her arms.

We are up in arms about whether Caitlin Jenner should be referred to as he or she, when the truth is that most of us will never personally encounter Caitlin Jenner at all. But today alone we'll almost certainly meet someone who needs help.

Our religious beliefs should never be about changing other people. Our religious beliefs should be about changing ourselves.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" 

--Isaiah 58:6-7

A lot of children's authors and publishers are matching donations to Save the Children through an effort begun by Patrick Ness. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Women of the Week!

Today I'm naming two Women of the Week, for their stellar performances this past weekend in my beloved sport, eventing.

First off, Colleen Rutledge, who finished in 22nd place at Burghley in England aboard her nine-year-old homebred Covert Rights. If you are not an eventer you may be wondering why all the eventers around you are saying, "Hot DAMN! Covert Rights was 22nd at Burghley!" because 1) 22nd doesn't sound like winning to you and 2) you've never heard of Burghley.

If that's true, you are so missing out. Burghley is England's fall 4-star event, which means it's one of the really really big deal international events (Rolex, Badminton, Burghley, Pau). It's in England where they take eventing so seriously the royal family does it at Olympic level, and it involves massive jumps that absolutely no sane person would attempt. I say this with love. Colleen and CR finished 22nd out of 85 international big-deal horses, including this year's Rolex winner (who dumped her rider into the water, whoops) and the 2012 Olympic individual gold medal horse and rider (who won, because they are amazing--but hey, it was the same rider who fell in the water with the Rolex winner--in eventing, no matter how good you are, you eventually end up arse-first in the water jump).

Now I love Colleen whether or not she competes at Burghley. I first met her a little less than two years ago at the Virginia Horse Center, when we happened to sit down near each other in the stands to watch show jumping. She was on crutches from breaking a hip in a riding accident. We chatted for a bit; when I asked if she was on crutches from a fall, she said, "I didn't fall off, I rode that sucker into the ground." I said, "Do I know you?" which is actually a question people often ask me when they find out I'm a writer, and she got a small smile on her face and gave the exact answer I always give: "I have no idea who you know."

I said, "You're Colleen Rutledge," and she laughed. Then we happened to eat dinner together at the USEA convention a few months later and had a detailed discussion about another upper-level-rider's breasts, and pretty much I would love to learn from Colleen and hang out with her and drink wine and all that, not that I think she has time for it. She has children younger than mine, who are in pony club, and she's not very much younger than me, and she's amazing. Also, that phrase that her horse is a "nine-year-old homebred," means that first of all, he's quite young for this level, and second, she bred him and raised him from birth, and has ridden and trained him all the way up. It's a very cool accomplishment.

Colleen's older top-level horse, Shiraz, is the only horse to have completed every four-star event without a cross-country fault, and he's fabulous, but he's not the best at dressage. In Covert Rights she's got a horse that can do the dressage while also stepping up to cross country AND jumping stadium clear. It's one year to go to Rio. I'd love to see Colleen ride for Team USA.

My other Woman of the Week is Michelle Frazier, an attorney friend and fellow eventer from North Carolina, who rode in her first event at preliminary level in Southern Pines this weekend. "Preliminary" sounds like it should be beginner level, but it's really the beginning of the professional levels. It goes Beginner Novice, Novice, Training, Preliminary, Intermediate, Advanced. (Burghley is Advanced. On steroids.) I aspire to Preliminary someday.

Michelle is the sort of friend who not only would but has pulled a bit off her horse's bridle and loaned it to me in a bit emergency. She's the sort of friend who comes out to watch me school, or who, if we're at the same event, will look up my times as well as hers so she can applaud at the end of my dressage test, not because my test is necessarily worthy of applause, but because we all need friends at the ring. Michelle's lovely mare, Ava, is a rock star and I'm thrilled with their success--not only did they compete at prelim this weekend, they finished on their dressage score in third place. Next thing I know Michelle will be buying her first shadbelly, and it had damn well better have crystals on it.

For being my first-ever Women of the Week, Colleen (and her daughters) and Michelle are getting signed copies of The War That Saved My Life. (I know, Michelle. About damn time.) Congratulations, ladies! You inspire me.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Marriage Licenses in Kentucky and Elsewhere

All the news over Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk now in jail for refusing to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples, made me remember the day I got my own marriage license.

I was 22 years old by a couple of days, which is--I'm mostly talking to my daughter here--FAR TOO YOUNG to be getting married. My fiance was (and is) three weeks younger than me. We had graduated from college six weeks before our wedding. I was an anti-Bridezilla--just about the most clueless young bride-to-be possible--and I seem to remember that we almost forgot we had to get a marriage license. We scrambled to get to the courthouse on time.

I was taking care of my sister that day. She was 2 1/2 years old. As I said, I was 22, but I might have looked a bit younger, given that the last time I got carded buying beer in a grocery store was this July. (Seriously? There's a reason I don't color my gray hair.) Anyhow, my beloved, and myself, with my golden-haired little sister in my arms, schlepped into the clerk's office. I filled out my form, which included the number of times I'd been married before (0) and the number of children I had (0).

The clerk sighed, loudly and rudely, and pushed the form back to me. "It says, 'How many children do you have?'" she said.

"Right," I said. "Zero."

The woman rolled her eyes and gestured to my sister, who, because she was a smartass even back then, and because she got a lot of private amusement over being mistaken for my daughter, patted my shoulder and murmured, "Mommy."

I said, "She's my sister." I didn't say, "bitch," but I thought it.

My point being that I don't think the clerk approved of my getting married. But there wasn't a jiggety thing she could do about it. I'm pro-same-sex marriage myself, and Christian, if that matters, but I certainly disapprove of serial killers or serial adulterers getting married. I disapprove of anyone getting married for the sixth time. I disapprove of child molesters and pretty much anyone on the registered sex offender list getting married. I disapprove of Tiger Woods having any sort of relationship at all.

However. Kim Davis was elected to uphold the laws of Kentucky, whether or not she approved of them. I believe abortion to be morally wrong, but that doesn't mean I get to arrest women who have abortions: abortion is legal in this country. So is same-sex marriage. If Kim Davis's beliefs are such that she can not perform the duties of her job (as an elected official, she can't be fired) she should step down. However, in doing so, she would forfeit her salary of $80,000 per year. Which tells you that her religious convictions, strong though they may be, are worth less than $80K.

Jesus spoke out against divorce several times, but never in written Scripture against homosexuality. For the absolute best religious essay on this topic I've ever read, go here. Seriously. It's worth your time.

P.S. I stayed married. Twenty-six years and counting. We chose well.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

You Can't Write a Book Like a Sock

My novel and I are starting round three today: the third big draft.

A bunch of people have asked me lately when it's coming out. The answer is still I have no idea. In general, children's books seem to have more lead time than adult books--the last two books I wrote were published about a year after I was entirely finished writing them. This can move up, but I'd guess six months is about as quick as all the things I'm not involved with can happen. The galley, which looks like a paperback copy of the book, goes to major review agencies about four months before publication.

The big question is when I'll finish it. The answer to that is also I have no idea. It's not that I'm being lazy around here. It's not that I'm a bad writer, or a particularly slow one. It's not that I don't type fast.

It's that writing a novel is messier than most people think.

Say you want to knit a sweater. You find a pattern you like, buy some yarn, start. Saying you're knitting a sock. (I knit socks a lot.) Your basic sock, top-down form, is simply this: cast on, cuff, leg, heel flap, turn heel, pick up instep stitches, instep, foot, toe, Kitchener stitch it shut. You can use a fancy stitch pattern or exotic yarn, but you still follow those steps in order.

When you look at a finished novel, it seems to be a lot like a sock (stay with me here). Introduction, rising action, sub-plot/solution, sub-plot/solution (these on the wave of rising action), crisis, resolution, conclusion. Right? You probably learned that in school somewhere.

The thing is, that's NOT how most novels are written. They start out as a big hairy mess, a tangle of ideas and people. There's action, sure, but nothing like a wave pushing the story forward. After the first draft you look at the mess, kept the stuff you like, eliminate the boring bits, and search for the holes. Holes in truth-telling, holes in logic, holes in characterization. All the holes. Then figure out how to close them.

Then do it again.
As much as necessary, until it looks seamless and solid.

I'm not giving spoilers on my new book, but two days ago, as I was cold-hosing my daughter's horse's infected ankles (nothing gives you time to think like cold-hosing), I suddenly came up with a whole new big piece of plot. I mean, when you read it in the final book, you'll think I had envisioned it from the start. It feels central, and organic, and I can tie it back to other things that are already there. We can set up some neat thematic relationships.

But see? This plot point didn't exist until the third draft.

Its not a sock. Not at all.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Passing the Test

Back in the heyday of the British Navy, midshipmen, after a training period of about 7 years, would go to the Naval Offices, logbooks in hand, and take the exam that would allow them to become lieutenants. At first any man who passed the exam was automatically promoted; later, when there was more of a glut of officers, a man could "pass for lieutenant, but fail to pass for gentleman." Lacking aristocratic breeding or better-than-average manners, he'd be awarded his exam completion certificate, but not be promoted.

My daughter has spent the last four months working toward her C3 pony club exam. This is the first national-level riding exam, and it's a doozy--two days of formal inspection, bandaging, lungeing, flatwork including a training-level dressage test, gridwork including jumping 3' without stirrups, showjumping and cross-country jumping to 3'3" and then switch riding--riding another candidate's horse on the flat and over fences.

Back in May, between marathon tennis matches, my daughter and her horse went up to a prep clinic in which she was told she'd completely outgrown her dressage saddle and nearly outgrown her horse (she's 5'10", he's 15.1 hh). She was told she needed to get her leg back and her hips back, and both she and I interpreted those instructions incorrectly, which mean she felt fairly frustrated by the prep clinicians.

However. As soon as tennis ended, my daughter got to work. We tried to find another dressage saddle, one that would fit both her and her horse, but so far no luck, so she dropped the stirrups on her jump saddle and practiced her dressage that way. She read up on riding mechanics. She took a few very good lessons (we'd love to take regular lessons, both of us, but we live in an area difficult for that, and I've long realized we do better with infrequent good training than frequent bad.) She and I talked, and rode, and talked. I videoed her on her phone. She'd stop, look at the video, try again. She had a weird, unexpected epiphany in the wilds of Scotland--came back and aced the Pony Club championships. She coached our pony club's inexperienced riders at D rally. Last weekend was our pony club region's event rally, which we'd scheduled as the last stop on the way to her C3.

Because we piggyback our event rally onto the Virginia Starter Trials--don't ask, just go with it--everyone that wants to gets to school their horse over the cross-country course Saturday morning, before the rally begins. My daughter was competing Novice at the rally, but schooled at Training level, the next step up, to practice for the C3. And she nailed it. Saturday morning was, hands down, the best I've ever seen her ride. She and her darling horse--who right now does not look too small for her at all--went through tough combinations with precision and grace and exactly the right amount of control. At the end of the session happy tears dripped down my daughter's face. She knew how far she'd come.

I was volunteering in the stables or vet box for most of the rally, but I went over to watch my daughter's dressage test--the first of three competition phases--only to find her trotting a small circle in the warmup with intense concentration. Her coach said, "he's off on his left front."

I watched. My daughter's horse was off--limping--very slightly, but for real.

My daughter stopped. She patted her horse. She swung off him, yelled to a teammate, "You're riding for both of us now!" and said to me, "Will you call the vet?"

I did. The show vet was on an emergency call and couldn't come for a few hours. That turned out to be lucky: by the time she did arrive, both the horse's front fetlocks--ankles--were swollen and painful to the touch. One had cracked open and was oozing pus. Cellulitis. Unknown etiology: it "just happens." The vet gave him antibiotics and pain-relievers and wrapped his ankles. We got him home very late that night. The next morning we gave him more powerful antibiotics. He'll heal, it's just anyone's guess how long it will take. The swelling is down but not yet gone; the pus has disappeared, and the crack is clean and closing. This afternoon we'll find out whether he's still limping or not.

It's Wednesday. We leave for the rating--if in fact we do--on Friday morning. It's too late to find another horse for my daughter to take--we're still contemplating taking my mare, but I don't have a good feeling about using her for switch rides. It's a terrific blow, but it's also one that happens all the time with horses, which, for all their strength, sometimes seem like the most frail creatures on earth. This spring Zara Phillips, the daughter of Princess Anne and granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth, shipped one of her horses to Kentucky for Rolex. As they were taking the horse out of his stall to go to dressage, he kicked out and cut his leg. She pulled him from the competition.

My daughter cried when her horse jumped so well, Saturday morning, but she hasn't cried about his lameness, not once. She's been practical and pragmatic and compassionate toward her horse. She hasn't bemoaned all the work she's done. Because two things are true: no matter what, she has become a better rider this summer; no matter what, bad things sometimes happen.

In short, she may not be able to take this examination, but she has already passed for horseman.