Breaking Out of the Box

I don’t like boxes.  They are a necessary part of intelligence and experiential learning – the ability to categorize objects, people, and ideas into groups that allow us to predict their actions and characteristics. It is how we know that something heavy for its surface area will drop like a stone, while something broad and light will gently float down like a feather.  It is also what draws people in to works of fiction.  They have experience with people sort of like the characters, or events the bear a resemblance, and so they build in their expectations and knowledge into the story. They relate.

But still, I don’t like boxes, because human beings use them far more than necessary to organize the world, forcing the world into preconceived categories and demanding it behave accordingly. In the past, I’ve found myself shoved unwillingly into a box that didn’t fit. For example, in the first hours I spent with my future in-laws, they informed me that I was subservient, smart, polite, and a distant second to my brother in the eyes of my mother. They stated these as indisputable facts based on one-half of my genetic heritage.  But the box didn’t really fit. And why put me in that box? Half of my genetics bear a different label. Why not put me there?  Why not into a box of people who don’t fit in boxes?

That latter question caught an entire room by surprise ten years ago. During a mandatory diversity training, we were doing the jelly bean exercise. You have several colors of jelly beans representing different races, and put the proper color bean into a cup for each question asked: the race of your doctor, your dentist, the person who does your hair, your best friend. When I had to select a color for my own race, I stared at the colorful candy, not knowing what to do. I raised my hand and asked.  To my embarrassment, a gasp went through the room at the question. That led to a lengthy discussion as to the correct single jelly bean for my cup.

I never understood why I couldn’t put in both. I was both. I am both.

I run into the same problem with my writing. I have to categorize my novels into preconceived boxes. I look at Foreseen, which comes out next month. It will be categorized as science fiction, but it could just as well be categorized as paranormal. It may be classified as action or adventure, but could easily be classified as romance. It doesn’t fit neatly into one box and not the others. It follows time-honored traditions of story composition, but that isn’t exclusive to one genre or another. In fact, a good story in any genre will follow the same rules. And yet, I must put it into the boxes to help people find it.  But when they do, I hope they don’t expect something that’s exactly the same as everything else in that genre, because Foreseen, like it’s author, doesn’t fit in a box.

She will dance again…

She dances in the moonlight, feet barely skimming the earth as she spins, arms spread to the heavens, beckoning the stars to her embrace. And they obey. Laughter at the sheer joy of every moment flows around her, draws others to her like honey – spiced with her wit and tongue. Her friends stand in awe, entranced by the life – by the living – that she shares with them so freely.

We could have lost that girl this weekend.  Taylor was in a car crash about three hours from here, leading to that feared 1 a.m. call.  But Taylor is fine other than cuts and bruises, and the weekend made points about connections.

  • Cell phones must be with you to connect immediately.  The call came to my son from the phone of a rural Indiana police officer.  Andrew’s was one of the only numbers Taylor could remember, and her phone had been ejected from the car as it flipped.  But we were all upstairs asleep, and his phone was in the kitchen.  No one answered.
  • Human connections are unaffected by distance.  Andrew woke up.  Perhaps some part of his subconscious heard the phone, but not likely given his ringtone and the fact that he’d left it downstairs.  It’s hard to hear from ten feet away.  Still, fifteen minutes after the call, Andrew awoke and decided to go to the kitchen for a drink of water.  While there, he checked his phone, got the message and called back.  At this point, Taylor had been taken to the hospital but was okay, and Andrew told the police officer we would come get her.
  • Cell phones still connect, even when lost.  As we hit I-70 West headed for Indiana, Andrew texted Taylor’s phone to tell her we were on our way.  He doesn’t know why, since we believed her phone was lost or broken. The black phone lay in the dark cornfield, ten feet from the car.  It lit up with the incoming text, and the police officer who’d remained at the scene retrieved it.
  • People connect with people.  If you’ve read Taylor’s post from this weekend, you already know this one.  People who could have passed by –  even a guy on crutches – trudged into the cornfield where the car came to rest to help a total stranger.

Lots of other things happened this weekend, too personal to share on this blog.  But I walk away from the weekend feeling good.  I’m reminded that as much as I love and depend on technology, it is valuable only as a tool to connect people.  This weekend strengthened many bonds in my circle of friends and family.  Some new bonds were formed that will be as enduring as the old ones. And we still have Taylor.

Once the soreness subsides, she will dance again in the moonlight… although in full disclosure, if Taylor ever danced as I’ve described, she would trip on a tree root!

Mala’s Adventure

The searing summer heat stuck in Mala’s thick feathers. Her children squawked, stumbling around as she tried to ignore them. She waddled down the grassy path in search of some cool water – and peace. The ducklings bit their siblings and jumped on each other’s backs, mostly in jest but every few minutes one of them would push too far. A fight would break out and she’d thrust her beak into the roiling mounds of dark down and force the ducklings apart. She couldn’t wait until the brood grew their feathers and left her forever. Then she could return to her old life. Except…

She glanced up at the sky, half expecting to see Donna’s stubby form silhouetted against the blinding light of Sola’s Nest. But it wasn’t there. Mala missed her friend. She had felt so alive when she was with Donna on one of their adventures – weaving across the dry flat riverbed where angry monsters had bore down on them with terrifying roars; flapping, and flapping and flapping until they reached the top of a pointed stone spire, far from the river. Donna had squawked joyfully from that uneven perch, relishing in the freedom. Mala had gripped the buttress tightly, dizzy from the height. She feared the fall, uncertain her wings would be able to save her.

That’s where Donna’s plan was born – that pinnacle, high above the other peaks. She spread her wings to soak up Sola’s light and decided to go there. To see Sola for herself. To look into her golden eyes and experience her radiance first hand. And she wanted Mala to be beside her.

The fact that it could be done didn’t faze Donna. No one had seen Sola, ever. The two of them had tried once, back when their pin feathers were new. It was too far. Their wings became heavy and ceased to lift them long before the blazing Nest grew near. But Donna said the starting point was the problem. They needed to be higher, closer to Sola, before taking wing, and she’d heard of a place to do it. Mountain, she’d called it – like every stone spike they’d ever seen, put on top of each other. And once they were at the top, Sola’s Nest would be close enough for their wings to carry them.

And so they began planning. Talking to the old mallards (and even a goose who wasn’t too cantankerous) about flight paths they’d never taken, slowly plotting their way to get to the place called Mountain. But when their plans were nearly complete and the shorter days began beckoning them to warmer grounds, something changed. Dane with his emerald-green head shining in the sunlight stumbled into their lives. Looking back, Mala couldn’t remember why he was so important to them – what it was about him that drove a wedge between her and her best friend. Yet, it had happened, and Mala had won – or so it seemed at the time. She and Dane became mates, and Donna took off on her adventure alone.

Once her brood of eggs was laid, Dane wandered off with his friends, and Mala’s obsession with him cleared. She began asking everyone for news of Donna. No one had heard of her. Many didn’t remember her at all. Others insisted she was dead – like anyone who didn’t follow the Pattern of Life and pursued wild dreams. Mala knew that was probably true, but preferred to imagine her friend surrounded by the glow of Sola’s Nest, planning her next great adventure, and wished she’d gone with her.

A duckling tumbled against Mala’s leg, nearly knocking her over. She bleated at him angrily, then stopped. The down had been ripped off the back of his head by one of his siblings, and a glossy, emerald-green showed through beneath. Her children were growing up. She stepped into the river and they followed, gathering themselves tightly around her as they waited for the next lesson in foraging. In them, were glimpses of herself and Dane. In their shapes and coloring and personalities. In the way they walked. In the things they said. And the Truth of the Pattern of Life became clear.

Donna would be forgotten. When it was Mala’s time to return to the ground, no one would know that Donna had existed. Nothing would be left of her. But Mala would always be part of this world. Her children would carry her forward, having their own children and teaching the same lessons she gave them now.

Mala would still miss her friend. She would tell her children of their grand adventures as they fell asleep, but they would just be stories. Her own undertaking might not be as exciting, but it was more enduring. And she would always have the stories.

Selflessness, Harry Potter, and Gen Z

Selfish versus selfless. Those were the stakes in Harry Potter. Sure you can call it good versus evil, but those are weighty and imprecise terms.

Selfish. Voldemort was selfish to the core. His motivations were self-promotion and self-preservation. He had no friends, and his followers were simply tools. Sounds like some people I know.

Selfless. Harry Potter was willing to sacrifice himself to give his friends, his fellow students, the rest of the wizarding world a chance to defeat Voldemort permanently. Harry was the ultimate hero for choosing a path where the satisfaction of helping others was the only reward, and one he was not likely to live to see.

An entire generation has grown up with Harry Potter. They’ve seen him as a boy walking into a magical world for the first time. As a preteen in agonizing grief as his new world rips apart just as he was creating the family he never had. As an awkward teen trying to figure out how to ask a girl out. And finally as a young man, facing the realization that the people around him have not always made the right decisions, but their imperfections don’t matter for his choices.

Perhaps Harry Potter has left a bit of a generation gap in its wake – a good one. My generation didn’t have lots of selfless heroes. Jaws – not really. Animal House – uh… no. Even Star Wars. The selfless act in Star Wars: A New Hope was by Han Solo, and he wasn’t the main character. Perhaps that’s a reflection or even the cause of my generation having a “what’s in it for me?” mentality. With Millennials and GenZ, I see more selflessness. Taylor will drop everything in a heartbeat to help a mangy kitten abandoned by the road or the kid down the hall whose computer just failed or someone who is just badly in need of some fresh baked brownies. Andrew spent the summer working for not one, but two non-profit organizations – assisting them in fulfilling their missions to improve inner-city life.

Sure, they’re still young. Very few people have abused or manipulated their generous natures. Those days, unfortunately, will come. But perhaps this generation learned something from Harry Potter: It doesn’t matter what other people do themselves or to you. It’s your choices that determine who you are: Harry or Voldemort. Be the hero.

Chew! PLEASE!?!

“Chew.” The man was trying to be patient. He could get recalcitrant students to keep up in his economics class, but was failing at this seemingly simple task. The child’s jaw moved twice. Then stopped. The man took a breath. “Terri? Chew.”

The rest of the family had finished dinner a quarter hour earlier. And yet, the man still sat at the table, watching his young daughter in the chair beside him in this nightly ritual: getting me to eat.
I wasn’t a picky eater. Nor was I simply stubborn – although that is a trait I have been accused of from time to time. The truth is, I’d forget. Yes, forget. Despite the delicious food in my mouth, my mind would leave the chair I was in, the dining room, the house, the world, and be whisked away by random thoughts that consumed me beyond me consuming my dinner. I couldn’t explain, then or now, what the ideas where or why they were so captivating. They just were.
A number of articles have been circulating over the past few months equating creativity as something akin to schizophrenia – more conscious information in the brain than other people have. The difference between the schizophrenic and the creative is the ability to function despite of it. But sometimes, it’s a fine line.
I look back on my life and that makes sense. Between forgetting to chew and the worm family that I played with outside the back door and the box of live snakes and the Barbie dolls I would place in my toy oven to play mad-scientist, I was different from other kids. I should have known I was writer. Yet, I always thought I should be more “normal.” But looking back, I’d say I never was.

7:35 p Mom

The house is quiet. The weak rays of the cloudy evening filter through the curtains, casting the room in an eerie twilight. Or maybe that’s my imagination. I strain to hear … I’m not sure what. I lean back in the chair in the corner, pulling my laptop open and staring again at the entry in green letters on my Google calendar.

 

7:35p Mom

I hold my breath. And wait.
The minutes pass. Nothing. The disappointment of that nothing flows through me, washing away the trembling fear that something might have happened. In the end, only the disappointment remains.
You see, I have no explanation for that entry on my calendar. Two years ago on this day, my mother passed away. It was a welcome end to her suffering, but a tragic loss to our family and the community to which she was so dedicated, leaving a gaping hole in many lives. But the end of her life was not at 7:35 p.m. Nor did I place this entry on my calendar. No explanation.
I shiver. And wait. And still nothing happens.
And I wonder. What would my mother think of my life now? Would she approve of the people whose lives have become entwined with mine on this journey? Could she make sense of my constant struggle to balance my day job with my writing, and editing, and querying, and still have a bit of a life? I’m not sure Mom would understand the writing part, but she would understand the passion and commitment. I get that from her. That woman could do more in a day than any normal person could do in a month. I smile. Yes, she would understand that part of it.
To the best of my knowledge none of my Scottish, English or Japanese ancestors were writers of any sort. Not a single novelist, playwright or poet. The talent and understanding of the craft I’ve had to develop on my own. But what I got from my mother is just as important: the understanding that unrelenting hard work, aimed correctly, bears its own joy, the wisdom of picking my battles carefully, mixed with the stubbornness to not give up until the result satisfied me.
The sunlight fades, and with it my disappointment. Something did happen at 7:35 pm. The inexplicable entry on my calendar forced me to sit back and reflect on how much my mother is still with me.
Thanks, Mom.