The difference between me and the pope

So, if you go into a job interview and you’re asked about your weaknesses you’re supposed to answer in the positive.  For example, “My wife tells me I work way too much,” or, “I’ve been told I’m terribly Type A, so I always make sure everything is done perfectly.”  I think employers are savvy to this approach and it is likely met with rolled eyes and sighs of interviewer exhaustion. 

And now…here comes the pope.  I’m not sure if he was asked if he sinned, but I sort of take this story as Francis saying in an interview, “Hey, I’m the new, cool, liberal pope.  I’m so cool, I’ve even sinned!”  As we lean in to hear what the great pontiff may have done, what is his answer? That he stole something! Que in cheers from all of us sinners out here that Pope Francis went against the 2nd Commandment. (Or is it the 3rd? I don’t even remember.)

But then he sounds like the over achieving Type A, just graduated with a degree in political science interviewee.  “My weakness is that I’m so concerned about sinning, I stole something to remind me not to sin. And all my cardinal friends say I’m so much like Jesus himself, I make them feel bad. Yeah, I’m not perfect.”  Silly Francis, this is the best you could do?

Francis stole a cross, from a dead guy, which does seem super creepy and like a pretty darn big sin. But he stole it because the priest was someone with whom he had confessed his own sins. (His real sins, like the ones that really do make him look bad).  He carries the cross now to remind himself to be merciful. His big sin is that he’s so obsessed with not sinning, he stole a holier man’s cross to remind him not to sin.  

You don’t have me fooled, Francis the pope.  Just because your worst sin is stealing as a reminder not to steal, doesn’t mean I’m buying your job interview answers.  I hear you may not believe in Adam and Eve….and that you may or may not be for gay marriage. Now we’re talking sins!  Blasphemy!

My similar-to-the-pope-sin is stealing these from the grocery store when I was little.

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These three-flavored bites of goodness were so delicious.  I’m going to run out and get some right now (and pay for them).  I stole these more than once, and the last time I did it, I’m sure I already had my “first confession” and maybe even my “20th confession” and no I don’t think I confessed it, and no, I didn’t steal them so I could hold one in my pocket and be reminded of mercy every time I got close to sinning.  Nope, I ate them, and finished them before I even left the store.  

And in my last job interview I said my worst quality was that I’m a cynic, especially when it comes to things like popes, and confession. The truth is, I like this Francis guy, even if he is a cross thief. (Maybe especially because he’s a cross thief).

 

At 40….I wear a hat

old and wintery

This has me thinking.  When I was 20, I went out in cold weather without a hat, because “I didn’t look good in hats.”  I’ve always (almost always) worn my hair short.  I couldn’t put on a cute knitted cap with my hair flowing underneath.  I remember thinking I looked like I was bald when I wore a hat.  Now, with my hair still short, I don’t give this nonsense another thought. It’s cold outside, and today, March 2, we are in the middle of snowpocalypse #3 here in Missouri.  It’s a balmy 9 degrees outside.  Today, I leave the house, and living in a college town, shake my head at the young women walking in the wind wearing a light denim jacket and NO HAT.  My 17 year old daughter leaves the house this way, in a t-shirt under a light jacket, her ankles exposed under skinny jeans, wearing ankle socks inside her Sperry’s.  I actually look in awe at the bravery it takes to endure the elements in so little covering.

At 40, I wear a hat.  At 40, I also wear bright red lipstick every chance I get, realizing now it really does look better with my dark hair and eyes, and if there’s no lining on my eyes, or foundation over my wrinkles, there are at least bright red lips. At 40, I don’t think about what people may think of me when I walk into a room where everyone is half my age.  I don’t know about the latest music or expressions (my daughter keeps saying “low key” before certain phrases).  I haven’t picked up a fashion or People magazine in years, and I look forward to listening to NPR on my morning commute.

The other thing I can do at 40 is this…I can say what I’m good at and work to be better, and I can accept what are my weaknesses.  I can write a book, and publish it, and feel confident that I have a story to tell.  The 20 year old me had few stories to tell, and if I did, I had not an ounce of confidence to share it.  I hope my daughter is as 40 as possible in her teens and twenties.  I hope she doesn’t wait until she’s 40 to record an album, or play her music for strangers.  Who knows?  20 could be the new 40.

Right/wrong, not so black/white

Here it is, folks, the place to buy Light in Darkest Days.  I am excited for people to read this story.  It has occurred to me, as people ask me, “What’s it about?” that I haven’t yet described the book, so here goes.

This is a story that manifested itself from my previous work in the criminal justice system, mixed with my own observations of the way humans related to each other.  When I worked as a probation and parole officer, and later as a commissioner in the city jail and courthouse, I was intrigued by the people who were characterized as “criminals.” Sitting across a desk from a thief, a drug dealer, or even a murderer, and having them cry and explain how and why they did what they did puts a human face on “bad behavior” in a way few of us get to see.  I remember the young man who stole a car and sat in the jail’s intake room explaining to me how he wanted to “borrow” the vehicle briefly to go get diapers for his new baby. He wept like a little child, being only 17 years old and facing a felony charge for driving a stolen vehicle approximately 6 blocks to the grocery store.  I felt like something didn’t add up, that this young man could face years in prison for bad judgment he used for about 10 minutes in his short life.

Being in this “system” made me think about how we characterize people by their actions.  People that stay out of jail, pay their bills, work a regular job, are “good people” while those that steal, become unemployed, use drugs are “bad people.” There always seemed to be more to it than that.  I felt like our system punished actions with such a broad stroke, that it left out any room for consideration for who did the action, and why.

I am an attorney now, and I understand motive, and how it’s used in the system.  But regardless of the legal fine line between manslaughter and murder 2nd, there is a deeper human question here., questions I ask when I think about “bad people” or “doing bad things.”

Could there be a comparison between the second it takes someone to decide to steal a car to buy diapers and the second it takes for someone to pull a knife and stab someone?  Could a “good person” do a really bad thing and still be good?  Could we/the reader care for a character who makes a really, really bad choice?  Could the protagonist be a likable murderer? What is punishment and why do we do it?

In Light in Darkest Days, Tim Rutger kills his wife and writes his story from prison, in diary form.  The murder of his wife is told to the reader up front, there is no mystery of “did he really do it?”  He did do it.  He murdered his wife.  But the person he is as a whole, the entire humanness of Tim Rutger, murderer, is told slowly, showing that this “good” man did a really terrible thing, and that he’s being punished in a way beyond anything the “system” could inflict.  The story, I hope, calls us to question judgment, condemnation, and punishment.  My hope is the reader will start to feel compassion for Tim, and then say, “Wait, I’m supposed to hate him,” and then say, “but wait, I can hate the sin, but not the sinner.”

Sucker Punched

Folks, I have been knocked down hard by resistance lately.  I received my manuscript of “Light in Darkest Days” back from the publisher and read it through word for word, making a few corrections here and there.  When I got the proof of the cover, I was excited, and proud, and positive.  But when I sat down to proof the draft, I was nothing but filled with self-doubt.  All of the resistance voices have been in full force telling me it’s a waste of time, it’s terrible writing, it’s a horrible story, it needs these changes and that, why on earth did I make this effort to get it printed?  I am coming out of it, I think, but it is not an easy climb to confidence.  

I have returned to “The War of Art” and it is again, spot on.  I think it’s like an addict needing a meeting, or needing to read the  12 steps. I fell off the wagon, my friends, and am crawling back on.  

So here’s to smaller brains and bigger hearts.

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Top ten (ok, 11) thoughts of a pessimist on the snow

Image Ah, social media…showing me all the folks out
there who LOVE the beautiful winter wonderland when it snows.
 Thank you Facebook, for reminding me of my own least favorite
quality, unnecessary and premature negativity.  While I’m
lucky that today I have nowhere to go, a house full of food and
warmth, electricity, Netflix, computers, Candy Crush Saga, hot tea,
and a kitten purring on fleece blanket covered lap, I am still
obsessed on the following: 1. How will I get out of my driveway
tomorrow?  Will I throw my back out shoveling?  Will I
end up needing surgery for a herniated disk?  What does it
mean to “throw one’s back out” anyway?  Will I slip and break
my ankle and be on crutches for 9 months? 2. What exactly will they
be saying about me when I don’t show up at work?  What level
of wimp will I fall under?  Will all the overachievers in the
office show up?  What if said overachiever crashes and gets
hurt on her way to work and I am forever looked down upon for not
even trying to come in? 3. Could -30 wind chills kill me while I
shovel the driveway?  Will I be that person talked about in
the news, dying “in the elements,” the poster child for taking wind
chill warnings seriously? 4. Damn you for not getting ice melt 5.
Damn you for not getting snow boots 6. Damn you for not renting an
apartment where someone else shovels 7. Gosh I feel sorry for the
people who have to shovel apartment sidewalks, I am a bad person
for wishing I had such a person instead of getting off my ass and
shoveling. 8. Do you shovel now so it’s easier when you shovel for
the second and third time later?  Do you just wait for the big
shovel extravaganza after it’s done blowing and falling from the
sky?  What is the proper way?  Who do I ask? 9. Why oh
why do you not move to California?  What is wrong with you for
living here?  And damn everyone that lives somewhere warm. 10.
How many batches of muffins, cookies, cakes, and soups CAN one
person make on a snow day?  How much weight is it humanly
possible to gain in one day? 11.  Oh, and duh…you have
nothing else to do, go work on your novel, you idiot, stop
blogging.  You know writing this dumb list is easier, but stop
being a sucker.  Go. Write. The. Novel.

As a new year starts: An excerpt- on regret

centerlineLooking back on 2013, I do have some regrets.  There are things I wish I’d done differently, moments in which I wish I’d chosen different words, a different tone, a different reaction.  That feeling of regret can be felt in our guts when we do something minor like slide a paring knife into our finger when cutting an apple, or after we say “shut up” to someone we love. Regret can also be overwhelming, like for the person who crosses a center line in a highway and hurts someone, or the regret over bad decisions that seem to haunt us every day.  My novel, “Light in Darkest Days,” coming out in the upcoming weeks, was almost entitled “Center Line,” based on this premise.  This sense of deep regret, times a BILLION, is what Tim Rutger lives with every day as he writes his diary from prison.  This is how he describes it:

I ache when I see a hand missing a finger’s tip, or when I hear of the man who sliced off his hand in a machine at work. The stories of the driver crossing the median and being killed by a semi, these rattle me with an obsessive sympathy. Worse yet, who can listen to the story of the man crushed when his car passes under a tree in the exact number of seconds after it’s struck by lightning. The looping in my head of if only he hadn’t walked back to the bedroom and kissed his wife on the forehead while she slept, he would have been past the tree when it fell.  Seconds, they are brutal beasts.

It has always distracted me, this watching out for things that shouldn’t have been.  I was disgusted at the arrogance of scars on peoples’ thin skin.  I just wanted to carry the injured back to that moment and whisper in their ear, move to the left, do it!  Walk away from the flame.  Don’t start the chainsaw!  I wanted to be a ghost, a force that could grab the thing the driver was reaching for so he wouldn’t turn the wheel into his death.

Stripes made me nervous, dotted ones more so.  They were this literal line between existing and no more.  Towards the end of my normal life, I drove on two-lane highways and tensed up as each car passed on the other side, over and over I’d think, well I escaped that one, I’m safe so far, that one missed me, thank God, I’m alive.  I just wanted to avoid regret.

I wasn’t as afraid of death as I was afraid of the feeling of if only.  How could I avoid the most remote sense of wanting a do over?  If you are consumed by this, everything is dangerous.  If only I hadn’t stepped that way and fell out of the tub, striking my temple on the ground.  If only I hadn’t taken the trash out in the rain and been electrocuted by the lightning.  How can I avoid being the paraplegic saying, I misjudged the distance of the train?  Everything started to look like a regret trap.  Everyplace was the landscape for one inch too far, ten seconds too late, one blade too sharp.

This is what I now know:

Try your damnedest to avoid a thing, and that thing will eat you whole.

It is too much to admit, bile rises in my throat when I write this statement:

My entire life has become nothing but a misguided saw on a fingertip, or a median crossed with just the tip of my bumper, leaving me catapulted out of the car and decapitated in the trees along the median.  I reached for something in my passenger seat, I didn’t put the safety on my saw, I swam out six feet too far, thinking I could tread in the waves.  

In my life, this happened:

A blade went into that place in a human chest where it will kill said human fast and certain.  I have all my fingers, my head is still attached to my body, I’ve never even been in car accident.  But a woman is dead, and there is nothing left but this: the desire to sit on my own shoulder of then and whisper into my own ear, Don’t do it, do not cross the center line.

 

Where’s Dorothy? Who cares, bring on the witch.

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Writing about bad guys is so much better than writing about good guys. Here’s why:

1. My daughter was cast as the wicked witch in her school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. No one ever sat through the movie saying “When does Dorothy come out again?” (Yeah, she got the lead).

2. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when we think of the shitty people in our lives and then write a character possessing all their flaws. It’s a different warm fuzzy than the part in the book when your kind, generous great-aunt Pearl makes an appearance.

3. The bad guys’ behavior is often stranger then fiction. Taking candy from a kid is not nearly as believable as the person who ignores a kid when they’re begging for simple things, like attention. “I can’t make this stuff up” comes to mind.

4. Antagonizing is much more fun than protagonizing. Who protagonizes?

5. Bad guys have much more room to grow (hopefully) and come out smelling like roses when making the right choices. Of course in real life most bad guys stay bad and the story of the antagonist’s disappointment is gripping as well.

6. It’s not hard to take every ex-boyfriend’s bad guy behaviors and sprinkle them around to characters in our books. These bad guys and their shitty acts stick out to us clearer than the time they were nice and brought us breakfast in bed.

Up next, bad guys who are good guys, oh my!