The Serendipity of it All.

My late father-in-law wrote beautiful, rambling letters to us on yellow legal paper about twice a week when he was alive. He would get up at 4:00 am, come down to the kitchen in his Upstate NY home, make himself a cup of coffee, light a cigarette and sit down to share the family news with whichever of his children was in line for the daily epistle. Having four children, each with a spouse and most with children of their own, he had plenty of colds and exam results, weather, hockey/football/softball and work news to fill a couple of pages in forward sloping cursive that was both elegant and easy to read. And in one of these letters, he dropped a gift in my lap. He wrote that our ten-year old niece, Jessica, had asked, “What happens to the hour we lose to Daylight-Savings time?” I was already writing creatively by then and that question inspired a children’s story – The Lost Hour – in which Six O’Clock gets booted from a grandfather clock and travels east, to find other employment. After jobs in music, mathematics and one as a price sticker on a vegetable stand, he finds he’s traveled full circle, back to the grandfather clock, where he becomes the hour gained at the other end of Daylight-Savings time.

I sent the story out to small presses after I shared it with my niece and my own children and received lovely letters, often with handwritten notes on them, encouraging me to send it to bigger presses, where it would surely be welcomed. It wasn’t. And I didn’t have the time or the inclination to keep trying. So I slipped The Lost Hour in a drawer and went back to raising children, running a business, seeing my plays in production and writing more stories.

But apparently not before I shared a copy of the story with my friend, Deborah, a gifted, elementary school teacher, recipient of the Christa McAuliffe Award and three times included in the Who’s Who of American Teachers. Deborah was teaching 3rd grade at the time and I gave her the story to share with her class, something that I completely forgot about until she reminded me a couple of days ago. We were discussing the upcoming launch of the published version of The Lost Hour when she told me about reading it to her classes every spring, as the clocks went forward. Then she told me that she used the story as a jumping off place for the children to write their own creative versions of what happened to Six O’Clock, and she heard tales of him riding on a magic carpet, floating on clouds, backpacking across America, and sailing on cruise ships around the globe.

I was tickled that my little story had inspired such creativity but more than that; I felt the kind of goose bumps you get when something makes sense and you have no logical explanation for why it makes sense. Like the serendipity of ideas coming together that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her wonderful new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. You see, when I got The Lost Hour out of my drawer and decided to publish it, I knew I needed an illustrator and the universe brought me ten-year old Maya Keegan. I loved Maya’s artwork as soon as her grandpa shared it with me and, fortunately, she loved The Lost Hour. But I knew she was predestined to illustrate The Lost Hour when one of the first drawings she took on was that of Elizabeth, in England, who puts Six O’Clock in her mathematics notebook. When I looked at the finished drawing I was struck by how much Elizabeth looked like my niece, Jessica; but Maya had never met Jessica. Never even seen a picture of Jessica. Yet somehow she sealed the connection to the person who inspired this story by drawing her.

UK Elizabeth

Elizabeth in England

Jessica

Jessica

When Deborah told me about all the children writing new adventures for Six O’Clock I realized that while he was in my drawer, they kept him traveling around the globe until he found the perfect person to illustrate him. Like a man once told me, when I was sitting across a kitchen table from him, marveling at how I had become a wife and mother six thousand miles from where I grew up, when it was the last thing I had planned to do with my life.
“He was a good guide, wasn’t he?” the man said, pointing to the baby in my arms.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He led you to his father.”

All those student storytellers must have led Six O’Clock to his illustrator because otherwise why would I have been so lucky to have found Maya and ended up with a book as beautiful as The Lost Hour.

It’s magic. Big magic. And I’ll take it.

P.S. For those who follow my blog, please note that later this month it’s getting a make-over, and a new title – Musings from the Mountain. So when you get an e-mail saying musingsfromthemountain has a new post, it’s just me.

A Comedy of Canines.

It’s 6:00 am, pitch dark and raining out. Molly Moon, my 3-year old Springer Spaniel/Lab mix just had knee surgery and needs to be on a leash while she goes out for her morning ablutions to make sure she doesn’t wander too far, or too fast. Or fall over. My eyes are still bleary from sleep as I step into my muck boots and pull my fleece jacket on over my sweats, and I wonder if our new puppy, Pinky, can be trusted not to jump on Molly if I let him come on the short walk with us. Part of me wants to leave him in the house but, at only 12 weeks old, he still needs a little company when doing his morning business otherwise he gets distracted and forgets. Which in turn can lead to oopsies in the house. Yeah, he’d better come too.

I grab a leash for Molly, who is already struggling to her feet, and think – flashlight! Molly likes to lead me away from the motion sensor light on the back porch so she can do her business in private, and it’s too dark and too early for me to want to trip over a tree root on our property. I grab the flashlight, connect the leash to Molly’s collar and then go through a brief farce at the back door as Pinky decides he wants to bring the door mat with him and Molly’s tugging to go down the steps and she won’t stay and he won’t come and I’m beginning to feel the rain down the back of my neck so I lean back in to encourage Pinky to let go of the mat and come outside while Molly thinks she’s supposed to go back inside now and Pinky wants to show us how fun the mat is all balled up and why can’t we bring it with us? I finally get them both out and this is how it starts.

“Pinky, no! Don’t jump on Molly. Pink-Y!!”

My cockerel crows in the chicken coop, probably woken by my yelling at the puppy, and then a second crow, louder, stronger. I sigh. Two of the three chicks hatched this past fall must be roosters, not just the one I already gave away. Their crowing distracts Pinky who, as part Chesapeake, is a bit of a bird dog. Molly’s left in peace but she’s not inclined to pee yet. Even on three legs she’s doing the leading and makes a beeline for the shadows, between the wood shop and the pottery studio. Pinky barrels up behind us and starts nipping at the backs of my legs.

I love you. I love you. I love you, his little love bites say.
“Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” I yelp. “Pinky, stop that!”
Can I play with the leash then?
“Pinky, NO!”

I tug him away and he veers off, distracted by a twiggy length of salmonberry bush. Molly tries to crawl under the studio.

“Don’t go under there!” I snap.
Skunk.
“What are you…?
I smell skunk.
“You’ll get all tangled up – Pinky, NO! Leave her tail alone!”

I manage to get Molly back out into the open without getting the leash tied in knots but then she seems determined to lead me even further into the woods. I can see the grassy pathways between the brushy areas fairly well with the flashlight but the ground is uneven, and I’m worried she’ll stumble and hurt her bum leg. Plus I took my husband’s advice and put her on one of those leashes that unravels from a housing, so she could wander a little further and feel more private; but this particular leash was one of my husband’s “treasures” from the dump and the lock button sticks, so Molly keeps getting further and further away from me.

“Can’t you just go here?” I plead with her, pointing to a tree stump surrounded by soft mulch. “I’m hungry.”
Pinky leaps this way and that in the air. Me too. Me too. Me too.
Molly gives me a baleful look. I can’t. You’re watching.
“I’ll look away.”
You’ll know.
Pinky jumps on her. Can I ride on your back?
“Pinky, no! Will you get OFF her!!!”

I pull the puppy away and Molly disappears around the back of the studio. I move faster.

“Where did you….. Oh, you’re peeing. Good girl.”

A glorious sense of relief washes over me. Then I remember the puppy. I look left and right. Behind me.

“Where did Pinky go?”

I shine the flashlight all around and catch sight of him under a fir tree, doing his business.

“Good boy,” I coo.

All is well. The rain is a steady drizzle, fresh against the skin on my face even if my head is getting wet because I forgot to put on a hat. I hear the rooster crow again, followed by his echo, but they’re both more muted this time since the studio is between us, absorbing some of the sound. I feel peaceful standing in the oxygen rich woodland; until the puppy nips at the back of my leg again.

“Ouch! Stop that!!”
I love you.
“That hurts!”
I love you.
“Find something else to chew on!”
I love you.
“Ouch!”

As I swat him away, Molly spins to the right, heading into an area of thick brush. The vines snap as she clambers over them, trying to get in where she won’t be seen. I’m worried that she’ll get her leg tangled in the leash so I push my thumb hard against the lock button, but it’s stuck. Pinky bounces against my leg and yelps when I accidentally step on his paw. Then he tries to grab the flashlight with his mouth. Molly moves further into the brambles as I try not to trip over the puppy. Then I hear the leash being sucked back into the housing as Molly hobbles back out to join us, not having gone poop.

“What was wrong with that spot?” I wail.
The thing on my neck was bothering me.
“Pinky, NO! Leave her ALONE!”
I just want to ride on her back.
“Get off her!”
Okay, let’s play bite-the-open-mouth game.
Molly’s tail wags. You’re too short. You’ll never get me.
I will if I jump.
“Pinky, no!”

They run forward together, making hawing sounds as they move their mouths this way and that, trying to get a purchase on each other, tails wagging. Pinky jumps and jumps, his little body jostling her neck as I worry about her leg, thinking – she’ll never poop at this rate. I step forward to separate them. The ground is soft and wet but my boot lands in something softer, wetter. Something that smells….

“Did you poop here?” I bark at the puppy.
He looks down, surprised. No. That’s yesterdays.
“Good Lord!” I complain. “Can’t you poop in the brush like Molly?!”
She gives me a scathing look. Oh, so now it’s a good thing that I poop in the brush?!

I’ve had enough.

“I’m an actress! And I haven’t had my morning tea. So do your business!”
Molly looks at Pinky. Now you made her mad.
No. You made her mad.
It was your poop. You should learn to be more discreet.
What’s disskreeet? I’m hungry. Can I ride on your back?
“Pinky, NO!”

I separate them – again! – and walk a little further, around to the big Maple tree next to the garage where Molly often goes in the morning. The puppy dances away and I wait, hoping Molly will get busy. When she doesn’t, I decide this isn’t working.

“You probably don’t need to poop, do you?” I say to her in the quiet of the morning.
She looks at me. We can go with that.
“Come on. You can try again later.”
Can I at least get a drink?
“You want some water?”

I walk her over to the bucket that catches rainwater dripping out of the gutter on the garage but she prefers the puddle in the driveway. As she balances on three legs, lapping noisily, the puppy appears beside us, something white in his mouth. It’s a small plastic flag, a marker for the invisible fence that denotes the limit of where he should stray on the property.

Look what I found.
“Give me that!”
Okay, can I bite Molly’s ear then?
He’s touching me!
“Pink-Y, NO!”

And we head for the house as the cockerels take up their duet in the background.

THE END
(Well, until tomorrow morning)

Molly Moon & Pinky

What? I’m just hugging her.

All the World’s a Stage

Sitting in Le Pain Quotidien at St Pancras Station, drinking coffee and eating croissants, I mention to my husband that the flat serving tray, a ceramic cutting board of sorts, with a small hole at one end to hang the item between uses, and slight, inward curvature like a fish tail at the other, might be an interesting new object for him to make in the pottery. People race by on the main platform of the station, the to and fro from England to destinations European, and a man raises his voice to one of the serveuses, accusing her of being rude instead of responding to a simple question.

“I could make these,” my husband says, turning what he thinks is a handmade object over and around in his hands. “But I’d ask the waiter if he likes using them.”

“Ah no,” the waiter tells us in English laced with just enough of an accent – maybe French, maybe Italian – that it’s charming. “They don’t break or chip but for eating, is not so good. Messy,” he adds and flaps his free hand in the air over my plate, to indicate crumbs falling off the sides.

Behind him the belligerent customer opts not to eat in the café and as he storms out, a young man enters and immediately apologizes to the now smiling waitress for something he wasn’t even part of but senses was not her fault.

“I think he’s right,” my husband says to me, meaning the waiter’s opinion of the ceramic object. “They need a return on the sides.”

“But we wouldn’t sell them as plates,” I explain, “I’m thinking cheese boards. Or vegetable trays.” The rectangular flatware has a small bread motif stamped into one corner. I point at it and add, “You could put your tulip stamp here.” Three tables down from us, two men in elegant, silver-grey suits keep up a lively discussion in French about the percentage decline of the stock market. I lean into our table, so my husband can hear me over the background noise. “I really prefer cutting cheese on a flat board.”

“Uh huh,” he says, inspecting the tray again. “But I’m sure there’s a compromise in here somewhere.” He runs his index finger around the perimeter of the clay. “I could make a simple groove just inside the edge.”

I nod; that makes sense. I tear a section off my croissant and look beyond him, to the small Marks and Spencers food shop on the other side of the main platform. We went in there before coming to the café, to buy a green smoothie for me, and I was very impressed to see that they sold pairs of peeled, organic, hard-boiled eggs on fresh spinach in plastic cups to go. I should tell my friend, John Scott, about those, I think, remembering that I owe him a reply to the beautiful missive he sent me about morning time on the beach in Costa Rica. I dip the piece of croissant in my coffee, noticing the remnants of flaky pastry now on the table around my plate. Maybe he could suggest they sell something similar at the Co-op, I continue in my head. I bite down on the coffee softened croissant and nix the idea, realizing that John Scott probably doesn’t want me reaching across the miles with a business suggestion while he’s got his toes on a sandy beach in paradise. Although, I think with a certain amusement, here we are on our way to Paris and I’m talking plate design with my husband. How curious.

After we finish our petit repas (the time wasn’t right to call if breakfast or lunch, just a little snack) the waiter clears up our plates and cups and I hear myself saying, “Shoot! I should have taken a picture.”

“If I were a journaling kind of person I’d draw it,” my husband says and immediately my mind buzzes to the red writing journal I have in my backpack and the drawing he could make in it. I want to get it out and let him do just that but the backpack is behind him, the table is fairly cramped and now it’s covered in croissant crumbs, so I resist.

But not before thinking how strange (yet appealing) this idea is, a journal with sketches of pottery in it. Not birds or wildflowers, things we’ve come to expect in journals, but cups and bowls and plates and cheese trays.

Quick sketch cheese tray

Quick sketch cheese tray

And then I wonder how my life went from thinking almost exclusively about acting to discussing serving ware over café au lait on the way to Paris? And if I didn’t know that businessperson was just another role for me, I could let that bother me. Fortunately all the world’s a stage in my head and I love the range of roles I get to play.

Now about those flat, ceramic trays; how about a Mishima drawing of trees in the corner?

Who’s To Say What Love Is?

We often give people the tour when they come to visit our pottery shop, which includes seeing the studio where the pots are made and the kiln where the pots are fired. And often, if there are children with the adults (and sometimes just for the adults, because they ask) the tour ends at our chicken coop. Well, my chicken coop, my husband tells me, because he doesn’t consider the chickens community property. Although he built a lovely coop for them to live in. But still, apparently I have sole custody.

Which is fine because I think my chickens are wonderful. I wanted chickens because I’m partial to fresh eggs and when I found myself living on five acres with an existing coop, sans chickens, the connection was obvious. But aside from the incredible eggs my hens lay, they have also taught me a lot about love. Once I was down at the shop, about 150 feet from the coop, and heard the high pitched cheeping of a baby bird. One of my hens had recently hatched some eggs and the cheeping made me wonder if something was amiss. I strode up the graveled path, past the garden, to see the mama hen inside the coop, frantically running a groove into the dirt floor. I wondered what was making her so nutsy and then I spotted the chick, outside in the long grass between the coop and the garden fence. The chick must have pushed its way through the chicken wire to the great outdoors only to discover mama wasn’t coming too. Couldn’t come too, because she was of a size that wouldn’t fit between the holes in the wire. So the chick peeped its fear and mama hen sped back and forth on the inside of the wire like a bat out of hell. Or should I say, like a chicken with its head cut off (ooff!). I managed to capture the tiny chick (and trust me, that’s not easy to do because they’re so fast!) and when I deposited it on the ground, next to its mother, I was very impressed to see her immediately sit on it, as if to say – that’ll stop you from wandering off!

I used to think that being likened to a “mother hen” was an insult but since I’ve had chickens I’ve realized it is one of the highest compliments you can receive. Because chickens are excellent mothers. I remember going into the coop once with a group of visitors that included a friend, who also happened to be a prosecuting attorney. We looked at the chickens in the outer range, strutting and pecking and chasing each other, then my friend wanted to look in the inner sanctum, where one of my hens was sitting a clutch of eggs. “How many does she have under her?” my friend asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let me see.”
I slipped my hand under the hen and she ‘bwauk, bwauk, bwauked’ softly at me as I felt around for the eggs. “Six,” I said, having touched at least that many.
“Can I try that?” this friend asked, fascinated.
I nodded – sure – but as she moved her hand towards the nest the hen ‘bwauk, bwauked’ much louder, fluffing out her wing feathers and reaching forward to stab her beak on the invading hand. My friend pulled back immediately but not because she was upset or hurt. She was impressed. “That hen definitely knows the difference between you and some stranger,” she said, as we moved back out towards the garden. “And I’m glad you showed me that.” Her face became more serious. “I’m prosecuting a case right now that involves some boys tying a chicken to a pick-up truck and dragging it down the street, then hanging it in a tree and setting fire to it and their lawyer keeps telling me – it’s just a chicken.”

Really? Because we sit higher on the food chain than these creatures that gives some people the right to think we can be cruel to them? Why? Why?! I hear that kind of thing and I think everybody should have a chicken coop, just so they can see reflections of love that might grow their hearts bigger. But of course, not everybody has five acres in the country or, for that matter, a spouse that is willing to build them a coop. So since this is the start of a new year and since last year was peppered with enough pain in the human world that too many of us found ourselves asking why – why? – I thought I’d share a moment of tenderness from my chicken coop that really made my heart sing.

One of my hens – the Chanticleer – hatched three chicks in late September and once she started moving around with them, I watched her dig a hole in the dirt floor and tuck the chicks back under her at night, to keep them warm, rather than roost on the perch with the other chickens. The main growing season was over in the garden so I let the chickens range outside the coop every day, to peck for bugs and run through the rototilled soil, and then in the evening, I’d go back up and close the door to keep them safe from potential predators. And of course, before I closed the door, I’d go inside and count that they were all back on the perch and then look down at the mother hen. Sometimes I’d talk to her, asking her if all the chicks were back inside with her, especially if I could only see two tiny beaks peeking out from under her. Invariably as I chatted the third one would squirt out from the other side of her and cheep at me as if to say, “Yeah, I’m here.”

The days got shorter as fall progressed and the chicks went from fluffy balls of yellow to more pint-size birds with sleek black feathers, not at all the coloring of the Chanticleer but more like the Black Orpingtons, who I noticed backstopped the Chanticleer every time she needed help in her mothering duties. As the chicks grew I kept expecting to find them on the perch at night, moving away from their mother, but still she dug a hole and tucked them underneath her. Then one night I went into the coop and they had moved up to the perch but instead of sitting independently from the mother hen, she was sitting over them, her wings stretched out to cover them all and keep them warm.
Chanticleer & chicks

Now if that’s not a moment of love, I don’t know what is. Happy New Year.

Not Your Typical News Story

Ten years ago, on July 7th, 9:15 am Greenwich Mean time, I was on the tube in London, heading to Liverpool Street Station with my children, when our train was halted at Ealing South. We had just got off a nine-hour flight with an eight-hour time difference, so it was the middle of our night, and the children succumbed to the overly warm, overly full carriage and nodded off in their seats, legs draped over their luggage as pseudo-protection for their gear. We waited, and waited, and waited, the sound system periodically buzzing to life as a nasal voice, heavy on the static, told us again and again that this train could not progress forward due to a “major security alert.” Sitting there, I remember thinking that it was probably a bomb scare. Growing up in England in the 1970s, bomb scares were just something we lived with. After twenty minutes of silent patience within the carriage, the loud speaker buzzed again and everyone on the train was instructed to get off now and leave the station immediately.

I stared blearily at the sign on the platform again: Ealing South. Did I know where that was in relation to Liverpool Street Station? I didn’t think so. I’d lived in the London area as a student but I didn’t remember ever taking the tube to Ealing South. I nudged the kids. We lifted our bags and with weary sighs followed everyone out of the station. Once outside, on a street I was not familiar with, I turned to see iron gates being closed and locked at the entrance to the station. They really meant this.

We spent the next few hours climbing on and off buses, explaining to the drivers that we wanted to go to Liverpool Street Station only to be asked, “Why don’t you take underground?” None of them knew that the underground had been closed or why their buses were suddenly so full or how to get to Liverpool Street Station from Ealing South. But if we took the number 9 bus to the number 24 and then changed for the number 6 bus, we could get to Hammersmith Bus Terminal where we would undoubtedly find a bus to Liverpool Street Station. While we were on one of these many buses, surrounded by people who had also been thrown off the tube, somebody finally received a call on their mobile phone and we could hear, from her end of the conversation, that it was, indeed, a bomb. A series of bombs, in different locations, across the London Underground. We arrived at Hammersmith Bus Terminal, glad to be seeing the end to the mayhem we had landed in, only to be told by one of the many emergency workers in orange and white striped jackets that not only was I not going to Liverpool Street Station that day, but that if I were him, I’d get my children out of the bus terminal too because another bomb had just gone off on a bus.

Now what was I going to do? I sat my children – 14 and 10 – on a bench and told them not to move. Then I went in search of a pay phone. I found one and tried to call my brother who worked in the City of London but the phone lines were down. I tried to call my brother-in-law who worked in South London but those lines were down too. I finally got a line out to my father, in Southend, where I had been headed with my children, and he was baffled that I couldn’t reach my brother. “I just spoke with him,” he said.
“I’m in London, dad. The phones are down inside the city.”
There was a long pause and he finally said, a catch in his voice, “I just want you to get where you’ll be safe.”

It never really occurred to me that we weren’t safe. Trapped, yes. Hungry, very. Tired, beyond words. But the panic the media seems so able to convey in these situations hadn’t reached me. Or anybody else around me that I could tell. We were all just dealing with it. I finally resorted to a London taxi-cab to get us out of the jam and had the driver drop us at a pub in Putney, south of the River Thames, on the understanding that my brother-in-law would come and pick us up from there. The publican showed us to a back room, where I could sit with the children, and since there was no food to be had because the cooks were trapped inside London, the kids laid down on the wooden benches and fell asleep. And then I did the smartest thing I’d done all day. I walked down the street to another payphone and woke up my husband. “You need to hear this from me,” I told him, “before you hear it on the news.”

The thing is, as messy as that whole situation was, what I remember most from being in the midst of it were the stories my sister told when she came home from work the next day. We ended up at her house in Kent, after my brother-in-law rescued us from the pub, and the children and I promptly slept for almost 24 hours. We woke up to my sister sharing the talk from the teachers’ lounge. One of the stories she told was about the husband of one of her coworkers, who was on his usual bus in north London, heading to work the day of the bombings, when a man sat down next to him and started fidgeting so agitatedly with a package inside his backpack, the husband got off the bus. And as it pulled away, the bus exploded. He must have been sitting next to the bomber and didn’t know it.

What I took away from that was the following: there’s a great chance it won’t be us. Or if it is us, there’s a great chance that we won’t know it. I think often about the men on Flight 93, the fourth plane to go down on 9/11. I picture them saying to each other, maybe wordlessly, we’re going down, so we may as well go down fighting. Isn’t that what we should all be saying? If we’re going down, may as well go down doing the things we want to do with our lives. So my vote is, if you want to go to Paris, go. Chances are great you’ll just have a wonderful time.

Paris 2

The Dark Subject

One of the greatest challenges I have in my writing is drawing characters that are likable and yet can turn on a penny and become brutes. Some readers want to be able to see the danger, foreshadowed in the personalities of these characters, because they just don’t want to believe that nice guys can do such harm. But if you have ever spent any time around someone prone to domestic violence, you know that it’s not visible from the outside and it does come out of nowhere.

I never had any intention of using my childhood in my writing but then one day, I was driving along the freeway, listening to Steve Scher interview a battered woman on National Public Radio, and for some reason I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this was what I had grown up with, and it wasn’t as if I’d never spoken of it. So why this agitation? This uneasy twisting deep in my core, like a trapped animal pacing inside a cage.

I was so upset I wanted to pull off the freeway and find a pay phone to call into the show, but I knew that if I called in, I would have to say something more than just, “Stop it! You’re upsetting me!!” I would have to ask a question. And I didn’t have a question to ask, so I kept on driving. It wasn’t until I reached my destination, after the show was over, and got out of my car that it came to me. “You keep giving out a 1-800 number for women that find themselves in this situation,” I wanted to say, “but what about a number for the children that have to grow up watching it? Don’t you know what it does to our brains to watch someone we love very much hurting someone else that we love very much?”

Of course I would never have asked that question if I had thought of it in time because it would only have elicited pity – and I didn’t want pity. I wanted answers. Instead, I went home and penned a play, From Me, To You, which had my teenage self as a character. The play was not intended to be about the darker aspects of my childhood, and it wasn’t. It was a love story, set in the 70s, between two teenagers writing letters across the Atlantic. Once I knew that the girl was in England, writing letters in a bedroom filled with pop music, I knew she had to be me. And if it was me, I had to be true to what was happening in the background at my house.

Even though the violence was peripheral to my story, when the play opened, my heart beat hard in my chest with the fear that audience members would point fingers at me afterwards and say, “No wonder you’re so messed up.” But they didn’t. They bopped their heads to the music, laughed and sighed and listened and watched, and afterwards, they came up to me, smiling, and told me how it reminded them of their own teenage years. Then they came back with their children and watched it again. And I felt a little door close on the pain in one part of my brain.

When I heard on the radio that the father of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School killer had a permanent domestic violence protection order against him, prohibiting him from buying the gun used in that shooting, I knew immediately that the killer had grown up seeing that an acceptable response to anger was violence. And while many probably heard that news report and thought about lax gun control laws, I thought about domestic violence. Because I know that as a result of growing up with domestic violence, the real trigger the Marysville-Pilchuck killer was holding, was in his brain. And it’s a trigger that can go off at any time, for no apparent reason. I know this because I had that trigger in my brain too. I believe – although I haven’t asked too many others who grew up in a household like mine – but I truly believe, you cannot spend your formative years around that kind of behavior and not get the trigger in your brain. Fortunately I also had a powerful override button that I think I earned through education and distance. And the day I stumbled into forgiving my father – through a comedy I wrote, in which he was the main character – was the day that trigger went away. Pouf! Like a mental magic trick. Which makes me a huge advocate of forgiveness, as you can imagine.

The thing is that trigger gets sewn into the brains of ordinary, likable people. People that grow up to be successful, charming, kind in many ways. They don’t have to be substance abusers, they don’t have to be of a particular skin tone; they are admired community members and, yes, the popular kid at school. When I was a child I used to wish people could see what my father was really like behind the white goatee and pot belly but all they saw was someone who looked like Father Christmas and had the cheery disposition to match. So when I read the lines, “We fail to spot shooter after shooter because they look so much like us and they are like us. They are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members,” in Mark Manson’s article, How We All Miss The Point On School Shootings, I couldn’t help but connect it with my private take on the Marysville-Pilchuck killer. And it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t keep it private any longer.

Not that my being open will necessarily help us “spot” the shooters, as Manson puts it, but it might shine a light on one part of the equation that we still don’t tend to discuss – domestic violence. It’s a dark subject, I get that. I can still remember how, as a young adult, I would try to tell certain people about the things I’d seen as a child, and I’d watch them close down. Now, after all these years, I get that too. I didn’t like seeing it – what in the world made me think people would want to hear about it? Fortunately I had my writing where I could use it as a “theme” as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing. A theme that I took from personal experience and turned around and over on the page, trying to explain why, even though my dad’s actions had embedded a trigger in my head, I was grateful to him for all the good things he did for me. And I loved him. And each time people told me that they couldn’t quite picture a man like the one in Lesson 5 of my novel, doing what he did in Lesson 10, I went back and reworked it. I knew he could do it, because I’d seen it happen – but I had to find a way to make it believable to others. Because there’s a chance that if they can believe it in fiction, they will be able to believe it more readily in reality.

Of course, there’s a part of me that regrets that domestic violence became a theme in some of my writing because it is The Dark Subject; but a bigger part of me knows I had to write about it because I survived it. And it’s the survival part that makes it a story. My reward for sticking with it was watching audience after audience sit, with their eyes fixed on the stage, through a scene of more ‘real’ (less ‘Hollywood’) domestic violence in my play, Carried by the Current. When that happened, I knew I had found a way to tell it. And when people came up to me afterwards and pointed at the stage behind me, asking, “How did you know…?” I knew I had found a way to share.

Writing letters helped me escape what was happening in my house as a teenager, and stepping on stage to act, as a 17-year old, saved my life. Those, and where they led me, together with love – the one thing I was sure I never wanted to let into my life because of what was hiding in my brain – those were my 1-800 number. I think about how little is spent on teaching our children creative endeavors in the public schools and I wonder how some of them are ever going to find their 1-800 number.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; for everyone who now fears sending our children to school, it’s time we started talking about The Dark Subject.

DVAM_graphic

Men are from Venus

One of our friends reached out recently to let us know that after 63 years of living in a woman’s body and feeling like a guy, he’s decided the time has come for him to actually become that guy. Cancer robbed him of his female organs long since so the change won’t involve any surgeries; just a slight difference in his name and some hormone therapy. He was very open about the whole thing and encouraged us to ask any questions we might have since he’s comfortable talking about all aspects of the procedure. I thought about it for a while, pondering the physical, mental and emotional aspects of such a change, and realized the only thing I was truly curious about was how his wife of 33 years was going to feel when she realized she was now sharing a bed with someone who farts?

Because, come on, I don’t know about your husbands, but mine tosses and turns and grunts and groans and snorts and snores and emits all sorts of noises and aromas when he’s in bed. Of course, he tells me that I do the same thing, which I disagree with; but if it’s true, it may actually prove my point. Because just recently I read a fascinating article in Scientific American about a breakthrough study describing the discovery of new cells – some of which include the Y chromosome – in the brains of mothers after pregnancy. Not just cells from their child in their bloodstreams, which has been known for a while, but actually in their brains. Which would totally explain any male pattern behavior from me in bed, right? (Read the article here. It’s truly fascinating). But I don’t think I would have actually known this kind of sleep pattern was typical of guys without recently paying a visit to my mother, where I happened to share a bed with a female friend. I knew this was going to be the case before I got there and I’d been wondering how I was going to react when my friend was gassy or noisy or tumbled over onto my side of the bed or robbed me of the blankets – all the stuff that I was used to – so I was amazed to discover that she just lay down on her side of the bed every night and slept. Soundly. Not a peep out of her. All night long.

Which begs the question – how is someone who’s been used to such an unobtrusive slumber companion going to respond to the guy’s way of sleeping? Or, for that matter, respond to the disconnect that happens between a man’s mind and his tongue, leaving him to say whatever the hell he wants whenever the hell he wants to? Or the stuff with the remote – you know, that he can’t even let it be on one program for two seconds before he’s gotta, gotta, gotta see what else is on offer? I even remember my (new) guy friend telling me, back when he was a woman, that he got a chuckle out of watching the young granddaughters in his family coming to terms with the fact that boys could be irritating – like horseflies. And now he’s going to become one of them?! What about his wife?

Then I remembered one of my favorite moments on screen. It was in “Prelude to a Kiss,” based on the stage play of the same name by Craig Lucas, where a young bride (Meg Ryan) lets her spirit change places with that of an elderly man (Sydney Walker). The bride’s new husband (Alec Baldwin) spends a lot of the film trying to work out why his wife doesn’t seem like the young woman he fell in love with until finally, he tracks down her spirit in the body of this old man. Overcome with emotion at having found her, he takes the old man in his arms and kisses him. I found that beautiful. It was such a statement of love transcending the physical. Given how much our bodies change over time, that’s a lovely thing to contemplate. Especially as we creep towards old age, where health issues could transform us completely. To think that we might be with someone who can see beyond those changes, into the spirit of the person they’ve loved for so long, is pretty special.
Prelude to a kiss

So the truth is, I don’t really have to ask my friend this question about how his wife of 33 years is going to react to the man in bed next to her because inside that man is the woman she fell in love with. Plus she’ll probably love him all the more for finding a way to be completely at ease with his true identity.

That said, all bets are off if he starts in with the ‘pull my finger’ stuff.