A complicated life, hopefully

When I was in my twenties, a co-worker in her thirties once told me that life doesn’t get any easier. “It only gets more complicated as you go along,” she said.

Barbara was raising a son on her own, and she didn’t have the level of education that I had. But she did have more work experience and more life experience. Her pessimistic words of warning didn’t go over well with with my youthful optimism. But for some reason, I never forgot them.

A few years later, due to a variety of reasons and circumstances, my husband and I suffered a devastating financial crisis. Some people offered sympathy, many judged us, and no one helped. Life had gotten a whole lot more complicated. With two young children at home, somehow we dug our way out over a period of years, on our own.

Then, we thought we were done with (major) complications. But we were wrong. Twice more, we faced unexpected and unpredictable upheavals – “issues” isn’t a strong enough word to describe them. Life was more complicated than we ever imagined it could be. We stayed together and leaned on each other both times, sometimes joking nostalgically about our first crisis and wishing we could swap the current one for it. After all, that time it was “only money.”

Our last crisis was a health one, and was by far the most serious and most frightening. Our entire world changed in one day, and we did the best we could to help our 19-year-old son survive brain cancer. For a period of six months, we lived on hope itself. After that – once he was cancer-free – we relaxed slowly and steadily over time. That son, the third of our four children, is healthy and thriving today.

Life is still, and more, complicated today. Other issues have surfaced and we are trying to deal with them as a couple and as a family. But when things seem insurmountable and scary, I think back to five years ago, and I know that somehow, we will get through whatever we have to face.

Last year, I wrote the story of my emotional struggle as our son battled cancer. It’s a work of creative nonfiction, a true story based on my memories (and tons of records I kept). Titled ALL THE ABOVE, the tentative release date is March 31, 2015, and the pre-release cover reveal will be in an upcoming post.*  I wrote it because I couldn’t not write it – and because I hope that reading about my experience as a mom and caregiver will help others who are facing a crisis that is way beyond complicated.

Because when you think about it, a complicated life is still life. And life is a very hopeful and wonderful thing.

* A portion of that cover is below

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Bon anniversaire, part 2

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely. 
– Curtis Sittenfeld
 

Today is the anniversaire (birthday) of yet another of my August birthday friends. For some reason, I seem drawn to people born this month (and they to me, I hope). Other “birthday months” that work for me in terms of friendships are February, November, and May; a greater number of friends have birthdays during those months. My birthday is in October, and a handful of friends’ birthdays are, too.

I love birthdays–whevever they fall–and all sorts of other important dates, especially wedding anniversaries, and not just my own. My husband was born in February and we got married in June; it’s been nice to alternate celebrating one of our birthdays and our anniversary, every 4 months. When I was growing up, I always felt that my parents’ anniversary was more important than anyone’s birthday in the family; after all, it’s when we  they became a family. If not more significant than a birthday, it was at least (way) more romantic. It meant they weren’t just alive for another year, but were together another year…and they continued to be, for 58 years, when my father passed away.

I grew up the middle child in my family, and tried to stay under the radar as much as possible. It wasn’t all that difficult. Not being noticed equaled having more autonomy and independence. But being forgotten about can have its downside.

It’s the paradox of a writer’s life, I guess: you need to want to work alone (I do), and not mind being alone (I don’t)–but you need to connect with others, too (I try). When I’m under the radar, I can get a lot done, but it’s a solitary endeavor–and sometimes it’s easy to feel a bit malheureuse.

La solution?  For me, it’s to notice others, to connect, and to celebrate.

Bon anniversaire!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

“Why can’t WE be friends?”

My husband and I have many things in common, but certainly not everything.*

It’s the same way with most of my friends, and yes, he’s one of them – en fait, he’s my best friend. We believe that being each other’s best friend is not only possible, for us it’s pretty much imperative. Despite our “Mars/Venus” natures, we talk to each other, listen to each other and do things together.

And – we laugh with each other.  Just like friends do.

Being each other’s best friend doesn’t mean we each don’t have other close friends. It also doesn’t mean we always communicate well, or that we always treat each other the way friends we should.

But we do keep trying.

Way back before we knew what we were getting into, we became friends (I kept telling him, “We’re just friends,” but luckily he didn’t take me seriously.) It was the 1970s, and a popular song  was “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by the group WAR. We’ve sung the chorus to each other many times since then:

Why can’t WE be friends?
Why can’t WE be friends?
Why can’t WE be friends?
Why can’t WE – EE be friends?
 
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WAR

 

And we laugh when we do.

We became more than friends, but friendship is still a solid basis for our relationship. We like to hang out with each other. We encourage each other’s interests, whether we share them or not. Yes, we sometimes take each other for granted, criticize and even hurt one another – but we always forgive. We count on each other, and together we’ve faced more than one crisis.

What about other friends? And other family? Friends are people I met, got to know, and with whom I somehow connected – we accepted each other as friends. We talk, we listen, we do things, and we laugh. We don’t criticize, we don’t boss each other around, and we don’t (normally) offer unsolicited advice.

Family members (besides mon mari) can be, well, not exactly like friends. Yes, we met and got to know each other, but we may not have connected as friends. Because we’re related, we’re sometimes together. Hopefully, we accept each other, talk and listen to each other, and maybe we share some laughs. We probably interrupt each other more than friends do, though. Ideally, we don’t criticize or tell each other what to do.

But when things aren’t exactly ideal, I often wonder why we can’t be friends. Why we can’t just treat each other the way friends do.

The answer is, we could if we wanted to – it would be much more fun than WAR.

* Another one of our oft-repeated song lines is from Bob Dylan: “We like the same things. We wear the same clothes.” Well, we don’t anymore…

Encore: “From the Author, and Behind the Scenes”

My friend Rachelle Ayala featured me and MAKE THAT DEUX in her BookChat post of April 9, 2013 in Rachelle’s Window

Two sections in particular offer some insight about why I wrote the novel, and what was going on in my life while I did…

From the Author:

A new world of adventure and romance opened up to me during my junior year of college when I was an exchange student in the south of France. Instead of living with a French family, however, I shared a beach apartment on the Mediterranean Sea with two other American girls, and I left my boyfriend behind in the U.S., unsure of whether our relationship would survive the time apart.

We three girls bought mopeds (mobylettes) to drive to and from our college campus in Montpellier, France, and we spent the year learning French, traveling and doing everything else that college girls do…

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The year we shared made a big impact on me, and the three of us have stayed in touch since, even as our lives have taken different turns. When my children began growing up and moving out, I considered my long-held dream to become a writer. I decided to draw on my memories of my experience in France and write a novel set in the time I was there.

I felt that Jenny – with her innocence, naiveté and idealism (and that of her two roommates) – could be a fresh character in a literary world sometimes crowded with cynicism. While not everyone would identify with the girls’ belief in “The One,” many would relate to Jenny’s feelings dealing with a long-distance relationship, especially when other appealing men enter her life.

Through Jenny’s story, I wanted to show that even (and maybe, especially) for young people on the threshold of adulthood…

…love is possible and important, and that it’s okay not to want to “do life” alone, and to want to go through life with – and to love – another.

Behind the Scenes:

Lots of things happened while I wrote the book…

I got lots of feedback on different drafts of the story from my Writers Critique Group, several beta-readers, and some interested literary agents. I took all their advice to heart and revised the novel many, many times. I connected with one of the readers, who turned out to be the most helpful, through the friend of a friend.

Before I finished the novel, though, I took a break from writing/revising because one of my sons, age 19, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2010. He had two surgeries and 5 weeks of radiation therapy and was able to go back to college as a sophomore that fall. His second surgery was performed at Duke University Hospital by the renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Allan H. Friedman.

My son faced his illness with courage, strength and hope, and cheered me on in my writing. He is now cancer-free and involved with raising funds for cancer research at his university, and he will graduate later this year.

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Just before I published MAKE THAT DEUX, I traveled to France to celebrate a milestone anniversary with my husband. 

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We did a tour of the south of France, visiting Montpellier and Palavas, where I had studied and lived, as well as other lovely spots, then spent several days in Paris. I was thrilled to go back to visit the place where I had spent my year in France and to show it to him.

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When we returned, my mother was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma. She moved in with us and had chemotherapy and radiation last fall, and she shared my excitement about publishing my book. Her cancer responded to treatment and she moved back home (a few miles away). She is now cancer-free.”

photo 2Mom and me at her college reunion in fall 2011

Relationships: être ensemble – “to be together”

An article published today in the Wall Street JournalFind a Man Today, Graduate Tomorrow by Emily Esfahani Smith is sure to spark some discussion.

The author (a member of Generation iY, or maybe just Y – and married) quotes her mother as telling her a few years ago: “You’re in college…There will never be a better time to meet someone…so start looking.”

Like Jenny, the main character in my novel MAKE THAT DEUX, I tend to like people who are direct – as long as they aren’t unkind or insensitive. I also happen to agree with that mom, who’s a member of my generation.

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The Wedding Cake of a bride and groom
who met in college and got married last year
 

I know – declaring that I agree with her may not be wise. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who disagree – or, at least, who find that mom’s instruction advice distasteful  offensive somewhat objectionable. I’m not fond of confrontation…but I think there’s more to college life than academics, and more to life afterward than career, for women – and for men.

In a word, relationships.

I suppose I’m biased, because I met my husband when we were in college. Many of my friends met their husbands years later, either at work or through friends. Some married after going to graduate school, after beginning their careers, or both. I wonder sometimes how difficult it was for them to find the right man.

A few of my friends met their husbands (and got married) younger than I did; I found “The One” – my One – in college. It was (and I’m sure still is) a great place to meet guys, and to get to know them. When your biggest stress is writing a paper or studying for an exam (or both), well, it’s not like having the responsibilities of adult life, even single adult life. Normally, when you’re in college, you have a lot more time available for friendships, fun and dating.

I didn’t set out “looking” for someone when I arrived at college, but I did look for relationships with friends – male and female – and I can’t imagine why young people today would not. You can have your cake and eat it, too relationships and achieve your academic and career goals, too. And sometimes, male friends can develop into something more…one of mine did.

I don’t apologize for finding the love of my life – or for him finding me – in college. Yes, we were both immature, but we matured together. I wanted company, and so did he. Turns out, initially, you’re going to be a rookie at adulthood. You can either do it alone, or do it with someone you love.

Perhaps because I did it with him, ça me fait en colère (it makes me mad) when I sometimes hear others say (self-righteously?) that it isn’t smart to do so… or that (since they did not?) no one should. Jenny in MAKE THAT DEUX (and her friends, and basically, her whole generation) believes that it’s just fine to find that special someone in college.

Pourquoi pas?

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A Pat o’ Butter in a Sea o’ Grits

Growing up in Atlanta in a family where the father did the cooking, I never realized that grits were a southern dish.

My parents were born and raised in southwest Virginia, went to college and got married in Tennessee, and “moved away from there” as young parents, before I came along…to Indiana, Texas, Massachusetts, Missouri and finally, Georgia.

But everywhere they lived, la cuisine chez nous was distinctly southern. Tomato Gravy, or Sausage Gravy, and Buttermilk Biscuits, made from scratch. Apple Butter. Country Ham and Red Eye Gravy. Potato Cakes. Chicken and Dumplings. Cornbread. Sweet Tea. Fried Green Tomatoes. Sweet Potato Casserole. Sometimes, Breakfast for Dinner.

And Grits.

I married a Yankee who had never heard of them, and whose talents as a chef  (later on) rivaled surpassed my father’s. Mon mari grew up in a big family where the mom had a weekly dinner menu: Monday was hamburgers, Tuesday was spaghetti, Wednesday was hot dogs, Thursday was chicken, and Friday was grilled cheese and tomato soup.

So, when he was in college in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and his uncle sent him the cookbook  Fearless Cooking for Men, he decided to learn to cook.

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With simple, tasty recipes, the world of cooking opened up to him. He enjoyed the benefits of making dinner in his dorm room and off-campus apartment: it was cheaper than going out, and convenient on the weekend, with his weekday-only student meal plan.

And it was a great way to a woman’s my heart.

Over the years, he’s evolved into a gourmet chef. His cookbook library has grown to include a variety of cuisines, including all of Julia Child’s recipes – she’s a favorite, and we both love la cuisine française. He’s also become acquainted with southern dishes, and introduced me to “northern” ones and their accoutrements.

Creamed Onions. Turnips. String Beans. “Southern” Fried Chicken (I always thought it was just Fried Chicken, but they add a qualifier.) Corn Fritters. Rolls (in place of biscuits, and store-bought). Ketchup on Scrambled Eggs.

I’ve adopted that last one, and for family birthday meals, “Southern” Fried Chicken and Corn Fritters are a tradition, but at least I don’t put maple syrup on mine. The rest of the above dishes are just, well, not me. At my urging, my husband has tasted grits, but he doesn’t love them and has never cooked them (even though they’re great with butter*).

Which brings me to the title of this post: another name for Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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I didn’t hear the Southern Part of Heaven** described that way until I met him, just after I turned eighteen. But “a pat o’ butter in a sea o’ grits” seemed perfect: if North Carolina (my second favorite state) is the grits, then yes, Chapel Hill is the pat of butter in the middle, dressing it up and making that tasty, buttery difference.

Other than my first Christmas break, the next summer, and ten months in the south of France – the experience on which my novel MAKE THAT DEUX is drawn –  I spent as much time as I could in Chapel Hill between 1977 and 1981. My year in France was wonderful, but the tradeoff was missing a year in Chapel Hill and UNC, the most beautiful college campus in le monde

My daughter just found out she’s been accepted there as a freshman this fall, and she’s thrilled to be a Tar Heel. I’m not sure if she likes grits as much as I do, but I know she’s a big fan of butter.

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* See my post of October 3, 2012: What would Julia do? Faire la cuisine française.

** also known as a little slice of heaven…

Les amis de longue date: old friends, and 5 reasons why I love them

Like many people, I enjoy making new friends. But I love keeping (and seeing) those that I’ve known for a long, long time.*

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Nurturing friendships takes time and effort on both sides. Sometimes, despite our intentions, it’s just not possible à continuer. For different reasons, we move on….and not always because we want to.

We relocate to a different community, city or state. We develop new interests that some of our (old) friends don’t share – so we necessarily spend less time with them. We start new jobs, have more (or different) commitments. And maybe sometimes we move on because we realize that we weren’t that close to begin with.

In my novel MAKE THAT DEUX, three young girls become friends. When their experience as roommates in France is over, they’re sad about it – they don’t want to move on. (A sequel is planned…)

In earlier times, it was difficult to stay connected with friends when I moved somewhere new and started a new chapter in life. Phone calls were expensive, and letters took more time and effort than the short messages we send now. Traveling to visit each other wasn’t easy, even for weddings; on the other hand, they were cheaper easier to attend then than most “destination” mariages of today. But everyone (or at least, I) seemed to have a lot less money back then. So we did what we could.

Happily, I never lost touch with certain old friends. I did with some others, but in recent years, it’s been wonderful to reconnect. Sometimes we’ve discovered that we have more in common now than we did before: we share new (or old) interests, or we just have more time to spend with each other.

Which leads me to the reasons why j’aime les amis de longue date:

1. They “knew me when” – back before either of us had much experience with life and love, and were filled with hopes about the future. We went through some thing(s) together, or at the same time. Somehow that “me” and that “them” haven’t changed all that much, despite our separate joys, trials and sorrows.

2. They’re constant. They’re still around, whether we were always in touch or not. The reasons why we became friends in the first place (usually NOT because our kids are the same age, or that we worked in the same office) are still the reasons why we like to get together.

3. They’re flexible, forgiving, encouraging, accepting and empathetic – all things I try to be, too. No matter what we do separately and no matter what our different interests are (or become), we understand each other. We learn from each other, laugh together and are there for each other when times are tough.

4. They don’t have an “agenda” – we’re friends because we like spending time together. We may have some shared interests (we often do) but we’re friends for more reasons than that. We’re in each other’s network of friends, but we aren’t networking.

5. They care. We’re supportive of each other, and we don’t have to know the details. We want the best for each other, and we’re troubled when the other is sad, unhappy or unwell.

One of my (old) friends often says, “Friends are the family that we choose.” Some of my dearest friends aren’t the oldest ones; I met them sometime more recently along life’s journey. But for inexplicable reasons, we may feel as if we’ve known each other for a long time. We hit it off – we just connect.

I think they’re going to become some of mes amis de longue date.

* Especially my best friend, mon mari – the family that I chose, and who chose me.

Why is that funny? and why le rire (laughter) est important

Impropriety is the soul of wit.

– W. Somerset Maugham

I always thought it was brevity…at least, that’s the saying in our house. But this version put a new twist on how to be witty, something I like my literary characters* to be, even if when I’m not.

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W. Somerset Maugham

William Shakespeare

We all know that humor is important in life: Laughing makes us happy, and even provides health benefits. Being quick-witted is admired, though we don’t have to be quick  – or really smart – to be witty, or witty, to be smart. But looking for humor in life (and finding it) seems necessary and very important. Through it, “joy happens,” I dare say.

Inside jokes aside, I like laughing about things that others laugh about, and I don’t find it fun to laugh at another’s expense. Maybe because I’m a mom, sarcasm is out, too. I prefer the positive side of humor, not the negative. I love it when something unexpected and silly – maybe just a phrase or a word – makes me laugh uncontrollably (and may even bring tears)..and I love it when others join in. Typically, after several minutes – afraid that I’m going off the deep end – one of my kids brings me back to reality (“Okay, Mom, it’s not that funny.”)

So – why is “that” funny? Different people might have different views: some like slapstick humor, and some prefer the sophisticated kind. But there’s a lot in between. Take Carol Burnett, my favorite comedienne: watching her television show in the 1970s, I knew I would always find her funny, and some synonyms of the word “impropriety” remind me of her humor (goof, gaffe, inelegance and faux pas).

When I started dating (later),  if a guy couldn’t make me laugh, I couldn’t stay interested. It wasn’t that he had to crack jokes or never be serious. But he had to not take himself (or life) too seriously – especially since I had have a tendency to do so. Eventually, I found a partner whose sense of humor was the one for me, and it’s been a vital part of our relationship: I don’t know how we could have gotten this far in life together, without it. Fortunately, he doesn’t need me to make him laugh (though I do, at times, which is a bonus), but he still likes to make me laugh.

And usually without too much impropriety…

* for example, Lisa, one of Jenny’s roommates in my new novel MAKE THAT DEUX.

What would Julia do? Faire la cuisine française

Anyone can cook, with butter.

– Anonymous

My husband and I heard that offhand comment a few years ago at a fête — and a new (ironic) family motto was born.

Because, not anyone (such as, well, me) can cook, even with butter — an ingredient that my husband doesn’t fear.* En fait, because he enjoys faire la cuisine (and since I don’t know how), he does the cooking in our home, toujours — every day — an arrangement that works for us, and one that’s never changed. 

(If he doesn’t feel like cooking, we order a pizza, eat leftovers, or go out.)

As you might imagine, some of our his favorite recipes are found in cookbooks written by Julia Child.

If I were Julia Child

So, whenever he tries a new and complicated recipe (which is often) — if it calls for butter (which is quite often) — someone in our family might remark to him that, well, “anyone” can cook with it.

Then, he laughs…and concocts something délicieux. 

I blame my inability to cook on my family growing up: my father did the cooking, so I thought that was normal. Evidemment, it was one of the qualities I looked for in a husband. That, and a sense of humor, patience, and optimism, among others.

But from what I’ve observed, cooking almost requires those three — at a minimum.

In my soon-to-be-available novel, the main character, Jenny, is a girl in college, and in one of my favorite scenes, her date cooks dinner for the two of them at his apartment. I’m not saying whether butter is involved, but wine is — c’est certain. But c’est la France, so c’est necessaire. The evening is a memorable one, but not because of the food. I won’t describe it further here, except in these words: guitar, bathroom, and (full) disclosure.

Jenny has her own list of qualities that the ideal man should possess, and I’m not sure they match my own. Let’s just say, she’s open to persuasion.

I don’t know what Julia would do. But – what will Jenny do? Il faut acheter le roman! (You have to buy the book!)

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