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Handwritten Letters (May 2013)

I am partial to handwritten letters. The kind you scribe on paper or board or photographs, and put in a stamped envelope. The kind you trust to survive the mysterious infrastructure of mail boxes, bags, bins and conveyer belts, sorters and mail carriers, and inclement weather, until it arrives at its destination, with pieces of your heart in tow.

When I was 13 and away at summer camp, Gramma Kenyon wrote me a letter. I remember the morning mail call, when the camp counselor called my name and everyone gathered around to hear the news from home. “Your mom had a baby girl,” Gramma wrote. In her own great way of storytelling, my gramma told all the details about my mom chasing cows from the back garden in the rain the day before. I could hear my gramma’s laugh as her words came to life on the paper and I read them aloud to my new friends. A few days later, when my mom brought my youngest sister, Lori Beth, home from the hospital, my brother, David, decided to run away. He packed his suitcase and got as far as the end of our long street. He didn’t want to be the only brother in a house of three sisters.

My college roommate and I exchanged letters the summer before we met, just before orientation. We wrote about our likes and dislikes, what we could each bring to furnish our dorm room, and our hopes for the future. Our close friendship grew from that first letter, traversing weddings, births, bat mitvahs, late night talks, loves and losses, bowls of ice cream, and many more addresses, stories, and letters.

When I interviewed Sarah Stewart this spring,
she shared wonderful stories about her life
in a handwritten letter to my slow address.

As my Aunt Marion’s children grew up and left the house, she began mailing each of them a letter every Wednesday. She wrote about her “word of the week,” a seemingly random word from the newspaper or a book or a conversation. She wrote the dictionary’s definition, then added her own thoughts about how that word might be used in their life. My cousin Justin keeps his mom’s letters in a box. They are, of course, about more than a word or a life lesson.

Over the course of Bob’s deployments with the Marines, we exchanged more than 800 letters. He taught me to notice and appreciate the smallest details so we could share our days with each other even when we were an ocean apart. One day, those same letters will be a gift for our son to know his dad, who died when he was only three. His dad’s personality will unfold by his own hand, through the neatly printed letters, the humorous drawing of his make-shift oil drum toilet in the desert, his sense of duty and love of his country in his descriptions of the people he served with, his frustration and intelligence surrounding the politics of his situation, and his unwavering love for a certain girl back home.

My memories of my own father include his signature, an image as clear to me as his smile. His drawing of our dog, Skip, is as deeply rooted in my mind as his voice. My dad was a man of few words, but because he hand wrote some of those words for me, I can see him in the loops and slants of his scribbled notes.

About seven weeks before our wedding, Geno and I attended a marriage retreat. One of the exercises was to write each other an impromptu love letter. Geno’s handwritten love note to me is one of my favorite things to read and reread. It is raw and honest and vulnerable and tender.

I’ve seen letters mend friendships, express thanks, forgive the most difficult trespasses, welcome new members of a family, hold grief's hand, and give a gift of unending presence.

This month, I was asked to participate in the Books Make a Difference mom bloghop, to write about the difference books and blogs have made in my life.

But as I considered Meagan’s request, I realized it is the blog’s predecessor, the handwritten letter, that has made a profound difference in my life for as long as I can remember.

I’ll continue to be inspired by books (on my nightstand now: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, a gift in the mail from my friend Jenny; a novel in which, BTW, letters play a key role in the story). I’ll continue to read and write blogs. I’ll continue to send love notes to my husband via text.

But my favorite will always be the handwritten letter. When you write long-hand, your brain slows down in time with your heart, opening it just a little deeper. And it is there, in the midst of that deep-heart handwritten note, I have found love and heartache, friendship and self-discovery.

Yes, I am partial to handwritten letters. And to the people in my life who’ve taken the time to write them.

* * *

A Room Full of Military Spouses (April 2013)

This month, I spent two days at the Military.com Spouse Summit (#milspsum) in Vienna, VA, with military spouses from near and far, all with a single-minded purpose: to help military families. Each person attending had his or her own niche and brought individual talents and perspective to the table. It was inspiring, enlightening, and fun! (Group photo on SpouseBUZZ Facebook).

Look for follow up posts about the event topics on SpouseBUZZ. For those of you who couldn’t be there, I want to introduce you to just a few of the awesome people I had the pleasure of spending time with:

Jacey Eckhart served as master of ceremonies, cranking up the energy. You may know Jacey from her book Homefront Club and radio show, and now as editor of SpouseBUZZ and director of family programs at Military.com. A few years back, Jacey and I worked with TriWest on a deployment DVD for military families. Neither of us liked the TV makeup, but we both loved helping military families. It was great to see her absolutely in her element, leading this great group of change agents.

Sal Giunta and Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito
Sal Giunta was our keynote speaker.

Sal Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient since Vietnam, was our keynote speaker.  Sal is a remarkable person, humble, humorous. The kind of guy you’d love to have a beer with and talk about…well, anything. He is one of the best speakers I’ve heard in a long time. Speaking to a room full of mostly-female spouses—not his usual crowd to talk combat or paratrooping with—could not have been easy. We all loved him! Thank you, Sal, for your heroism and your down-to-earth just-plain-nice-guyism.

My table the first morning hosted great conversations with Lori Wilson, a writer working on a book to help teens make good choices; Kamlyn Jurgensen, managing editor and publisher of Macaroni Kid, a free online weekly newsletter for families; and Alice Swan, a blogger for DCMilitary who wrote this piece about Sal and a few lessons she learned at the summit.

Some of our colleagues were there to remind us to go deeper and wider.

Chris Pape @MachoSpouse said male spouses want to know they aren’t forgotten. Chris is founder and owner of MachoSpouse.com, a video-based resource to support male military spouses. Lori Hensic gave the group a keener awareness of some of the challenges faced by gay partners in the military community. Lori is director of educational affairs for The American Military Partner Association.

Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito and Cameron Allison

Cameron Allison has big ideas for MilitaryTownAdvisor.com.

Cameron Allison @MilTownAdvisor shared ideas with me and Judy Davis at breakfast Friday morning. Cameron recently launched MilitaryTownAdvisor.com, a web site where military families write reviews about local neighborhoods and schools. What a great idea! Think about how many times you move to a new place, wouldn’t it be great to have instant friends who’d give you the real scoop to find what you need?

Judy Davis @JDavis55 is motivation, uplifting motivation! She’s the Direction Diva and I’m excited Elva Resa is working with her on a great new book/workbook for military spouses. Judy blogs, connects, and did I mention motivates?

Buzzing about the place taking photos was Amy Bushatz, @amybushatz managing editor of SpouseBUZZ. Check out SpouseBUZZ for posts by other mil spouses about all kinds of mil life issues. And be sure to attend SpouseBUZZ events in your area – a great way to meet other mil spouses!

Stephanie Taber and Joyce Murphy
Stephanie & Joyce will host a spouse event
in May at Quantico.

Those of you in the Quantico area have a SpouseBUZZ event coming up in May. Joyce Murray, director of Marine Corps Family Team Building at Quantico, won a set of books from MilitaryFamilyBooks.com at the summit. Joyce and her colleague Stephanie Taber will be hosting the May MCFTB event.

Several businesses and organizations attended and sponsored the summit. USAA gave away a $100 VISA card and a diamond necklace.

Christine Gallagher, government relations deputy director at National Military Family Association, shared what NMFA has been up to. If you aren’t a member, you should be. This org advocates for mil families and brings you awesome news and programs, such as Operation Purple Camps.

Jennifer Pilcher, founder/CEO at MilitaryOneClick, shared an entertaining video of our deployed guys performing a music video “Call Me Maybe” to reinforce the importance of staying connected.

New to the area and need a babysitter? Lauren Tarasewicz, military program manager at Sittercity reminded us Sittercity finds just the right caregiver for your needs. The DoD funds memberships for Army, Marine, Navy, and Air Force families, including active duty, Reserve, and Guard.

And how about a place for servicewomen to renew and find support to overcome depression, trauma, PTSD, and similar challenges? Living Springs at Lourdes in Willingboro, NJ, offers this special place.

Lots of great services represented.

There were many other writers, too. Briana Hartzell writes for USAA Military Spouse Community and Wendy Poling writes for USAA and MyMilitaryLife.com.

Kristin Henderson, widely-known for her journalism, shared her work with the awesome Yellow Ribbon Fund for our injured service members and families.

My final working lunch table had a powerhouse lineup, including two fast friends I had the chance to spend quality time with: Holly Scherer, coauthor of Help! I’m a Military Spouseand 1001 Things to Love About Military Life, and Terri Barnes, @SpouseCalls, Stars and Stripes Spouse Calls” columnist. I'm looking forward to fun projects ahead with Holly and Terri. We were joined, among others, by Rachel Tice of The Major Group. I was really impressed with Rachel’s bright perspective and genuine desire to make the path easier for others.

One the things we know about military life: military spouses make friends to last a lifetime. And even when folks move on into civilian life, they still care, still reach out.

Holly Scherer, Jacey Eckhart, Terri Barnes, Judy Davis, Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito, Chris Pape

This group of authors (Holly Scherer, Jacey Eckhart, Terri Barnes, Judy Davis, me-Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito, Chris Pape) without hesitation agreed to be part of a special book for military spouses. How cool would it be to go to lunch with folks like this who’ve been around the block in Militaryville? What questions would you ask? Who else would you invite to lunch? We want to know!

Send us an email: lunch@militaryfamilylife.com. Tell us who you want to have lunch with and what you’d like to know. We’ll be inviting others to join the conversation, so stay tuned.

Throughout the Spouse Summit we heard over and over, how great it was to connect. So get out, connect with one more person. Before you know it, you’ll have a room full of people who care. Maybe you’ll call it a summit. Maybe you’ll call it lunch with friends. And if you don’t where to start, reach out to someone on this post!

* * *

Change of Season (March 2013)

The first day of spring in Minnesota, we awoke to a 7-degree day, -11 with wind chill. We still had 3 feet of snow in our yard. Spring seemed far away. As the snow ever so slowly melts, I’m reminded that a change of season is not always easy. We like to forget about the ugly yet natural steps in the transition.

Spring conjures images of daffodils, dandelions, tulips, and warm breezy days. But spring is also mud and dirty piles of lingering snow. Rabbit poop, uprooted trunks, and other emerging evidence of what all those critters were doing in our yard over winter.

We put away shovels and trudge through the late snow storms—having faith it will melt soon enough. We wait for the ground to thaw and the sloppy muck to soak in and dry between raindrops. We plant seeds in the bareness. Gather up still more of last fall’s leaves and look for signs of green among the beds. The air smells of wet past mixed with fresh hope.

It’s a brief moment when the only thing visibly growing is the home improvement project list.

On our list this year is replacing our trees (Imprelis damage) and windows. In the mornings, I love to listen to the chorus of birds in our trees. The structural shift in our windows lets the sound in loud and clear. My husband complains about the noise waking him up, and I smile and hope the birds will still come say good morning when the old trees are gone.

I’ve noticed several spring blog posts sprouting up with colorful flowers from our southern friends and bright spring outfits and fabrics from more style-conscious bloggers. I might have to buy some Wellies, Chooka, or Nomad Monet rain boots to brighten up my photos. But here is my first real look at spring.

The robins have found good things in our yard, perhaps remnants of grubs or whatever the voles seemed to like. I'm happy they savor something in the mess.

Spring will eventually bring flowers. For now, spring means cleaning up. Starting new. Letting seeds germinate.

One of the books I’m writing is about seasons. Not so much winter to spring, but other transitions of life. Relationships. Growing old. Seasons of the heart.

Planting hope. Finding faith. Growing love.

What’s in your heart this season?

* * *

Ten Years (February 2013)

Ten years ago today, my husband Bob died of cancer. We call it his heaven birthday.

Bob loved to hike in the mountains. When our son, Alexander, turned 10, my sister Lori and I took him on his first big hiking trip. He had spent a couple years reading about national parks and planning where he wanted to begin his mountain climbing adventures. He wanted to be just like his dad, high up in the peaks. Alexander chose age 10 to begin his hiking quest, because in his words, that’s when he would be a good listener and not fall off the mountain. Turning 10 was a big deal.


Alexander chose Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park
for his first mountain hiking adventure
.

This week, Alexander (now 13) sent an email to a few family and friends who knew his dad, reminding them his dad was turning 10 in heaven. “Turning 10 is a big deal,” he wrote. Then he invited them to “sign” his birthday card with “a favorite memory, something you especially miss about him, or just say hi.”

Alexander’s email request got passed along and letters started pouring in. High school and college friends, Marine Corps buddies, nephews and nieces, coworkers – people from throughout Bob’s life told favorite stories and gave a glimpse of Bob’s unique personality and the mark he left on their lives.

As we read through the emails, I realized what an amazing gift this is for Alexander, to get to know his dad in this way—through the stories of so many people who knew and loved his dad. I especially enjoy watching Alexander realize how much others can see his dad in his own personality.

This month, I participated in a couple retreats. Each one had an element of reflecting on how a person’s talents, passions, and life experiences come together to form your purpose in life. One of the exercises was to reflect on your life in 7- or 10-year increments, identifying key life-changing moments, transitions, times of challenge and growth. And to think about ways those experiences have shaped your decisions and who you’ve become today.

Obviously, losing my best friend, becoming a widow and single mom was on the list of life-changing moments! In fact, it was the catalyst for almost everything I’ve done—as a writer, business owner, mom, and woman—in the ten years since that moment. As I went through the retreat process, I thought about my life the past 10 years and all the ways Bob’s life and death influenced my choices.  For example, I created a CD to help those who are grieving, wrote a story about having faith through life’s changes, gave inspirational talks about ways my 10-year growth spurt affected more than my waistline. So many things came about because of the immense love I shared with Bob before he died, how much I missed him, and how grateful I am for all God has allowed me to do with both the love and the loss.

Even though I believe Bob already knows what’s in my heart, I also believe it’s always nice to get birthday wishes “in the mail” so, Alexander, here’s my note to add to your dad’s card…

Dear Bob,
I’m not sure what birthdays are like in heaven. I imagine by now you’ve moved to the front of the class (due to both your smarts and your smart ass remarks), taken on special assignments, met with other friends and family who’ve come through the gate (as well as made friends with everyone else on your cloud), and otherwise made all those souls laugh and see the awesomeness of your new view of the world.

Our son is now a teenager. He is smart and loves to tell stories, just like you. He has great dreams to transform this world. I know you are with him. I can see you in his smile, his choices, the way he seizes the day. You’re in his sense of service, love of God, and fearless dancing.

Your family is our family. I love them all dearly. You’re a great-uncle many times over. You would be so proud of how your nieces and nephews have grown up and the influence Uncle Bob continues to have on them as they choose their own paths and raise their own children.

Your friends have checked in and watched over us and become our friends. They still tell your stories—with laughter and heartache. You would love Facebook.

Me? Well, as you know, I spent the first few years keeping busy, finding ways to turn your “heaven birthday” into some sort of positive in our lives. There have been accomplishments and changes and new relationships.

I turned 40. Gained 30 pounds, lost 25, gained 10 more. Finally gave in to reading glasses.

The house was struck by lightning. I was attacked by a swarm of yellowjackets. Replaced the furnace. Painted the kitchen brighter. Said goodbye to both our dads, who joined you in the next place.

I helped grow a company that’s delivered more than 100,000 books to military families. Started a foundation and raised several thousand dollars for cancer research. Published 8 books, released 14 songs. I’m learning to appreciate country music (I know, right?). Even recorded in Nashville.

Traveled to 22 more states and explored new countries. Hiked a few more mountains.

I’m trying to do my best to take our experience and not waste any of it. As a writer, I’ve learned that great stories need the peaks and valleys of life, as well as eyes and hearts open to surprises all along the journey.

I still see you in the mountains, hear you in just the right songs, marvel at our son’s wise old soul and all the ways he keeps your spirit alive just by being himself.

Our awesome marriage encouraged me to find love again. I try to remember to call you my first husband now, because now when I say “my husband” that belongs to Geno. You would like him. I have a feeling you had something to do with our meeting. I’m learning to be a stepmom.

The past ten years without you here have been a remarkable journey. I’m thankful for all you taught me and everything we shared.  I’ve missed you, yet you’ve been a part of it all in a different way. And I could never have traveled this journey if you hadn’t left to go climb your next mountain. I hope your journey has been great, too. I look forward to hearing your stories about it someday.

I know that life is all about perspective. You showed me that from the tops of mountains, the trunks of 100-year-old trees, and many shores around the world.

You taught me that life is not just about the milestones, but all the moments in between.

Happy 10th heaven birthday.
AML, k

* * *

Memorable Gifts (January 2013)

The holiday decorations are (mostly) put away. Dinner conversation has changed from what friends got for Christmas and Hanukah to the next sporting event and a new semester of classes. Talk of New Year’s resolutions has faded. We are well on our way into 2013.

When we were considering gifts in December, I thought about some of my more memorable gifts. When we were kids, my brother David bought me a piece of wood with dried flowers on it. It cost him less than $1 at Santa’s Workshop, the seasonal kids’ gift shop at our Catholic elementary school. I loved it. I suppose because David had picked it out himself, just for me. Today, it has lost some flowers through many moves, but it still hangs in my bathroom where I see it every day and think of my brother.

Kids often come up with the best sentimental gifts. When my son was in Kindergarten, he went shopping with my mom and picked out a fish mobile. He said he just had to get it for me to remind me every day of PaPop, my dad. It hangs in our kitchen and each morning when I open the curtains, the mobile chimes and PaPop says hello from his fishing spot in heaven.

One year, my mom and my sister Tammy gave me a personal shopper for Christmas. The woman assessed my closet, went shopping, and came back with jeans, tops, fashionable boots, and handbags. Everything fit and coordinated. What’s not to love about that?

The necklace I usually wear is a gift from my sister Lori. Long after the adults stopped buying gifts for each other, Lori surprised me with a necklace that says, “A sister is someone to laugh, sing, dance, and cry with.” I live far away from both of my sisters. But each day when I put on my necklace, I feel just a little bit closer.

I asked my husband what gift he remembers as special. Without hesitation, he told me about when he was 19 and his dad gave him a hunting gun of his own, a gift of independence.

I wanted to give our kids memorable gifts this year. We opted for experience gifts. When we were in Alaska, the kids had enjoyed meeting Iditarod dogs and taking a quick tourist sled ride. So for Christmas we gave them the gift of two hours with a professional musher and a team of eager sled dogs for a real dogsled ride. The kids took care of getting the dogs ready and each took a turn driving the sled around the frozen bay. Very cool.

Shopping for my husband this year turned out to be a good memory gift, too. Geno needed a new carry-on suitcase. He also has an insatiable sweet tooth, so one of the kids suggested we fill the suitcase with candy. I pushed the cart in Walmart and the kids loaded 57 pounds of brightly-colored sugar and corn syrup. As Malaina pulled five bags off the rack at once and tossed them onto the growing pile, she said, “This is SO fun! I’ve always wanted to do this!”

We selected a clerk who looked like she would enjoy this adventure and loaded the candy onto the checkout belt. A young boy, who was about the same height as the conveyor, looked up with big eyes and said, “That’s a LOT of candy!” Yes, it was.

At home, we stuffed Snickers and Gobstoppers and all the rest into every pocket and compartment in the suitcase and had to repack a few things to get it all to fit. I think this is one gift Geno --and the kids-- will remember for a while!

May your new year be filled with memorable gifts –and great stories.

* * *

Practicing Gratefulness (November 2012)

Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts, writes “the well of joy is always there…we have to choose to see it.” She adds that intentional gratitude reminds us of the blessings that help us see joy.

Jean Davidson, life coach, says “we see what we look for.”

So does this mean all we have to do is look for our blessings, give thanks, and joy is there? I’ve been contemplating that thought throughout November. I’ve watched family and friends on Twitter and Facebook accept a challenge to post one thing they’re grateful for each day in November.

Voskamp accepted a challenge to list 1000 blessings. #119: Still warm cookies. #243: Clean sheets smelling like wind. #783: Forgiveness of a sister. She sees the blessings, is thankful, and works on not forgetting them in times of piled-high laundry and forgotten homework.

In the first months of dating my husband, I gave him a list of 100 things I love about him. #10: You smell good. #24: You love your mom. #36. You don't just dream about going places. You go. You bring people you love with you. #47: You shop sales and freeze meat. For our first wedding anniversary this month, I added to the list. #101: I love your name. Thanks for sharing it. #105: I love the sound of your voice. Thanks for reading aloud to me, softly telling me what’s on your mind in dark sleepy hours, and saying I love you out loud, every day.

What if we practiced gratefulness every day? Not just for 30 days in November. For 365 days. Would it make a difference? If the first thing each morning we said thanks and at the end of each day we wrote down one more thing we’re grateful for…

It’s interesting to me that November is the time we choose to remember to be thankful. It’s a transition month for those of us in colder climates. An in-between place. Geno and I used the idea of seasons and transition in our wedding last November. The pastor greeted everyone and explained that on that day we were bringing both our hopes and our histories. It was a special time of transition that Thanksgiving weekend, past the color of fall and not yet to the heart of winter. A time of thankfulness for our blessings, a time to celebrate with family and close friends, a time of honoring the lingering color of our recent past and preparing for the next season of our lives together. One stop on a lifelong journey. One moment of transition from season to season. A time for joy.

In moments of joyful transition, it is easy to see blessings. But what about when we’re caught in muck? Can we be thankful for storms named Sandy? For a lost job, destroyed home, friend’s cancer? When we find ourselves in a darker transition of rebuilding a home, a heart, a family, is it really just a matter of seeing grace in the moment? Is it the dark that helps us appreciate the light?

I think a list of gifts won’t solve the challenges. But maybe it’s not meant to. Maybe looking for blessings to count simply gives us enough strength to feel compassion, enough patience to forgive, enough energy to laugh, enough perspective to see the joy.

sky

I’m three days into my challenge of 1000 blessings. #11: Chocolate. #16: Artistic skies. #34: Faith. #42: Just the right song on the radio. #63: People who read what I write.

* * *

Would You Revise Your Own Life Script? (October 2012)

Pastor Zach posed an interesting question this week: What if we could see the script of our child’s life before he was born and God gave us five minutes to erase or make changes? Would we take out the bad stuff? Would we protect our child from an illness or accident or hurtful relationship?

The challenge, of course, is that if you change one thing, it changes everything after that. Life’s struggles are a meaningful part of becoming our best selves. Without those experiences, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to grow from them. If left to us, we probably wouldn’t choose to write into the script the difficult or painful situations. But facing adversity is part of what helps us become the person God wants us to be. Our experience can then also help someone else we meet down the road.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting artist David Small. David’s painful life journey inspired his critically-acclaimed graphic novel Stitches. The scene that has stayed on my mind is one of David as a child sitting on the floor with paper and crayons in front of him. He rests his head on the paper and begins to literally sink into the paper through the floor, burrowing himself head first into a world he created, to escape the world he lived in. Creating his autobiography in graphic form, years after that childhood moment, helped David deal with and heal from his horrid, abusive past.

Author Sarah Stewart says our real life experiences are what inspire writers' stories.

David’s sweet wife, author Sarah Stewart, shared a story about the real-life Mexican woman who inspired her latest picture book, The Quiet Place. Sarah said that all writers draw from their own life experience (including the people they meet along the way) to write their stories. This has certainly been true for me. Every book or song I’ve written has been based in some part on my own life experience or that of the people around me. And each one has brought some form of healing—to me or another.

When I write fiction, I have a hard time giving my characters obstacles to overcome—I’m too eager for the happy ending. But I know Oz is much brighter after you make it through the Dark Forest.

Blessings often grow out of dark places.

So this month, as colored leaves drop to the ground signaling another change of season, I’ve been thinking about life scripts. In the past three weeks, three people in my life—two friends and an aunt—died. Another friend separated from her husband after 24 years of marriage. Still another is battling depression. Would I change their story? If my first husband hadn’t died, we might have celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary this month. But if he had lived, I wouldn’t be celebrating my first wedding anniversary with Geno next month.

We don’t always agree with the script as it’s playing out. And many, many times, we ask for the ability to revise it.

If given the chance, would you revise your own life script? Would the new version be as interesting?

* * *

Balance (September 2012)

On most Wednesday mornings, I spend an hour with Hope learning to balance. I stand barefoot on my yoga mat, facing a mirror with a familiar set of faces as we bend and flow in tai chi, pilates, and yoga moves, and for just a moment forget about everything else that's going on in our lives. I love that my instructor's name is Hope. I love that this takes place smack in the middle of my week. The experience is literally and symbolically a balancing act.

Today is Saturday and, in a rare alignment of the planets, I have the whole day and house to myself. This is both a covetable blessing and an interesting dilemma. The list is long. What should I do with my day?

I could have slept in. Except I woke up at 4 a.m. and realized no one was here to care if I turned on the lights and started my day. My one. Whole. Day. To myself.

I could have gone out to eat. But then I realized I could snack on leftovers all day long. I love leftovers. I don't complain about leftovers. And I have no place I need to be, so I can eat the leftovers at any time, one bite at a time if I want to, right out of the container, while still wearing pajamas, or not.

The house needs cleaning and the lawn needs to be mowed, but I can’t spend a me-day on those things because I finally dropped the magic wand. For a while, my family thought the laundry, groceries, cleaning, and so on all happened by magic. Actually, my husband thought we were really clean people and our bathroom never got dirty. HA. No, I think I need to not do as good a job with the magic wand so others can feel a sense of contribution. Yes, that's it. I want them to all feel like they are needed, too.

Books Make a Difference

A new online magazine celebrating books, their creators and fans, and the difference they make in people's lives.

It's tempting to work. I love my job. And there’s always something really interesting to do in my office. I've taken on a new role this month—which is a crazy, not-so-balanced decision because I don’t have any more hats I can wear in a week. But despite the workload, I couldn’t turn it down. It’s too fun to leave behind. I’m so excited to be the publisher of a new online magazine called Books Make A Difference. I get to work with writers like Meagan Frank and Diane Silcox-Jarrett. It’s wonderful to put my years of magazine management and book publishing together in this exciting project. There’s so much to do before our first issue launch, so in between snacks today I’ll be jotting down ideas.

When I first started writing this September blog, I was riding in the truck with my family on the way home from building a deer stand. The girls thought I should write about One Direction, the latest boy band sensation. Everything in the girls’ world at the moment comes back to being a “directioner.” They know every little detail about Zayn, Niall, Harry, Louis, and Liam: the boys’ favorite colors, their girlfriends’ workout routines, when the next song will be released. Malaina suggested since September is back-to-school month, I write about learning. She gave me a list of her favorite songs to listen to so I can learn how to write songs for One Direction.

I could catch up on my reading. On my nightstand:  White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What’s Missing by Katie Haegele (a quirky find); 15 Seconds by Andrew Gross (I was intrigued by how Andrew came up with the idea for this story); and Boundaries with Teens: When to Say Yes, How to Say No by John Townsend (need I say more?). At least one of these will make it with me to the back deck this evening. Hope would call this breathing in.

I need to spend time on the back deck, enjoying our trees before they go. They are dying from Imprelis damage and I’m so sad to see them leave. All the little critters and birdies love our trees. Me too.

Before the deck, I’ll be catching up with an old friend. Always a good choice for a me-day. Good friends inspire balance.

But mostly…. Since I’m just me today, no kids to taxi, no junior high math to figure out, no dinner to prepare, no coworkers expecting a response this weekend…

I think I’ll write. Writers need to write. We need a place to capture all the learnings from all our other hats and lists and experiences. We need a way to make good stuff from the leftovers. Hope says breathing out is as important as breathing in.

And I have one whole day to myself. To breathe. To balance. To write!

* * *

Famous Moments (August 2012)

Many writers dream of fame. It looks so glamorous, doesn't it? Your pen name larger and more important than the book title. New York Times Best Seller printed on the paperback cover. Six figure advances on books you haven't written yet from publishers your mom has heard of.

Soon-to-be-famous cousins back in 2003: Kim Johnson, Paula Price, (Paula's husband) Joey Naber and Karen

One of my first book signings, years ago, was at a family reunion (I have an extra-large extended family). Two of my cousins, Paula Price and Kim Johnson, were also on a soon-to-be-famous path. I remember them being more seasoned in the celebrity realm, so they gave me tips on what to write when I sign books. The three of us made a pact that whichever of us became famous first—which we vaguely defined as being on Oprah—that person would take the others out for dinner.

Well, Oprah is no longer the mile post. Our kids recently recorded themselves dancing to a favorite song, with a plan to post the video on YouTube. Why? To become famous. I forgot to ask them how many views you need before it's time to get a bodyguard.

I suppose part of the lure of fame is the connection we feel as fans.

As a former volleyball player, with friends who still play pro and semi-pro, I have admirable appreciation for Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor. As the duo won their third Olympic Gold in women’s beach volleyball, I cheered with the rest of their fans for their famous moment in the sand.

One of my favorite books to read with my son was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. J.K. Rowling has a fantastic imagination and it’s really impressive how she threaded so many little details into a seven-book series. Her personal rags-to-riches story is in part thanks to indie booksellers who believe in magic. But aside from her now household name, I think it’s especially cool that a word she completely made up became so commonly used it was added to the dictionary. Yes, the word muggle (a person with no magical powers) was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So what about my famous moments? Well, earlier this summer, a young girl followed me around in JC Penney. Finally, her mom came up to me in the shoe section and said hello. She explained that Zoey was being shy but she wanted me to know she liked my book. She had checked it out and read it five times.

Today I brought my 13-year-old to his volunteer job. A man in the office said hello to Alexander, then looked at me and said, “You must be the famous author. Your son speaks very highly of you. You should be proud.”

I might not have an Olympic gold medal or a word I made up in the dictionary, but I’ll take that kind of famous moment any day. Paula and Kim, dinner's at 6.

* * *

Independence (July 2012)

Being that it's July, I've been thinking lately about independence. Not so much about independence of a country as celebrated in the US with all our fireworks displays. But independence as a person. I greatly value my independence. For example, I'm grateful to be a healthy person. Most of us have some health challenge to deal with, mine being Celiac. I'll take that over blindness or a physical disability that limits personal independence.

As we grow up and grow older, we all deal with independence issues. In early June, I had the pleasure of flying to Florida with my 13-year-old son, Alexander, to visit Granny for her 87th birthday. When we returned home, Granny sent us a handwritten letter thanking us for visiting and for taking her to the Post Office. She said what she misses most about being young is her independence. While she still lives alone in her house and lives fairly independently, she has to rely on other people to drive her where she wants to go.

Our kids are 13, 12, and 11. So we have just a few hormones in our home pushing for independence, too. I'm starting to get used to having Alexander in the front passenger seat of the car. The other day he looked deep in thought as we were driving across town. I asked him what he was thinking about. He said, "Mom, that's a hard question to answer." He explained that he could tell me what he was thinking at the moment I asked, but the real answer involved many thoughts before and after that one. According to Alexander, we humans generate more thoughts than there are people in the world. "And," he said, "all our thoughts are connected like a big long string." He thought I should try it in my next blog-- to start by telling what's on my mind (independence) but to include all the other thoughts on the string. So here goes...

Great group of kids at the library for storytime.
Socialization is an important part of Husky training.
It's the small things that make the trip storybook. Malaina had two loose teeth come out in Alaska, one at a restaurant. They gave us a salsa cup to put it in but we forgot it on the table. We went back later & Darren offered to dumpster dive to find it. He put it in this bag for us to pick up.

Last month, I unintentionally hurt my good friend Julie's feelings and made her bad week worse. Her friendship is really important to me. She forgave me and being the kind person she is, she sent me a card in the mail with two polar bears hugging. The card came just before our family left for the land of polar bears--Alaska. We flew into Fairbanks (where, BTW, Julie was born) and started our vacation at the Goldpanners midnight sun baseball game.

Our trip was a mix of fun, work, and fun work. In Anchorage, I was honored to read and give away some children's books (including one of Julie's books) at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Library storytime. The event was hosted by Blue Star Families Books on Bases, a program originally set up to help improve literacy rates among high-risk military children. I can't imagine not being able to read.

Alexander loves to read. Ciana avoids it at all costs. In a pleasant surprise, all three of our kids decided to read aloud together Iditarod champion Jeff King's book after visiting his kennel. (The reading episode was one of the peaceful moments for the five of us in our one-bedroom, one-bath Denali cabin!)

The Husky Homestead kennel tour was our dog-lover Malaina's favorite part of the trip. They hand you puppies as you get off the shuttle bus. What's not to love about that! Dogs turned out to be the happiest and saddest moments. While we were on vacation, my brother had to put down his dog, Jake, who was born about the same time as Alexander. My niece's text subject read simply :( and brought me to tears.

Telling stories in honor of Jake reminded me of my childhood dog, Skip. And that reminded me of riding in the car with my parents and fighting in the back seat with my brother. We didn't have iPods back then to distract us.

While Geno and I admired the scenery on the drive from Denali to Seward, billed as one of the most beautiful drives in America, our three kids were in the back playing on their iPods. Every now and then they looked out the windows, but all the mountains seemed to look the same to them. At our destination, they enjoyed glacieritas (kiddie margaritas made with calved glacier ice the crew pulled in from Holgate Glacier) on the boat in Kenai Fjords. We learned it's not always the big scenes, but the small details that get retold in stories about their travels.

Our kids are well-traveled in part because we love to travel, to visit friends in other lands, see God's great scenery, learn more about other lifestyles, and expand our work and play. Today, I brought Alexander to the airport for his first solo flight with no paid airline assistant watching over him. He's flying on his own adult ticket to New York and navigating the airports unaccompanied, texting me at each milestone. (Grandma will be on the other end waiting for him.)

I guess we're both growing up, growing older, and enjoying some independence.

* * *

Where Does Your Story Begin? (June 2012)

Good storytellers know where to begin telling a story. The first line, first paragraph, first page draws us in, makes us care, lures us into the rest of the story. Where does your story begin?

I had the pleasure recently of reading my friend Julie's draft of her first children's novel.  She has a nice voice, but the story started slowly, with lots of backstory. I suggested she cut the whole first chapter and start the book with chapter two. That was the real beginning of the life-changing event for her coming-of-age character.

My friend Meagan is writing a magazine feature about an illustrator, Lori. There are so many qualities about Lori that would make a good story, Meagan wasn't sure where to begin. A few days after the interview, she shared her notes and what stuck in both our minds was a scene in which Lori was in the hospital waiting room getting ready to have surgery on her heart aneurysm. Lori took out her sketch book and began to draw. We both knew this was the scene that would shed light on Lori as a person, a passionate artist, a survivor. It was a pivotal, life-changing moment in which her art gave her strength.

This week, several stories came into our home, by phone, email, Facebook; some tragic, others rejoicing. Among them: Cousin Carmin, age 27 and mother of two, hung herself in her mom's backyard. Lauren, one of the "good kids" I've known since she was 3, was arrested for DUI and spent a night in jail. Judy, friends since high school, impressively won the gold in the USA Volleyball Adult National Tournament, for the bazillionth time.

All of these have a story behind them and in front of them, intertwined with other stories. When Lauren's mom told us her story, she said, "She spent the night in jail with a hooker and a heroin addict." Her mom wanted to know if I had words of wisdom to share. This was not a smooth transition from teen to adult. As one of the Aunties in Lauren's life, I said I was thankful no one was hurt. That's always my fear with a DUI situation. I know Lauren would never purposely hurt someone, so that was the wisdom that came to mind -- her choices aren't all about her anymore. When she chooses to drive after a drink, she is choosing to possibly hurt (or worse) someone else. Maybe part of her learning in this is to recognize that it's not all about her, the inconvenience of not having a license now, etc. It's also about her responsibility as a citizen, a human being, a driver on the road with moms and kids in the other cars who trust her to make good choices.

That was my response as an Auntie, concerned about Lauren. As a storyteller, I wondered why God wanted to bring Lauren to the "hooker and heroin addict." Maybe they needed a Lauren. We never really know how that works. This is their story, too. What was the conversation like that night between the three of them? Lauren is probably wishing she could change that night, go back in time and not drink and drive, not lose her license, not spend the night in jail, not have to tell her mom and dad what happened. But the thing about our stories is that if we change just one thing, it changes everything. It changes who we are, who we've become, what we've learned. It changes all the other stories ours is intertwined with.

Good storytellers know where to begin telling the story so we'll want to know more. But no matter where the story begins, one person's story can't stand alone. Each story is part of another. How will Carmin's mom ever go in her backyard again? Will Carmin's young boys' stories begin with their mom's death, or will that be backstory, cut from chapter one, and revealed in later pages?

In real life and in books, we all want our stories to be read, listened to, cared about. If you're reading this, then your story and mine are intertwined. Where does your story begin?

* * *

Wisdom (May 2012)

My son became a teenager a couple weeks ago. The transformation took place over time, but it sure seems like it happened overnight. I wanted to do something meaningful for this milestone. So I looked up “gifts for boys, 13th birthday” on the Internet and one idea, deep down in a stream of listserv messages, stuck out: share wisdom.

I believe in the saying “it takes a village to raise a child,” so I sent an email to a long list of people who have been involved in Alexander’s life. I asked them to share what they wish they had known as a teenager. I wasn’t sure what kind of answers I would get or what I would do with them when I received them. The response was inspiring. Teachers, neighbors, scout leaders, coaches, faith leaders, family, friends… all shared wonderful nuggets of wisdom from their own life experience.

I bought an 8x8 scrapbook. For each person who responded, I created a page with their words of wisdom and a photo of them with Alexander. I included photos from all different ages throughout his life so far. Some people wrote him letters. Others included advice for the teen years and beyond. Some messages were funny. Others profound. It was a great mix and I could not have made up anything like it on my own. Page by page, the book filled up with personality and love from all sorts of people. The message to Alexander was clear: “You are well loved. All of these people care about you and want the best for you.”

In the midst of colorful pages, personal messages, fun photos…here are just a few of the many reminders shared: PLAY a little every day. BE TRUE to yourself. ACCEPT others for who they are. How you handle success and winning is easy and mostly fun, but how you RESPOND to ADVERSITY defines you. Your BEST EFFORT is something to be proud of no matter where it places you at the finish line. Bring a POSITIVE ENERGY to each day. RESPECT your mother. THINK before you speak. LAUGH. Say PLEASE and THANK YOU. Make a DIFFERENCE. Keep your FAITH. Have a COMPASSIONATE heart. I wish I had known my peers FELT THE SAME WAY I did. Never be afraid to LEAD or too proud to FOLLOW. Choose your FRIENDS well. LOVE your family. Trust your own GOOD INSTINCTS. Stand up for what you BELIEVE in. WORK HARD and create your own luck. Know that GOD LOVES YOU. Remember, there’s a reason pencils have ERASERS. Keep your HEART OPEN to the LOVE and WISDOM God shares through all the different people you meet along your journey.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all received little wisdom books as we grow? Reminders of new ways to think about a situation, messages of hope and encouragement, shared experience without always learning it the hard way. Photos of people who care about us right there on the page with us. Personally and professionally.

We don’t often receive a formal invitation to share wisdom, as in the case of Alexander’s gift. But we all have the option to share our wisdom with others and to be open to the wisdom others share with us.

One of my friends leads a business workshop and one of the activities is to create a professional timeline. Along the timeline, you write your jobs and major life experiences. Under each of those, you write the name of someone who had an influence on your life during that time— a boss, coworker, neighbor, mentor, etc. Then you write down something you learned from that person. Before you know it, your timeline is filled with the wisdom shared by various people throughout your life.

Sometimes we aren’t aware of the impact our sharing has on others until they point it out. This month, I’m receiving feedback from military families for the new edition of Surviving Deployment. I’m hoping to cull bits of wisdom from their recent experience to share with other families. One young wife from North Carolina has gone through deployments with her Army Special Forces husband and their three children. She wrote me an email last week about her initial reaction to the book: “I only read a few pages last night and was already in tears. I’m not someone that cries much but I’m realizing that my emotions from deployments and military life remain fresh and unexplored. In the process of me helping you, unknowingly you will be helping me.”

We all have questions. We all have answers to someone else’s questions. By sharing what we know, we might end up helping ourselves, too.

I have lots of questions. About being a stepmom. About marketing books. About organizing my office in a pattern other than piles. About dinner menus that all five of us can get excited about. About raising teenagers. About iPods and tweets and the best new sneakers for my aching feet. I could go to any of the millions of web sites out there to find out more. But I think instead I’ll go for a walk with someone in my life right now. As I learned from my new teenager, there is a village out there of people on my journey who have wisdom to share.

Share your wisdom. And open your heart to the people in your life. Little books of wisdom aren’t just for teenagers.

* * *

Heroes (April 2012)

Last month I had the privilege of working with author Nancy Polette on her latest book, The Spy with the Wooden Leg: The Story of Virginia Hall. I had not previously known the story of Virginia Hall. I learned a lot about the Resistance effort in World War II and this extraordinary woman who helped change the course of history. It got me thinking about heroes.

All good stories have some sort of hero. Writers spend endless hours developing believable protagonists. There are lists throughout the Internet extolling the virtues of a good protagonist. Writer Jeff Goins says a hero is unexpected, unknown, and ordinary, who shows up at the eleventh hour to fight for others. Antonio del Drago adds couragous, skilled, sacrificial, motivated, destined, and wounded to the list. Norman Mailer says being a hero requires you to be prepared to deal with forces larger than yourself. Aparna Jadhav believes heroes must have perseverance, valor, selflessness, and humility. And Robert Bruce adds that a hero is decisive, helpful, and determined to do what is right. That’s a lot for a writer to put into one character!

When I write, I usually try to think of real people I know. I think about their flaws, special skills, challenges they’ve faced, opportunities they’ve had to become heroes. I think about what these ordinary people do in their ordinary days and what happens to them when something out of the ordinary steps in front of them.

I am fortunate to meet many heroes in my work. I’m currently working on the second edition of Surviving Deployment: A guide for military families. I sent out a request for volunteers to share new stories and provide feedback to ensure the content’s helpfulness to today’s military families. The response was overwhelming. I received hundreds of emails from service members, vets, spouses, and parents—ranging from a mom of four soldiers to a couple on their fifth deployment to a young wife about to have their first child any day now. It would take much more than a blog post (in fact, it will take a book!) to write about all the amazing everyday heroes I have the privilege of getting to know over the next few months. One Army spouse of 12 years, Amy C, had read the book’s first edition nine years ago. She wrote: “Thank you for soliciting the feedback of your readership. I'm sure after more than a decade of combat deployments, so many spouses and family members feel they could write a book on deployment, but your approach has already helped an untold number of families.” In my reply I thanked her for the kind words and said, “My readers are my heroes.” I truly believe that. Our service members are willing to put their own lives in danger to protect our freedoms. Their families are willing to endure separations and all the challenges of military life to support that heroic effort. It’s no small measure and one I very much appreciate.

When we encounter an everyday hero, it touches something deep inside our hearts. We’re all looking for a hero. And we’re all hoping we’ll be a hero when someone else needs one.

Whether it’s a neighbor who comes to mow the lawn when you can’t or a firefighter who rescues you from a burning building, heroes surround us every day.

I married two very different heroes. My first husband, Bob, physically rescued other people. As a Marine, he traded MREs to Kurdish children in exchange for booby-trapped grenades in northern Iraq. Once when we were wilderness camping, he saved a woman whose face was burned in a fire. He even saved a man’s life in the grocery store. Bob could have worn a cape. He did have a pair of those Clark Kent government-issued “birth-control” glasses.

When Bob died of cancer, our neighbors became heroes, mowing the lawn and fixing the snowblower. Our son, Alexander, spent hours and hours with his Fisher Price Rescue Heroes, saving people over and over and over.

Every child wants to be the hero. If only they recognized the importance of simple acts of kindness. The other day I met one of my son’s friends, a new student at his school. I asked him how they met. He said, “One morning before school, he needed help with his homework, so I helped him and we started talking. After that, we just became friends.”

Sometimes being a hero is about finding courage deep inside you and pulling it up when you need it most. In one of my favorite children’s stories about courage, The Good Fire Helmet, Tommy saves his younger brother in a river rescue. The boys thought their courage came from their deceased father’s fire helmet, but with the helmet floating away from them downriver, Tommy summons the courage to rescue his brother without the helmet. The book’s author, Tim Hoppey, is a New York City firefighter who lost a close friend in 9-11. He knows a lot about courage.

The preface of my children’s book, Perch, Mrs. Sackets, and Crow’s Nest, begins: “Mom called this my Summer of Courage. She said that when you need courage the most is when you realize what’s happened in your life and you decide to get up the next morning anyway.”

Which brings me to my husband, Geno, who is a much more subtle hero. He has been through many life-changing situations, got up the next morning anyway, and emerged with a positive outlook. He’s helping me be a better writer. Geno doesn’t know the first thing about writing or publishing. But he does know about strength of character, sense of humor, forgiveness, and faith. He reminds me every day that the small gestures make a difference, too. He tries to be my wing man but he doesn’t rescue me in dramatic fashion. Geno reminds me that not all heroes wear capes. A hero can save your life over many years, one hug, one encouraging whisper, one love note at a time.

* * *

Inspiration (March 2012)

My friend Meagan embarked on a new journey about a year ago—to become a full-time writer. Her first book, Choosing to Grow: Through Marriage, was released last spring. The back cover copy begins: “There is an ‘I’ in marriage. I am the wife.” When Meagan’s marriage was in trouble, she began looking for answers anywhere she could find them, including interviewing hundreds of other women over the course of eight years of researching and writing her book. What she found, after all of that searching, was that the answers to a better marriage start and end with herself. I’m inspired by her accountability.

There are three “I’s” in inspiration. That leaves no excuse for lack of inspiration to write a blog post! It’s my job to find my own inspiration, to both be inspired and inspire others. There is plenty of inspiration around us all the time. We just need to pay attention.

For some writers, deadlines conjure inspiration. In one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, Calvin receives an assignment to write and illustrate a story by the next day. While playing in the yard, Hobbes asks Calvin, “Do you have an idea for your story yet?” Calvin says, “No, I’m waiting for inspiration. You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.” Hobbes asks, “What mood is that?” Calvin answers, “Last-minute panic.”

For others, inspiration comes from connecting with nature. Maybe it’s hearing an early-returning bird chirp on a warm February morning. Or watching Valentine’s Day roses open to velvety blossoms. One day, my son and I hiked to a nearby lake, looking for patterns in nature for his journal. He took pictures of leaves, rippled paths, wooden fence posts, and shadows. Along our walk, we found our initials in the tree branches. How’s that for a personal connection with nature? Thanks trees for saying hi.


A for Alexander

P for Pavlicin

I keep pads of paper around the house. Sometimes I write down a quote from a TV show or movie. For example:

“The point of time is to help you understand where you are, not to make you rush to the next place.”
— old man by the tree, The Cheetah Girls: One World
 “The imagination is a powerful tool in self-torture.” —Sheldon, Private Practice
“You have to go back to the beginning in order to understand the end.” —Teddy, Grey’s Anatomy
“Love is layered. Love is a mystery to be uncovered.” —Belle, Once Upon a Time
“Just keep swimming.” —Dory, Finding Nemo

The script writers have, of course, written just the right line for the context of the scene, but I like to pluck out a good line here and there and paste it up on my inspiration board. Reading a single line like one of these can launch a whole new idea or point of view without ever coming back to the line itself.

Even Mars, Inc. gets it. This morning I read “Encourage your sense of daring” inside a Dove chocolate wrapper.

Seeing the world, for just a moment, through a child’s eye is inspiring. The wonder of a bug. The excitement of riding without training wheels. A five-year-old boy in our neighborhood introduced himself to Geno. With a heavy Chicago accent he said, “I lived in Chicago almost my whole life.” Geno asked, “When did you move to Minnesota?” Bruno answered, “When I was two.”

Other writers inspire us, too. People like Kimberley Mills. I’ve never met Kim. I read her post on Wives of Faith and followed the link to her blog. The special thing about writers like Kim or Meagan is not just that they are wonderful writers. What’s special and inspiring is their willingness to be on a journey and to allow themselves to be vulnerable and share their journey with others —the joys and challenges—in a genuine and spirit-filled way. That’s inspiring.

Yes, inspiration is all around us. In the trees, on the screen, in a piece of chocolate, in a child’s perspective, on someone’s blog. Are you searching? Pay attention. Inspiration awaits your notice.

* * *

A New Day (February 2012)

Sometimes we need a change, a fresh start, a new beginning. I went to the hairdresser today. I sat in the chair and said, “I need something different.” She cut off several inches, gave it a new shape. Voilà, fresh.

This has been one of those weeks... filled with lost data, misunderstandings, and the like. I know you’ve had those times when you recognize God’s sense of humor--like you needed just one more thing to go wrong to top it off.

Sometimes we’re forced to start new. Like years ago when my brother’s house burned down and he was left with the bag of clothes in his car he had planned to give to Salvation Army. Or when my house was struck by lightning and we had to replace all the appliances. Or when I was diagnosed with Celiac and now have to eat gluten-free.

Sometimes we choose to start new. Like when I left the corporate world to focus on being a writer. Or when I responded to a wink on Match.com and said yes to my first date with Geno.

Starting new gives us a chance to catch our breath and see things differently. When we’re climbing a mountain, focused on the steep climb, it helps to pause and check out the view. Same mountain, same valley, but the view is different all the way up and down the climb. Stopping to look around helps us appreciate the journey. Seeing how far we’ve come renews our energy to keep climbing.

Starting new gives us hope. My son, Alexander, didn’t like the outcome of his basketball game. He practiced harder this week. His coach gave him a new way of thinking about his offense. Alexander is looking forward to trying it out in the next game.

As writers we know our readers can only take so much conflict, drama, suspense. Then we need to start a new scene, a new chapter. Sometimes, when changes are really big, we give them a sequel, a new book.

Starting new can feel good--that chance to catch our breath, to feel hopeful--and still contain uncertainty or self doubt. Will I like having bangs? Will sharing a new perspective resolve the misunderstanding or create new ones? If I try this new skill, will I score in the next ball game?

In my children’s novel, Perch, Mrs. Sackets, and Crow’s Nest, ten-year-old Andy needs a different perspective. He’s uncertain too. His mom has brought them to Grandma’s house in upstate New York for the summer. They are planting flowers at his dad’s grave:

“Mom, what are we going to do all summer? I don’t have any friends here. What’s it going to be like when we go back home?”

Mom set down the bag of mulch and sat back on her heels. “Andy,” she said, “Our lives are like novels. The first book didn’t end the way we thought it would, but it was still a really good book.”

She brushed her hands on her jeans. “Now we begin the second book,” she said. “There will be some of the same people in this book, but some new characters, too. We don’t know what will happen next or how the story will end up, but what fun would it be to read the last chapter first?”

She picked up a few stray pieces of mulch from the grass. “The best part of reading a good book,” she added, “is seeing the story unfold, page by page, chapter by chapter, even with all its surprises.” She leaned over, kissed my forehead, and smiled. “We can still suggest edits to God along the way.”

This week hasn’t gone the way I’d like. But I do have a new hard drive on which to save new files. I did resolve a misunderstanding and learned a few things about myself in the process. And I have a great cast of characters in my second book.

Last night, Alexander said, “Mom, the good news is every day is a new day.”

* * *

Love the Flaws (January 2012)

Characters need flaws. Blind spots. Stubbornness. Room to grow. We know a conversation can’t be productive when a man’s pride is in the room. A person can’t mature without a fear to overcome, an attitude to get her in trouble, or a dream that’s just beyond his capabilities. As writers, we work hard to create and point out our characters’ shortcomings because that’s part of what makes the story more interesting. In the course of writing, we can allow our characters to overcome their flaws--or not. As writers, we learn to be patient. Our characters need to fail. Their flaws need to get in the way a few times. They need to hurt someone, burn bridges, mess up, feel regret. And once in a while, it’s their flaws that make them heroes. It’s their flaws that make us want to love them more.

Moms want the opposite, of course. We want everyone to get along, to escape unscathed. We want characters who believe in themselves, achieve their dreams, treat everyone with kindness and respect, without the disappointment of having their imperfections revealed. We want to hug. We like blue sky.

Each January, millions of people reflect on their flaws and resolve to improve one or two. Perhaps a mom’s influence? Imagine, though, how dull life would be without all our imperfections. Moms wouldn’t need bandages if kids didn’t fall down. If couples didn’t disagree, there would be no make-up sex. How would we know how much patience we do have if we didn’t run out while encountering grumpy trolls along the journey? How could we experience forgiveness if we were never guilty? What would fuel our desire to become stronger if we were never too weak to make the climb? How would we ever grow to be who we’re meant to be if we were already flawless? We’re still at the beginning of our story. We--and the others in our story--have a lot of messing up to do before the story resolves.

Loving someone means loving their flaws too. Being patient while their story unfolds. It means letting the flaws get in the way sometimes because that might just be what will make us want to love them even more.

Maybe this January instead of improving our own (or someone else’s) flaws, maybe our resolution should be to love the flaws. It’s what makes our characters--in novels and real life--believable, vulnerable, lovable.

Hmmm. What mistake could Jesse make today? What will he learn from it? Will he lie about it? How will he grow? Will it be his pride or stubbornness that gets in the way? Will it be his fear of change? His desire to keep peace with a friend? What is the flaw that will make us love him even more?

* * *

Overcome with Joy (Fall 2011)

I married my wonderful hunky Italian guy November 25. Our intimate fireside ceremony was even more beautiful than I imagined: candlelight, original love songs, close friends, spilled sand that helped our kids laugh in the midst. The coming together of a new family. We’ve traveled a long way on this journey in a relatively short time. Photos of the day prove I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. From the moment I walked into the room, hours before, my heart soared. I was present in every single moment, so aware of how blessed I am, how much in love I am, how incredibly wonderful life can be. My friend Julie summed it up perfectly; she said “it was a pleasure to see you so overcome with joy.”

There are few times in life we are truly overcome by our emotions.

In my darkest time, I felt a grief that strong. As Leif Enger writes in Peace Like a River : “Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.” I remember the day I finally acknowledged I was a widow, that my husband Bob was really dead and not coming back. I remember hugging my knees as I curled up in a corner and wept deep and heavy, feeling an aloneness I had never felt before. It has taken years to grow to a place where I feel joy thinking about our happy marriage and remembering all the good reasons I miss my dear friend.

That’s the interesting thing about life I guess. How one day we can feel grief as deep and unbreathable as the bottom of a dark and heavy ocean and another day feel joy as light and bright as the sun flying high above the clouds. And each day in between, perhaps because our hearts can only carry so much at once, we dip just a little bit into all of it.

The best writing I’ve ever read or written has come from a place of being overcome. It’s at the ends of the spectrum we often find what’s true and honest.

My son read me a comment from his confirmation student Bible the other night. It said: "What matters is not what we achieve but what we overcome to achieve it." I suppose the key is to first allow ourselves to be overcome so we can overcome. We can’t linger too long at the unbreathable ocean bottom of grief nor in the brilliant blinding light of joyous love. But allowing our hearts to experience it makes each day in between all the richer.

Allow yourself to be overcome. For just a moment. It will be a moment you’ll never forget.

* * *

When will Jesse be ready? (Summer 2011)

Jesse is a character in a book I’ve been working on for the past couple years. Actually, I haven’t been working on it lately; the story is stalled. Jesse is about to go on a life-changing quest. But he’s not ready.

Characters sometimes need a little push, a little guidance, but they won’t come until they are good and ready...or I am ready. Maybe a little of both.

My friend Julie is in a similar predicament. She’s still getting to know her novel’s main character, a young girl healing from an abusive situation. Julie had a feeling her character would need more than just the help of her kind aunts but she couldn’t quite figure out what this girl would respond to. Meanwhile, in real life, a horse camp opened just down the road. Julie volunteered. She’s learning how to groom and ride... and learning about the power of horses to heal. Chapter five, a year stagnate, is finally coming to light.

Our real-life stories don’t always develop the way we’d like nor at the pace we’d like either. Even real-life characters proclaim they aren’t ready yet. In real life, just as in novel writing, there is a fine balance between how much to push and guide and how much to let the characters grow into their own transformation that needs to take place. I am becoming a stepmom this year, to two girls ages 10 and 11. Those of you who are stepmoms need no explanation of what’s happening in our home. Let’s just say not everyone is ready for this story to be written. And yet, each day we write a page, ready or not. Good or bad. Joyous or sad. Peaceful or painful. And with each page I slowly but surely see a change in color, a passing of one season to the next on our amazing, blessing-filled journey. In real life, the metamorphic quest continues even when someone is kicking and screaming. And perhaps it’s the place where we meet the most resistance that we grow into the person we were meant to be.

Come on, Jesse. We’re writing a page today. You might not feel ready yet. There is more in life for both of us to learn in order for the full story to be told, but today we can write one page. The quest begins, ready or not.

* * *

Writing is Risky Business (Spring 2011)

Writers are vulnerable. We open the curtains and offer the world an intimate view. And if we get the lighting just right, anyone peering in will also see themselves in the reflection.

Writers aren’t content with simply observing or even living life. We have to dig deeper, figure out why, get to the details then bring it all up a thousand notches to apply across humanity. We catalog the course of events, savor a good line of dialog, squirrel away nuggets of truth, and grow with our characters. It’s painful. Hard work. And necessary.

Writers have to write. It’s something deep inside us that pushes and pushes until we let it out. It’s part of the air we breathe, this need to make sense of the world around us and to somehow find the right words to express and influence the way we each feel and interact and love and live.

Writing is a connection. An exposure. Whether fiction or real life, the words we choose to put together become part of who we are and what’s important at that very moment, a glimpse of where we’ve been and who we’ll be, what we stand for and where we draw the line. The words we choose ripple through the universe seasoning and mending and crashing on the shores of other souls willing to read them.

Writers rely on the faith that because our muse comes from a higher power and because we’ve labored to translate and even transform some small element of human nature, what we write will be of interest to someone else. We hope the words we choose, when we let them go, will resonate with at least one other heart searching for just that message or inspiration.

There will be people who don’t like what we write.

Some days we won’t find words.

And yet here we are.

Here I am. Writing. And here you are. Reading it. Welcome to the journey. It’s worth the risk.

* * *

 

 

 

Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito

2013: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May
2012: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct, Nov
2011: Spring, Summer, Fall

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