The Luxury

“Mama, do you think there is luxury in Heaven?” Fiona looked up from her mom and dad’s bed, curled up in the warmth of the laundry pile that had just come from the dryer. It was a chill winter morning, and she’d raced upstairs to her parents’ room the minute she was up. The master bedroom wasn’t completed yet. The window frame was boarded up, and the walls were unpainted. There were blankets on the plywood floor to keep feet from catching splinters. Still, it was a couple of degrees warmer upstairs.

As her mom folded her dad’s white t-shirt, laying it across the foot of the bed and smoothing out the wrinkles, she smiled. “I suppose there is nothing but luxury in Heaven. Why?”

1940s Girl in the Garden by Shawna Mac (Licensed: CC0 Public Domain)

Seven-year-old Fiona rolled in the warm, soft fabrics fresh from the dryer. “Because I love luxury,” she said, burying her arms beneath a pile of clean socks and underclothes. “Mama, I think this is the most luxurious place on earth!”

“What? Sitting on underwear?”

Fiona giggled and sat up. “No. I mean, being in your big bed in this new room with all these warm clothes and… and being with you!”

Fiona’s mother placed another folded t-shirt on the stack, came around the bed, and scooped up her little daughter into her arms. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she cuddled Fiona and kissed her.

Fiona wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and kissed her back. “Isn’t it luxurious, Mama?” she whispered, the heat of her breath against her mom’s cheek.

Mama looked down at her Fiona, looked into her trusting, dark eyes, and answered, “It is, baby.”

Karma Meets Good Fortune

My husband Realm doesn’t always follow the rules. He does things like taking a handful of the weekly ads at the grocery store for kindling on winter evenings. He believes that a yellow traffic light means “speed through this intersection and you win!” Using turn signals is optional, and this seems especially true when he is weaving through traffic or pulling out in front of another driver. He has no qualms about spitting his gum onto the sidewalk or out the window. As you can see, I’m maintaining a list of all these adverse behaviors, but it’s not for any reason you might suppose. My daughter Pearl clearly understands my reasons for keeping track of Realm’s feats of inconsiderateness. In fact, as her father swiped a handful of ads and carried them out of the store one evening, she warned him, “Karma, Dad.” And then, when he laughed and began to explain the mainstream definition of karma, she said, “Well, it’s more like Mom is getting your karma by association.”

You see, whenever I enter a grocery store hoping to find a weekly ad in the tray, they are always out. Or when I have the green light at the intersection, some maniac driver speeds across, determined to “make it” long after the signal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stepped in gum. And my sister, Gemma, thinks I need to seek PTSD therapy for my knee-jerk reaction to cars pulling onto the road beside me while I’m driving by. It’s because I’ve had a lot of drivers pull out in front of me brimming with confidence that my vehicle’s brakes are in tip-top condition. My brakes have held steady, but my nerves have not. My nerves are shot, and I blame Realm. Why do his poor decisions come back to bite me? Maybe it’s because he never needs a weekly ad. Maybe his shoes are too dirt-encrusted for that wet, stretchy gum to stick. Maybe he can run lights and dodge cars like he’s in a pinball machine because he’s got some sort of serendipitous-ness.

It wouldn’t surprise me. He wins all types of drawings and contests. He’s won Godiva chocolate—I mean the big pyramid package. He’s won two iPads, along with gift cards, cooler cases and backpacks and t-shirts. It’s a nuisance how many travel mugs we have because he won them. (I’m constantly trying to unload them when he’s not looking.) Fortunately, he has not come home with a leg lamp.

So, is his luckiness a shield that wards off the karma stuff from happening? Does it ricochet off him and hit me? You’d think this would make me wary of hanging around him. And, yes, I cringe when he zips through an intersection at the last minute. I admit to lying back in the passenger seat, closing my eyes, and announcing, “I’m not here,” as we zig-zag through traffic. I also admit to eating more than half the Godiva chocolates and getting one of the iPads, not to mention enjoying a few Amazon gift cards. My exercise t-shirts are easy to pick out because he brought home duplicates of the same shirt in my size. Not only does he hand over his winnings, he picks out things he thinks I’ll like the most. He’s kind of nice that way. Plus, when there’s gum in the tread of my shoe, he stops and gets it out for me. So, it’s not so bad, really. By the way, is anybody asking Santa for a tumbler with a random business logo on it? Yeah, I’ve got leads on some tumblers.

Mapping Out the Reader Profile

I was talking to a high schooler, Annette, who bewailed her loss of interest in most of the books she reads. She isn’t alone. I’m a bookworm, but I lose interest, too. I asked her what caused her to lose interest. She told me many of the books she reads are recommended by friends, but the stories her friends are gushing over leave her rather unimpressed. “I’m not into fairies or time machines or magic,” she explained. Reading about another character with magical powers is a chore to Annette; she knows it will be another madhouse plot, and that does not tempt her to finish the chapter.

I asked Annette about some of the books she likes. She leans more towards nonfiction but averred, “It’s not that I don’t like fiction. I just don’t like the make-believe fiction that everybody’s reading right now.” There was something oxymoronic in that statement, but I understood what she meant. Fantasy fiction and science fiction aren’t for everyone. And, yes, it’s a bit frustrating trying to find a good read if you don’t like those genres because that sums up so many of the books my kids and their friends are recommending. And I’ll be the first to admit the plots do tend to run together after a while.

Annette added, “I don’t really like the task of reading, so if I know I have so many pages to go before the chapter is over, I’m counting the pages in the back of my mind. And it doesn’t matter if the chapter ends on a cliffhanger; I’m done!” I remember feeling like this about my reading assignments in school. Systems of learning like to grade literature skills by how many chapters the student successfully finishes and whether the review questions were answered with the correct perspective. That’s bound to check the passion and ambition of any reader. (On the other hand, one highschooler bragged to me that he’d read War and Peace. “It was easy,” he said. “I read it in, like, a week.” I asked him what he thought about the story, and, sadly, I don’t think he got much out of it. I guess one can be a little too ambitious about reading books.)

My daughters have developed their own preferences for the books they read, based on their personalities. I like to listen in when Pearl is trying to persuade Dawn to read a story she’s enjoyed, and vice versa. They know what the other likes, and they will tell each other, “I don’t think you’re going to like this book,” or “I didn’t like it, but you probably will.” Sometimes, they read books purely to test out the other’s hypothesis. In essence, each is mapping out her individuality as a reader while learning other readers’ preferences.

As a bookworm, and as their literature teacher, I want my daughters to keep those reading preferences flexible. I try to assign books I think will grow their tastes and experiences. And, of course, I try to win them over to my favorite reads. In turn, they like to recommend their latest book finds to me. They’ve listened to enough of Mom’s analyses to know I have no qualms about telling them when a story is weak, unoriginal, or tripe. For this reason, they’ve carefully studied my reader profile to help them recommend a winner. I asked Dawn, “If you wanted me to read a book, what would you tell me about the story to persuade me, or–what I’m asking is, what do I like in a good book?” Counting on her fingers, she answered, “It has to be well-written. You like when the writing (narrative/style) is different, and you like it to come from a different perspective.” She tapped her fourth finger. “And it has to have symbolism.” I have to say, she knows my reader profile.

Annette’s reader profile stumped them. She doesn’t want to read just any old book, and, certainly, not another book about fairies and magic. When they tried recommending historical fiction, she became a little frustrated. Historical fiction is too much like a school assignment. She wants to enjoy a story, not learn about a time period. So, I pulled out an old book I’ve kept for its message and its approach.

Jean Webster, Public Domain

“Try Daddy-Long-Legs,” I told her. Jean Webster writes a charming, witty character, Judy, into existence by allowing the reader to stand in the place of Judy’s mysterious sponsor as she writes to him about her life. There is so much to enjoy about this story, yet it’s a challenging book to recommend. First, it was published in 1912, so it doesn’t really relate to the 2020 teen. It takes a bit of context to understand the situation and position of women in the early 1900s. It isn’t preachy, which is a downfall for historical fiction writers writing outside of their own setting, but it can come off a bit prudish for some readers. This is no small irony; the author was considered both a civil rights activist and a supporter of eugenics. Further, Webster was interested in implementing socialism in the form of government-run systems to provide for the needy (like her orphan, Judy). She uses Jerusha “Judy” Abbott’s story to introduce awareness of large numbers of people experiencing hardship and raises the call, or duty, of the public to step up and work out a system to help supply the want. To do this, Webster relates to her reader through a personal, one-to-one relationship model of an orphan and her sponsor. She creates a philanthropy association that chooses Judy to receive financial support from an anonymous citizen who gives of his means to an orphan he doesn’t personally know. It’s a social experiment with the underlying question: will Judy use the assistance to launch herself into society and learn to make her own way in life? What Webster actually accomplishes is a brilliant, humorous tale about how one attentive benefactor changes the life of a spunky, driven child, and how their relationship develops as Judy matures. It’s a story about compassion and courage, not about the outcomes of experimental socialism in government. Still, some readers steer clear of this book because of the author’s views.

In picking this book for Annette to read, I considered her particular temperament and preferences. I also thought about her perspective. For example, I know she’s shown interest in 19th and 20th century period movies, so women’s roles of that time wouldn’t be problematic to her reading experience. I considered her background and felt pretty certain that the socialist-tinted aspects of this story would simply be perceived as a message to seek opportunities to be generous and help others. She finished Daddy-Long-Legs in four days (when it usually takes her weeks, she said, to slog through a book). She asked me if there were more books like it because she wanted to read more. I told her about the sequel, but I also told her, “No, there aren’t any books exactly like that one.”

from the Library of Congress, Public Domain Archive

Some would read Annette’s statement, “I don’t really like the task of reading,” and conclude she isn’t the reader type. Yet, Annette found a book that she enjoyed, a book that caused her to want to read more. How is that so? I would assert that sometimes it’s the writer’s method of approaching the reader that draws or repulses that reader. I would also assert that some books have a unique approach that charms even the most particular reader. While there is no book that fits or agrees with everyone, there are some books that reach across genres and times to touch many, many readers. When this happens, a writer can still be heard a century later. These are writers that, by chance or design, know how to map out a reader’s profile.

A ‘Fridge by Any Other Name

When we first moved into our house, we didn’t have the money for a new refrigerator. Fortunately, the previous owners left one for us, only it did a poor job regulating the temperature. Cruciferous veggies that sat near the back came out frozen and spoiled. Ruined produce is a tragedy, and my mourning was heard throughout the house. So, our goal, among many, became saving up for a new refrigerator—well, new to us. Discussing our move to his coworkers in passing, Realm mentioned the refridgerator situation among things we were looking to fix up after buying our home. A generous co-worker approached Realm the next day, offering us a refrigerator she had in her garage. We were elated, we were thankful, and we moved the new (to us) ‘fridge into the kitchen and kept the old, partly-working one in the garage for overflow. This is the first time in my married life I’ve had two working ‘fridges going. So, here I am, fulfilling that never-before-attained stereotype, enrolling myself in the society of American families who use two human-sized cooling containers to hoard their lifetime supply of cold food stuffs–that only last a week. I hear my minimalist side weeping. My frugal side is cringing at the electricity bill. My green-loving side is completely confused because… am I reusing what I have or am I wasting resources with the second ‘fridge’s energy draw? (First world dilemmas.) Obviously, my practical side won because my desire for smaller spaces and less stuff cannot compete with living with people who are just as opinionated and hungry as I am. And all I can say to the inner minimalist shaking her tiny head at me is, “Let’s declutter the bathroom, shall we?” She is slightly mollified.

Yet, I wasn’t ready to tackle two ‘fridges. I couldn’t designate which was which. It seems so obvious to my reader that I should designate them “the fridge in the kitchen” and “the fridge in the garage,” right? Not so easy. For weeks, I couldn’t get out the words “fridge in the garage.” I would repeat, “the fridge… the fridge..” while a kid held a bag of zucchini in anticipation. They would shift the bag in the direction of the ‘fridge in the garage. “No, no!” I’d respond, ruffled by what should’ve been an effortless interaction.

I’m not sure if it’s part of having Bipolar Mood Disorder or a mental block or what, but it’s been a family game for years that everyone tries to guess what Mom is not able to say. In situations where I’m multitasking, like cooking in the kitchen or driving, I simply can’t get certain words to come to me. My daughters have lived with me long enough to know how to work around these lethologica limitations. They make nicknames for things. Like, we have two butter dishes I struggle to refer to individually. One dish is called “Philip” (because I often ask someone to fill up the butter dish), and the other is named “Melton” (because someone I’ll call “the son who didn’t consider what would happen” put its plastic lid in the microwave once and now the lid fits like a botched lip job). After offering all sorts of names for the ‘fridge, Dawn teasingly suggested, “How about ‘the fridge that must not be named’?” “Coldemort” was born, and now, I can tell the kids where to store the 2-ton barrel of cheddar and which gets the forest-like crate of broccoli. The minimalist in me is dead.

Smoke and Light Signals

The evening of Independence Day was explosive this year. Fireworks aren’t illegal in our neighborhood, so we were in the middle of what sounded like 18th-century cannon fire for much of the night. We participated in the celebration, too, and had friends over to the backyard. Realm set up two launching areas, so we could social distance. Our guests brought some serious “expodies,” as they called them.

Our next door neighbors started off the evening with some of the best, loudest, and longest fireworks. One particular type of firecracker gave us all a scare. It was called “Nine Lives,” and it made its debut in our backyard. It started firing horizontally instead of vertically and sent us fleeing for cover. Thankfully, we were all far enough away that it didn’t hurt anyone, and Pearl caught the action on her phone. So, just as we were reliving the excitement, and Pearl was preparing the video to send to our guests, our neighbors launched their “Nine Lives” and experienced the same results. They were running, too! We’re thinking quality assurance testing was still in lock down when “Nine Lives” came through the manufacturing line. Our guest and “expodie” expert said either the base of the firework was in need of extra integrity or the video demonstration was misleading. We wanted to keep all of our lives, so that wasn’t a favorite.

We had a beautiful, bright full moon with a glowing halo through the smoke. Its light made the night sky our own planetarium, and we counted six separate locations, not including our own, where the fireworks would burst out of the darkness and light up the night. When the sprays of color showered one side of our living theater, another side would quickly boom and thunder back. Pearl said, “This is how we communicate during quarantine now. It’s how we say, ‘We’re still alive and happy over here!'” We were surrounded in celebration, and it was like no other Fourth of July I’ve ever experienced.

Sister Trees

Here’s what I see each morning when I look out of my kitchen window into the backyard.

This is a White Rose of Sharon. It is also called Hibiscus syriacus.

What you can’t see are the myriad bees, both honey and bumble, blanketing its blooms in the summer sunshine. They are avaricious reminders that this tree is healthy and strong.

Here is its sister tree in my front yard.

This is also a Rose of Sharon. It has deep reddish/purple buds. Each spring and summer it leafs, but the bees don’t visit it because the buds remain tightly closed. When we bought our house two years ago, the previous owners told us it had never bloomed. We watched it carefully the first year. We tried cutting away at the undergrowth and giving it more nutrients. It doesn’t seem to have helped, probably because we have no idea what we’re doing.

I don’t know why one blooms and one doesn’t. I hope to find a way to help the Red Rose of Sharon bloom. Maybe, one day, it will bring as much delight as the flowering white blossoms in my backyard.

Chicken Poblano and Cheese Casserole

Here’s a recipe that’s a favorite at my house. (Yes, that’s a reason to share.) I used a couple of online recipes to come to the best results. It calls for cooked chicken breast, but I’ll use any leftover chicken meat. When I don’t have leftover chicken, I will grab a rotisserie chicken from the store or throw a whole chicken in the Instant Pot in the morning.

This is a gluten-free, low-carb dish that probably serves more than five, but two adults and three teens can tackle it voraciously. I’d suggest serving this casserole with guacamole or sliced avocadoes if you’re eating high fat, low carb. (Oven temp is using the Fahrenheit scale.)

The Thing About Story Children

I think about my stories as my children. Sometimes I use the term to mean the entire story. And before the story is written, I think of the individual characters as my children, too. I will sit down at my desk to work, and my characters will start talking to me all at once. They aren’t from the same stories, either. On the days when I’m already having trouble concentrating, those insistent thoughts and ideas will block me. I know which story I was planning to work on, but there’s a niggling feeling I’m going to miss something important if I don’t listen. And I don’t want to neglect these ideas and personalities in my head. So, who do I listen to?

I have one story-child who is very troubled, and I haven’t figured her out yet. When I visit with her, she craves the attention, even while she refuses to tell me what she’s really looking for. Her world is super alluring to me, but it’s also a black hole of research and details that swallow me up for hours. I finally come up for air with less than a thousand words to show for it.  Another story-child is part of a plot that’s more like a ball of knotted yarn. The protagonist knows exactly what she wants, and I’ve tried to work out the kinks of the story arc so many times I’m cross-eyed. The more I concentrate on it, the more it tangles. I will step back and tell her that her story isn’t ready to be unwound yet, but it drives me absolutely mad. I so want to be done with the story, and there are times I’ve contemplated burning it. A third story-child just wants to be read. I’m in love with each of its characters, but the story ending just needs something. I don’t know what that something is, but I tend to ignore that story the most. It’s like I’m telling that child, “You’re the most put-together of all my story-children, so I’m going to neglect you because you don’t need me as much as the others do.” What? What kind of reasoning is that?

I think it’s ridiculous that I go around with a burden of guilt for not finishing my unfinished stories. Yet, that’s what I feel. It’s like I’ve promised these imaginary people something grand. I really believe my promise when I make it; but as the journey with my characters progresses, I lose confidence.

Years ago, I was part of a discussion where someone theorized that writers’ half-finished novels become a shadow of their own lives, and that finding the answers in your life journey frees up your subconscious to find the resolutions in your story. I wish I’d never been exposed to that theory. Before I heard that, I worked from the opposite premise—that when things were too much for me, I wrote about a scenario and a conflict I could resolve. It was both therapeutic and productive. It gave me a way to think calmly while I waited on reality to make sense to me again. That’s how I coped. Now, my stories take to haunting me. They tug on my shirt sleeve and look at me imploringly. What’s a writer to do?

Behind the Mask

I’ve been honest about my secret love of not having to go anywhere during quarantine. It gets worse. Truthfully, I love wearing a mask. Mind you, I’m not having to sport an N95 here, just a cloth mask. I find wearing a mask so comforting. First, my own breath warms me. So many buildings I walk into are cold. I have my own little cozy cave on my face. Also, I like that no one can see my expression. Friends say my face is easy to read. Family members tell me I get so wrapped up in my thoughts that I start scowling at people. It’s nice to keep my expressions to myself for once.

Even though I like wearing a mask, I’m tired of repeating every single word I say. I’m convinced there are way more people than I realized who rely on looking at my mouth when I’m speaking. I’m also convinced that when I go somewhere with my mask where people are not wearing masks, they feel judged. I had one lady inform me it was useless to wear a mask. Contrary to her opinion, I find it very useful. But I just nodded in hopes that she’d stop talking, and I might have stuck out my tongue. Yeah, I like wearing masks.

My Superpower Meets Realm on Steroids

I had a tough week last week. Realm’s hands broke out due to poison ivy or sumac or something. He had it terrible, and I had a terrible time for him, especially after he got a steroid shot. Realm on steroids can’t quit talking. When anything comes into his head, he’s got to get it out. We had some friends over… to the backyard, that is. I found myself thwacking him on the arm, demanding, “Let them talk!” He couldn’t pause; he couldn’t take a breath. He and I sat down together, and I began in this way: “Do you feel like your tongue is a little looser than usual?” He thought about this, and by “thought” I mean he spoke of two instances where his co-workers had to tell him to calm down that day. “It’s like I’ve kind of lost a little bit of my inhibitions and things just fall out of my mouth,” he observed. I nodded. That was all the response he gave me time for, but I could empathize with him. This has happened before. When he had minor surgery, the nurse who brought him out looked relieved when she handed him over to me. About five minutes and two billion words later, I understood why. It’s not just the talking, either; it’s the feeling he exudes. Something must be done, and it must be done right now. He’s antsy; he’s nervous. He’s sticking his nose into everything and asking why. And when I tell him why, I feel annoyed… and silly for being annoyed.

I lay in bed that night, wide-eyed and irritated that Realm was fast asleep. Steroid or no steroid, he was out, while my brain wouldn’t shut down. It started its old information mud pie ritual, amassing anything and everything to make mountains out of molehills. It was then I realized Realm’s wired behavior had sent me into a reactionary tailspin. Last week, I talked about my sense of dread at facing a virus-wary world that doesn’t really understand the protocol anymore than I do and tends to overreact. What I didn’t explain was that I suffer from Bipolar Mood Disorder. Last year, I finally got a fitting label for what I’d always thought was an angry/depressive personality. I don’t experience mania, but I do experience a hypomanic, irritable, “fast-forward” state. It makes for fun times when I can’t stop panicking and crying after I’ve agreed to take on too many responsibilities during a “productive” spell. Having a mood disorder makes it easy for me to become emotionally dysregulated. I get flustered over simple things I’m not sure how to handle–which happen all the time and, generally, will happen in a public setting. I can’t always tell if I’m reacting appropriately because I feel things so intensely at times. Plus, I’m unconsciously influenced by peoples’ moods–meaning, I tap into someone’s mood without realizing I’ve even been “listening” to them. This mood-appropriating superpower gives me intuitive insight into personalities, which is great when I’m trying to write a novel, but it’s awful when I’m standing in these social distancing lines with folks who are frustrated. Their moods hang over me like a storm cloud. They don’t like the change in their routine, the embarrassment of doing the wrong thing, the inconsistent policies enforced on them. Their anxious talk shifts to injustices happening around the nation and conspiracy theories. And, yes, there are some very serious injustices going on. There are people stuck mid-travel without places to stay. There are families without homes right now and without jobs. I find myself wracking my brain at times, trying to figure out how to right the world’s wrongs. It’s not realistic; I have no power over any of it. The end result? I wear myself down so I can’t focus on the things I ought to be able to tackle easily.

For weeks I’ve been allowed to be at peace handling responsibilities in my home sphere. As the go-go life returns, the conflict inside me returns. I don’t always feel I’m doing my best when I really am doing the best I can. But I’m learning to come to terms and accept that my best isn’t nearly what I think it should be or what others think it should be. That’s the price I pay for my superpower, I guess. I’ve made a long journey in just a few short months. I look forward to better days and greater insights to come. While the inner battle may sap my strength, I’m still wearing my cape… and hoping Realm doesn’t get another steroid shot.