Paradigm Shift

After my sister’s wedding, as had become habitual for me, I went to see Jasper. He had been invited to the wedding, but for reasons of his own, decided not to come. My sister had invited him for my sake, and he had accepted the invitation. The thing was, he didn’t unaccept it, so up until the Monday before the wedding, I had no idea that he wasn’t coming.  To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I was, in fact, livid. I was so angry that I changed my ticket. Instead of returning to Amsterdam for the end of my trip, I decided to cancel that leg and remain in the UK for an extra week.

Still, the part of me that couldn’t let go of our relationship, decided to go to Amsterdam and see what was up. I won’t bore you with the specific details of the how, but the what is not a state secret. I went to Amsterdam as Jasper’s best friend, his very worried best friend, and left for Scotland a week later as his girlfriend. It was a surprise to everyone, but most of all, me. You see, I had gone to Amsterdam to say a permanent goodbye. I was angry and felt that the respectful thing to do would have been to let me and my sister know that he wasn’t coming.

I had so many complicated feelings for and about Jasper. I had loved him for five years before we got together in that fall of 2015. But I hadn’t moped or waited around, as some people seem to think. I just didn’t broadcast my attempts to find a relationship. If I had had the gift of magic that my main character, Nerys has,  I might have foreseen this change and it wouldn’t have been such a surprise. I also wouldn’t have changed my trip and stayed in the UK, but I did and it ended up being a good decision.

While in Scotland, I had met some people that I became quite close to. When I left Scotland, I went to them in Wapping. I barely knew Colin and Caroline Hampden-White in 2012, having met them in the fall of 2011 through my sister Alex. In 2015, it was a different story. By 2015, I considered C and C (sorry, its just too time consuming to write Colin and Caroline) very close friends. They had been at the wedding and asked me to come and stay with them in London. They could accurately read my mood and knew that cheering up, plus a lot of whiskey, was in order. So off I went to London. It was just what the doctor ordered. Colin and Caroline were the first people to express support for my decision to enter into a relationship with Jasper. Caroline is very level headed and rather than judging me, she told me to jump. I am to this day, so grateful for the unconditional support, and of course, the whiskey.  With them, I processed what all of this meant and what that might mean for the future.

I left the US responsible to and for, myself in 2015. I returned in the fall accountable to someone else. I hadn’t been in a relationship for nine years. I wasn’t sure what to expect or if I could do it again. But I had found my writing, and that would help with the changes to come.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. How did  I manage a very long distance relationship and all the other things I juggled?  Stay tuned, that’s up next.

A Glimmer of Hope

It took almost a year after my mom died for me to start writing again. I was still attending the Washington Creative Writers Club, but I wasn’t reading my own work for critique. I was an active commentator, but working on my novel would take an energy that I didn’t have.  As for Inkreadable Kids, with my mom’s death, I didn’t have the wherewithal or the emotional capacity for teaching. Teaching is difficult enough when the subjects are Math, English, and the like. Trying to convince kids to love writing as much as I did? That ambition died as well. I could barely sustain the dog and pony show that is front of house food retail management. Plus dealing with the financial consequences of my mom’s death took over that first year and a bit.

In the fall of 2015, I came to Amsterdam. One of the benefits of going to WIS and having 45 people in your graduating class is that it was very easy to keep in contact with your classmates. Some of us formed bonds that endure to this day. I had friends from WIS in Amsterdam and had been coming to the city for a number of years. That year, as always, I stayed with my friend Jasper. We have a complicated history, Jasper and I. His sister Anneke was in my grade and we were best friends from the 7th to 9th grade. He was in the grade below us. When Jasper and I first met, he broke my glasses. Thankfully, things went uphill from there. WIS had combined the 6th and 7th-grade beginner French classes into one, and the three of us were in the same class. I can rather smugly say that I still have my French skill, but Jasper claims not to. I’m not sure about Anneke. I’ll have to ask her.

In 1993 I left Washington and went to Boston University. I majored in Physics and stuck with the program for two years before I was able to admit that as much as I love the sciences, they didn’t love me back. Anneke and I remained friends though we weren’t in as much contact as she had moved to the Netherlands. Jasper and I became extremely close during my first year of university, and I would see him when I came home. We would continue this practice the next year when he too left for the Netherlands as his parents lived, and still live, in DC.

It was Jasper that I went to in 2014 after being with my sister.  I spent a week wandering the city while Jasper worked. It was here that I finally started to reconnect with my writing in various cafes around the city. A few words at a time but it was enough. I was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel that was my grief. It would be another year before I was ready to think about my own future and what I wanted to do with myself.

I knew that food retail wasn’t what I wanted to do, and, even though my family owned the company I worked for, there wasn’t room to grow. Also, I had decided that I wanted to move back to Scotland, and started thinking about the ways in which I could do that.  It would be a year before I could make any moves at all, and I didn’t know then that current events would conspire to work against me.

Summer 2015 brought many changes to my family. My sister Alex got married at the beginning of September. We all went to Greece for the wedding, including my sister Taty. Bringing her to Greece had long been a dream of both my parents. I was really happy that Taty finally got to see Greece, as I had carried around a lot of unacknowledged guilt that I got to go on trips with my family but that Taty didn’t. Taty is handicapped, though I prefer to use the term handicapable. Taty had never been to Europe so this was a real treat. After Greece, I went as was becoming habitual for me, to Amsterdam to see Jasper. It was to be a life-changing trip. On the edge of your laptop? Good. That’s up next.

That’s it for this Inkreadable Installment. As always, stay tuned. There is more to the story.

 

The Tunnel

I don’t really remember too much about the first year after my mom’s death, except that I was stuck. Like being in the middle of a long tunnel under a water, when the light hasn.t started showing yet. Here’s what I do remember: I spent the first couple of months after her passing in Greece with my sister. We left the US shortly after the funeral and seeing to the most pressing issues, including becoming co-guardian of my twin sister, along with my Dad. I don’t remember the specifics of Greece too much either. Two of my mom’s friends in Crete stand out Eirini Railakis and Eirini Bitsakis.

These two amazing women, (who tended (and still tend) to be spoken about as though they are one unit and in the plural: the Eirines), wanted to remember my mom in their own special way. In order to avoid confusion, in this post, I’ll just call them Eirini B and Eirini R. After all, if I called them Eirini One and Eirini Two, that would be too close to Dr. Zuess (you remember Thing One and Thing 2) for comfort. And I am not yet ready to let my happy shine through.

What they did was mind-blowing. I remember walking into Eirini R’s beautiful home in the countryside in a picturesque village. She’d decorated it with fairy lights and flowers. There was a table with pictures of my mom. And most amazing there was a dry branch tree strung with fairy lights and notecards attached with people’s tributes.

Not to be undone, Eirini B cooked up a storm.  My mom loved her cooking, and this time she cooked all of my mom’s favorites. My mama liked lots of things so there was a mountain of food. I mean that literally. Greek people cook for 50 people if they are having just the family over for dinner. For instance, eat a little salad, a chicken leg (that’s the whole leg, mind you, not just the drumstick), a couple of sides and someone is sure to tell you that you haven’t eaten a thing. In Greece, that’s the appetizer. Of course, the same person that says that is bound to have at some point commented earlier in the evening that you’d gained weight.

Being in Greece with my sister, Alex, brought us closer than we had been, I think ever. My sister is nearly 10 years younger than I am and the age difference is partially to blame, but we are also quite different. That first summer after my mom’s death was hard for me, but I think even harder for her. There would be so much that my mom would miss and I think that affected her deeply. Still, we talked like we hadn’t and I think it was healing for both of us. My Dad, as I mentioned in my last post was a godsend, particularly in that first year. We also became closer while in Greece and he was to help we navigate the complicated aftermath of my Mom’s death.  I was, and still am grateful to both of them.

I had lost contact with a lot of old friends in the summer of 2014, but quite a few of them came back into my life, some after a brief absence, and some after quite a long time. One of these friends was to figure prominently in changing my life in ways I didn’t expect.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. Stay tuned, though, as always, there is more to come.

 

Darkness Descends

All was not sunshine and roses in that long ago Spring/Summer of 2014. In April, my world shattered. My mom, the most vivacious person I have ever known, was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. We’d been living together (by which I mean I was living at home) for two years, since returning from Edinburgh. My mom was so stoic, we didn’t even know she was sick, and indeed, for a short time, she kept on doing what she needed to.

The effect on me was profound. In an instant, all of my creativity was sucked away, like dust through a vacuum running over high pile shag carpet. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and couldn’t write. I stopped going to my critique group. I stopped thinking about future classes and told the parents that I was closest to what was happening. I had agreed to give a few students private classes and agreed to keep doing that, but asked if I could do a more intensive schedule of multiple days per week. The parents of my students agreed, and so instead of doing a month-long session, I agreed to do it on a week by week basis. I was thankful for their understanding, and so I did the best I could under the circumstances. I think I deserved an academy award for my showmanship. I became very adept at not showing what I was going through to my students.

Looking back today, I can be grateful that my mom’s illness progressed quickly and that she didn’t suffer for a long time. I had seen my mom cry before, she’d been through a lot of physical and emotional pain in her life. She bore her diagnosis with grace and dignity. She only cried once during her illness: One night, shortly before she died, my mom fell and she was so bloated from the fluids that she was too heavy to lift. It was then, lying on the ground that my mom cried like I had never seen. This was not the delicate crying of tears rolling artistically down the face, you all know that single tear that just so gently rolls down one cheek. That night I saw my strong, invincible mother hyperventilating from her terror. Never, not even when she’d broken her leg in two places and dislocated her spinal cord in a car accident, not when she was put in a halo to stabilize her spine on the long trip from Greece that summer did she lose her composure. She was even stoic when the halo was put in without anesthesia. She cried so hard that night that my sister and I couldn’t get her off the floor until we’d calmed her enough that she could help. Still, it was so difficult that she bumped her head on the tile hard enough that the sound of anything hitting the floor brings me back to that night and gives me nightmares. So many things happened to my mom in the last fourteen weeks of her life, they are too numerous to count. The sound of sirens and the ringing of the telephone late at night still cause me to wake up with an irregular heartbeat and in a cold sweat.

Still, they were not all bleak those final days. I continued to teach my private students and go to educational fairs to promote Inkreadable Kids. I asked my mom if she wanted me to cancel all my private classes, and her response was “Hell no, this is for your future.” We also celebrated her last birthday in style. My sister, genius that she is, decided that we weren’t going to give my mom a party, it was to be a women-only surprise party. My mom nearly spoiled the surprise part of it though. When we started talking about her birthday, she said she didn’t want a party, and my sister started planning a surprise party. My mom could sometimes be true to her Gemini nature and change her mind. She did in this instance as well, asking us to plan a party for her, a day before her birthday. We had already started making arrangements for the party but were good enough actresses that we exhibited the right amount of annoyance at my mom’s change of heart. While the party did not go off without a hitch, and my mom wasn’t truly surprised having suspected something, she later told us that what surprised her was when a usually reserved friend of hers jumped out from behind the couch and shouted surprise.

The day after her birthday my mom went into the hospital for the final time. I spent the 11 days between my mom’s birthday and my own visiting her at the hospital. By this point, I had stopped teaching altogether but was getting calls from parents just to see how I was doing. On 28 June the doctors told us that they could do nothing more for my mom. My birthday came on the 29th of June and my mom called sang me and my twin sister, Tatyana  Happy Birthday. I was in tears for the whole conversation. “Worst birthday ever” would be my facebook status for that year. It was probably the penultimate time I’d hear my mother’s voice. I can’t remember anything about the 30th of June.

In the early morning hours of 2 July Mom suffered “a respiratory event” and had to be intubated. I will never forget waking up from a fitful attempt at sleep, to see missed calls from the hospital. Seeing the exchange 444 on my phone would terrify me and I would have a knot in the pit of my stomach. My mom had such an expressive way about her that even unable to speak she commanded the room. She got things done with the crook of a finger and a glance. Afterward, the staff in the ICU would tell both my sister Alex and I that my mom was one of the strongest and kindest people they had ever had there. Also apparently the funniest as she joked with them while she was still able to write.

When the end came on 19 July, it was a relief. My mom hung on for 17 days. It was enough time for us to make the preparations for her funeral including going to get my sister Taty from the facility where she lived in New Jersey. My father was a godsend in this time as he came back from Greece to help us with everything, which was extra special as my mom and dad had divorced 30 years before and it wasn’t my dad’s responsibility.

For over a year, I went through life feeling nothing and everything. I couldn’t write or create. I certainly couldn’t teach. I went to work, I came home, and I dealt with the aftermath of my mom’s death. It was oppressive that darkness. For the longest time everything I ate or drank tasted like sawdust. I couldn’t swallow past the ever-present lump in my throat.

A couple of things were to happen that would pull me out of the dark and change everything. They deserve a post of their own. That’s up next.

That’s it for this Inkreadable Installment but stay tuned. As always, there is more to come.

 

Story Cubes and Summer Camp

I look back on those long ago days of 2014 with nostalgia, but I was also conflicted. Even though I KNEW that I was good at teaching writing and that the kids enjoyed the classes, but I was consumed by doubts: could I make this something that would take off and make me a living? And even more important could I get adults interested as well? It had always been my intention to grow in a couple of different ways. I didn’t only want to focus on kids, I knew from my two writers groups that adults, especially seniors, were an untapped market. Seniors have such stories to tell. They can connect us to our home, our ancestors, and our history. They place historical events in a living, breathing context. All of these things were ruminating in the back of my mind, but with no idea of how to execute the marketing needed for that kind of growth, I let the ideas percolate and continued teaching. It was good that I had the teaching because things were soon to get very dark indeed. But now is not the time for darkness. It is a time to wax happy. Wax on, Danielsan.

Towards the end of that session, I had found a new teaching tool. One of the moms turned me on to Rory’s Story Cubes. The game has nine dice with a different picture, one on each face. You roll the dice and make up a story using the pictures that come up. I wanted to see if the game would work for children under seven years old whose reading skills are not quite where they need to be.

The manager of the community center approached me about teaching a session of Inkreadable to her summer camp attendees. I agreed with alacrity. Since the mom of my student had recommended story cubes, I hadn’t had time to go out and purchase them. I thought that with 15 kids, they might prove useful. So I duly ran out to the best toy store in Washington DC called Child’s Play and got not one, but two. It would be a good thing, too.

I walked into the community center early and found to my trepidation there were not fifteen kids to teach, but twenty-seven. Twenty-seven. Turns out, there was nothing to worry about, the kids were fun and receptive. We did three stories in an hour. They are too random to recount, and also I can’t really remember what the stories were.  The experiment was so successful, that I used it with my trio of brothers as well. No writing was done, but we became impromptu storytellers so that we could include the youngest child of the household.

The youngest brother stole the show. Well, him and the story cubes. On this particular occasion, I was asked to do a marathon class for the kids as their summer was booked for the next three weeks. We had two classes left and so I agreed to do a two-hour session to wrap up. Little brother entered the scene early on in the marathon class, earlier today. He was playing with some stones that he blithely informed us were magic rocks. Magic rocks, you say? Magic rocks. It’s one of those ideas that, once taken hold, refuses to go away. We all decided to write a story about magic rocks. My students wrote complete stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I struggled to write a story that was complete so I actually added magic rocks into my existing novel.

Well, that’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment, stay tuned, as always there is more to come.

 

 

 

Class Contented

So many things were happening with Inkreadable Kids that Spring. In the short story modules, we were crafting stories about heroes escaping from snake pits, cousins taking a canoe trip, and the three brothers were writing multiple stories. There were a lot of stories started and never finished in that session of Inkreadable Kids, and I had started to panic that my boys would not have complete stories to read to their parents for the publish and share class. I needn’t have worried, however. All three brothers had a lot of completed stories my favorite one was a story of a hungry lion who finds a magic talking tree that grants him any wish he wants. The lion, being an enterprising sort of lion, wishes of course, for candy and soda. And gold. There has to be gold, of course. How else is a poor lion going to keep himself fed? The story took an interesting turn because the lion went to his friends and told them about the tree. They all went to find it, but it had disappeared. It reappears in the story but doesn’t seem to grant any other wishes. The lion ends up disappearing, presumably to a soda and candy-filled world. Everyone lives happily ever after. But mostly the lion. That has to be the best ending to a story. EVER.

Meanwhile, the  Scene Stealers sessions were a veritable alphabet soup. Please pardon our use of shortened names, but well, sometimes it must be done. You think you know the story of Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH)? Trust me, you don’t. At Inkreadable, Hood is quite technologically advanced. The girl has an X Box. And internet. She’s a teenager, so not so little. But surprisingly, she has no attitude. She still does what her mama asks and takes a basket of food to granny. She also helps her mom turn on the computer. Which particularly amused me, because I can relate.  I asked the kids to write the conversation between LRRH and her mom. What’s interesting is that the conversation is quite banal and follows the line of the original story, but the boys took liberties with the life that LRRH lives. She’s been moved into the modern age.  I can’t say that I was surprised at the turn in LRRH’s circumstances, just their execution.

The big bad wolf (BBW) was also reinvented. In one boy’s scene, LRRH is off to give granny her basket, but while listening to pop music. Which is where we meet the BBW. Who Dances. And lays eggs. Yup, you heard me. Lays eggs. This caused much hilarity for myself and his brother. Following on the heels of his “Mostly the Lion” ending, I realize that the humor is no fluke and I might have the next Stephen Fry or Christopher Brookmyre in my class.  Exciting stuff, indeed. As the class drew to a close we discussed further ideas for the BBW. We invented an alternative ending in which BBW has a dad. BBW’s dad appears after his son has eaten both grandma and LRRH. Dad gives BBW a medication to make BBW throw up. That’s one way we revised the story. In a second revisionist ending, grandma and LRRH are imprisoned by both the BBW and his dad. The women escape on their own, while the dad is asleep. They are chased by BBW, but come upon a hunter who kills BBW. They backtrack to the house and kill BBW’s dad while he sleeps. It’s all a bit bloodthirsty, really.

Well, that’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. Stay tuned, as always, there’s more to come.

Scene Stealers and Struggles

Have you ever felt that you were missing something as you read a story? That niggling at the back of your mind that something happened to a character that the author hints at but doesn’t fully come out and say? I started reading one of my favorite authors out of order and felt exactly that. I hated that feeling, so I decided it might be interesting to explore having kids write their own backstories for their favorite books. It also helped that one of my returning girls from the first session had literally notebooks full of those kinds of stories. In fact, she was my first student for Scene Stealers. We focused on creating backstory in the context of working on the craft of writing. For example, we created a dialogue that went into the backstory for two characters that the original author doesn’t explore.

In a couple of the classes, we focused on expository writing.  Wait, expository writing you say? Why are you focusing where writers generally dislike to tread, you ask? Writing is no different than any other art. In painting, Picasso started out drawing the human figure “the right way” before he could move on to the works of his later periods. I saw an exhibit at the East Wing of the National Gallery of his pencil and charcoal drawings that he did as a teenager, and they bore no resemblance to his adult work at all. Writing is the same. You can’t break the rules until you know how to use them correctly.

In scene stealers, we were able to use elements from our lives in our stories.  In one class, I told my student that I wanted a scene to be as wordy as possible. She was having a hard time with it, and when I aasked her why, she started telling me about her nemesis. Apparently, a boy in her class is treating her with shameful disrespect. Far from being torn down by this foolish young man she’s taken the high road. They happen to be in a group project together and he is “bossy by nature”. It seems he has taken over the whole project and the other kids are not sure how to deal with it. He’s a bit of a silly head as she politely put it. The righteous anger she displayed when talking about this boy was fantastic to behold. Machiavalian person that I am, I decided to tap that emotion. I told her to forget describing a room. I asked her to invent a new character in her favorite series that resembled the bane of her 5th-grade existence. She did. With great success and much venom.

The struggle of the second session was an internal one for me as a teacher. I had to come to terms with the fact that no person writes at the same speed. I knew that of course, as I had seen it in my adult writing groups, but it was also true of the kids. An eleven-year old’s output may be greater than that of the six-year-old, and I had to quickly learn to go with their flow. I accepted that their stories might not be complete. The opposite was also true. Two of my boys were actually such fast writers that they read not one, but two stories a piece at the end of the session. I had to content myself that my younger, slower writers would get where they needed to so that when we read the results to the parents.

It turns out, I needn’t have worried. Inkreadable KIds session two had understanding and super cool parents. They didn’t mind if the kids didn’t finish the stories. They were happy that their kids were writing and having fun doing it. How do I know they were having fun? They told me, and also their muttering “This is so much fun” as they wrote in my class were pretty decent clues.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come.