As the month comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on my October to-do list: what I accomplished and what there is left to do. While I finished a bunch of things, I still have items on my July to-do list that aren’t crossed off. But I also tackled stuff I hadn’t planned on! Overall, I felt pretty productive during October and, outside of a refrigerator full of stale food, felt healthy and well organized. Here’s the month’s journey in brief.
The Health of a Gardener Who Writes
I’ve been battling knee issues for years. A long time ago, I was digging out the lawn on my parking strip and my right knee ligament tore slightly. Since then, I’ve experienced pain on and off for years. In 2019, I was in severe pain. In spring, I could barely walk. After I went to the doctor, I learned a new word: bursitis. As in I had it. Probably because I’d sat cross-legged for hours at a time editing The Forgetting Flower.
Regardless, she prescribed anti-inflammatories and physical therapy. But despite that combination, it dogged me all summer and into fall. I felt desperate and depressed. Then, this month, I went back to my physical therapist who encouraged me to join a gym and gave me particular exercises to do for my knee. She also encouraged me to buy new shoes. I did both and voila! A month later, my knees (and me) are feeling 80% better.
Fun Time Interviews
This last month, I did four interviews! All were interesting endeavors. First off, I answered questions about my critique partner relationship with the sci-fi writer Natasha Oliver for the book Finders Keepers: A Practical Approach to Find and Keep Your Writing Critique Partner! It’s due out in early December. More details to come in a future post.
Next, I spoke with Michigan radio master, Tom Sumner for his show on October 3rd. We talked about The Forgetting Flower, the ideas behind it, my work with plants, life in Paris, writing thrillers, and more. To listen, click here.
I did another print interview with my fellow Goddard grad and friend, Roxana Arama for her site Rewriting History. We really clicked about The Forgetting Flower, touching on ideas of memory and forgetting, plants and scent, immigration and the working class. It was a wonderfully profound interview.
Finally, I did a television interview for New Day Northwest! This morning show is a Seattle institution. Hosted by longtime television journalist, Margaret Larson, the show covers local celebrities and events while spotlighting fun home and garden projects and charitable causes. I was terribly nervous and felt anxious for days beforehand. I’d never been on TV before!! But I managed to get my mouth to work and talked about spooky houseplants to decorate a Halloween home. Plus, we touched on The Forgetting Flower. It ended up being super fun! I’ll write more about the anxiety part in a week or so. Click here to watch.
Writing in Brief
I also wrote a couple of short pieces for other outlets. For instance, I’ve been disturbed for a while that my name, Karen, has ended up as a generic label for a nasty woman, so I ended up putting my thoughts in an essay called When Your Name Becomes a Meme, which Thrive Global published.
As Halloween approached, I published a short article on spooky houseplants for Garden Center Magazine. It was a fun piece about creepy plants.
Lastly, I wrote about my journey of putting plants into my fiction. This post is slated to appear in early November on a crime fiction website. When it does, I’ll update this post.
Face-to-Face With Writer Friends
October is my birthday month but unfortunately my husband was out of town during my birthday week. So I decided to get in touch with writer friends. In early October, I got to know the lovely Angie McCullagh, who’s written a coming-of-age novel about a young woman in Seattle in the 1990s. I visited with my fellow Goddard graduate, Roxana Arama, who’s written a fascinating alternative ancient history/fantasy novel called All But One. And I ate lunch with my sweet friend, Kimberly Christensen, a middle grade and young adult author.
In November, I’ll be talking on more podcasts and writing on this blog more regularly. I’ll be working out at the gym almost every day. I’d like to form a writers group. And read at least two books in my stack. Maybe even get to those unfinished tasks from July. My biggest goal though is to finish the edits on my new novel. Now that I list all of these to-dos, I realize it’s a lot of work. I’m not sure I can do it. But I’ve got some strong momentum going so, with my new strong knees, I’ll ride out this wave of energy for as long as it lasts.
My friend once told me my dog Olive was sent to me by my dog Arrow. Arrow passed away about a month before Olive came into our lives. My friend speculated that Arrow knew I was upset about his passing and he wanted to console me with another mixed breed dog. Olive was a wiggly puppy, abandoned by the side of the road on New Year’s Day and found by a kind soul in the Seattle area. She was skinny and filthy and had fleas. But with a good bath and a lot of love, she recovered. In fact, once she landed in our house, she thrived.
Not a Reincarnation but Eerily Similar
Normally, I wouldn’t believe that a deceased dog could send a new dog to earth but there are a few uncanny similarities between Arrow and Olive. First, Arrow and Olive are both almost identically colored. Solidly orange-tan. The hair is similar length, medium, German Shepherd style. Though Arrow was part Dingo and had pointy ears, Olive is probably part terrier and has floppy ones. Second, they both have white patches on their chests and paws. And third, they smell exactly alike. My husband and I used to say Arrow smelled fresh, like hay, and Olive smells the exact same way. Fresh and like hay.
I had a deep attachment to Arrow. He was the coolest. Our friends used to say he had a special soul because he could hold a person’s gaze for a long time. He was soft and loyal and beautiful. He lived to almost 17 and when he died, I felt crushed. I thought we’d be together forever.
But not more than a month after he died, Olive popped up on a neighborhood list in need of a home. I ignored the mail for 4 or 5 days, thinking someone would swipe up the cute Shepherd mix. But no one did. That’s when I knew I had to check her out. When I visited her foster home, she nipped her little puppy teeth at my hand and tumbled around, wanting to play and follow me everywhere. I knew it was meant to be. So I took her home and now at almost 8 years old, she’s been our sweet puppy ever since.
Twins of Happiness
I’m not inclined to think heaven or hell exists but I do wonder at the work of the universe, whether some consciousness aligned events for me. Arrow brought joy to my world. And now Olive brings joy. And so, I’ll try to not over analyze and simply cherish the present experience of having known and knowing these two lovely doggie souls.
Whether I like it or not, I’m inundated right now with work and visitors. August is always a month of visitors for us because two of my children were born in August and relatives like to come for their birthdays — which for me means cleaning and guests and cake and touring around the region. Writing is out the window (unless you count a bit of revising in bed at night). Here are a few Seattle sites worth visiting and where we’ve spent our days.
During this last spring break, I took my three children to visit my mother and aunt in Tucson, Arizona. It was a bright, loud, active, social time. We yakked on about everything from politics to the names of my daughter’s new dolls. We went swimming. Drank smoothies. Ate dinner in the warm shade. Broke up arguments about who’d done the right or wrong thing. Walked around the desert. Watched birds. Avoided touching cactuses. Shopped. Cleaned. Laughed. And all else interactive and external.
Kids Are Interactive and External
While I enjoyed myself and my family, I realized the interactive and external are vibrant experiences but not conducive to creating art. Creating art requires silence, focus, imagination, the inner voice. Children, by their nature, annihilate these qualities. Their presence is what is present: not you, not your characters, not the dialogue you heard upon waking. Just the innocent banging of a stick on a rock, the random piping of a recorder, whatever their experience is at the moment.
A New Mother Earning Her M.F.A.
I think about how my external and internal experiences clashed when we first adopted our children. I was in a low-residency graduate program and living in Poland with the kids in a tiny apartment. (My husband was working to pay for it all back in Seattle.) Every night, I’d put the children to bed, get out my laptop, and work on my thesis, which was a novel. I had to. There was no other choice. The blur of activity that began in the gray dim of morning and lasted until seven-thirty at night was the kids’ time. It was “Let’s make leaf imprints” and “Get scolded for cutting our own hair” and “Take a bath in a shower stall” time. It was new for me but I was happy. I was happy to be a mother.
But a writer yearns to tell the story she has to tell. And I yearned to tell my story. In fact, in graduate school, you’re on the hook for it. So I did the best I could when I could. I hired a babysitter, even there in Poland, and I went to the mall where I could get free wi-fi, and worked on my manuscript. When we came home from Poland, I hired another babysitter and went to the coffee shop and worked on my manuscript. It was well worth the money. On weekends, my husband took the kids to the playground and I worked on my manuscript. These were not ideal situations. They were difficult. They occurred in small chunks of two to three hours at most. But I finished my thesis and earned my M.F.A.
What I Learned About How to Be a Writer and Have Kids
Six years later, this is what I’ve come to learn from having kids and being a writer. Time is limited. It’s precious. It comes in small chunks (sometimes suddenly cut off by an unexpected event or accident but it comes). You can clear space for that time. And if you’re serious, you must. Because the idea that you’ll have as long as you need to render your inspiration on paper disappears. (As I write this, I hear the car pulling into the driveway, I hear the doors slamming, I hear annoyed voices. The quiet is about to be blasted into noise, the stillness of space broken by bodies and jagged talk.)
And so, I head for the door to our office and close it. I ignore the conversations swirling outside the room. Let go the guilt of knowing I should get out there and help my husband. I plod on, I keep working on the words. I block out the responsibilities I have of “elsewhere.” This pushing out while trying to stay in the creative moment is the paradox of what some call a “selfish” mother putting herself first. But it’s not selfish, it’s vital to my sanity. The creation of art gives me the blissful state I need to return to my children with fresh energy and love.
The Work Slows Down
Still, interruptions are inevitable. Sometimes the child bursts into that office, already in mid-sentence about a petty grievance. And so, I’ve learned to accept that my work will get done more slowly. What would take a childless writer three days to accomplish will take the mother writer three weeks. Just when you get into a daily routine of producing quality work, a child unexpectedly must be picked up from school with the flu, there’s a teacher work day, a dental appointment, a grandma visiting, and then, when all of that has ended, another weeklong school break around the corner.
But now, I’ve surpassed the feelings of frustration, of constant resentment. Yes, it is frustrating, but with each passing year, the child grows and matures. They want their own independence. My youngest can actually read to herself and give me an extra fifteen minutes (to finish even this). The siblings can play with each other or choose on their own to retreat to their bedrooms for drawing or microscope fun. And while my (currently well-deserved napping) husband is the true savior in this story, I have to say the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that we all make time to do what we truly want. If you want to write, whether you have multiple children or not, you will. You will drum up the gumption to be “selfish,” you will make time to write. And if you don’t, well raising kids is a darn good reason to put it aside.
What are your challenges in being a writer and having kids? Let me know in the comments below.
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Next year, my son will enter middle school. And in learning about middle school, I realized middle school, at least in our school district near Seattle, is not middle school as I knew it. It’s more intense. There’s not a lot of fooling around. You have to register for classes. You create your own schedule. Classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays are longer, the others on weekdays, shorter. There are a wealth of electives to register for. Different levels of band and orchestra and ensembles to audition for. Life Studies classes like how to be an Office Assistant. How to manage one’s life. Yoga and Walking as P.E. Mandarin language is a common language requirement. In short, there are a lot more choices, a lot more to explore, and in turn, a lot more responsibility. You have to know now, at age 12, what you’re really interested in so that you can focus on that. It’s kind of like college for smaller people.
This came as a mild shock to me. In the last few weeks, my husband and I have been attending the open houses at my son’s future middle school and reading through the course catalog. If my son takes symphonic band, he will automatically begin his day at 7a.m. on two days, as Stage Band is an elective in addition to regular band for everyone, which occurs during the day. If he auditions and gets into Jazz band, which his trumpet teacher thinks he’s good enough to do, his day will start at 7a.m. four days a week. Ugh.
If he wants to take a year-long elective like French, which we’d like him to do since he’s a dual citizen (American and EU), that leaves no room for P.E., which he would have to make up around 7:30am a few days a week. The good news is his French class credits can transfer to his high school transcript (already!) and not only fulfill the first-year requirement, but boost his high school GPA. If this sounds complex, it is! It’s been making my head spin.
But if he takes a year-long language class, he’ll have no room to take Engineering & Robotics, a STEM class he’s most interested in. And so we’re considering skipping French this first year and allowing him to explore robotics, which he already fiddles with in his bedroom with his electronics kit. Not to mention Art is out the window, which he also spends hours in his room fooling with. He loves to draw and could immensely benefit from formal instruction. Oh well.
Then there’s the core classes. A new dilemma. He’s going to take Compression Math, a shorter math curriculum that combines three years of math into two years. We’ve decided this is probably important to take. No, not important, vital. If he doesn’t take Compression Math, he won’t be able to take Algebra in a timely fashion in high school, and then Geometry, and ultimately, would miss out on Calculus. If he misses out on Calculus, he might score low on his SATs and not get accepted to the University of Washington. The University of Washington! A state school that yes, has a great reputation, but is now, somehow competitive and difficult to get into! And so, thankfully, he’s interested in and advanced at math (not super hero gifted at math, but very competent at and very interested in), so with a Dad who’s going to help him, here we go…
I haven’t even gotten to the Honors classes, in everything, which we’ve been told by friends with older kids, that all curious students should take. And though he loves to read, we’ve decided to hold back on everything Honors except Science. It just seems like with Compression Math and Band and electives, it will overwhelm him. It does me. I don’t remember even thinking about my college future in 7th grade in the early ’80s. It just happened. My mother didn’t worry about it. Nor did I. Ah, the good ole days of a non-competitive, relaxed educational life.
After school is the time for sports and activities, making music activities occur early. If he takes Track or Tennis, which he’s interested in doing, he’ll have a packed day. Where will be the time to just build stuff with Legos like he does now? Or lounge on a lawn chair for hours and read The Hunger Games? I’m worried about him having downtime. Being a kid. Being free. And yet I’m worried about him being behind in the competitive environment we now call high school and college. Where does a mom draw the line? When do we think enough is enough? As his education gets more advanced, it seems enough is never enough for this 21st century, adult world.