An author friend, Lauren Clark, challenged me to quickly come up with 10 books that impacted my life. Definitely not an easy task, but I took a shot at it. (Lauren has a new book out, too [Pie Girls]. If you like southern fiction full of sassy, smart women, you should check it out!)
Meanwhile, here’s my list. I really need about 200 more spaces to work with here, folks.
1. Little House in the Big Woods – Laura Ingalls Wilder
2. Birds of America – Lorrie Moore
3. Waltzing the Cat – Pam Houston
4. Larry McMurtry – The Last Picture Show
5. Annie Proulx – Close Range
6. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
7. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
8. White Oleander by Janet Fitch
9. Beloved – Toni Morrison
10. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
Now, I’d love to hear your lists in the comments! Then I’ll psychoanalyze you. (Kidding. Mostly.)
Also, I am already revising my list in my head … Stegner, Steinbeck, McCarthy, Salinger, Lopez, Smiley, Conrad, Lamott … oh and The Solace of Open Spaces (G. Ehrlich) …and so many poets like Mary Oliver …heck, even Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew books … I’ll stop now.
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Beautiful adoption illustration by Jimi Bonogofsky. View her work at http://jimidoodle.blogspot.com
My husband (I’ll call him R. in this post to protect his privacy) and I adopted our son (M.) six years ago through an open domestic adoption here in Colorado. For us, it was important for our child to know his birth family, if at all possible. We felt strongly that the more people he knew as family, the more people there would be out there in the world who would love and cherish him like we do. That’s been our guiding philosophy.
Recently, I asked M.’s birth mom, Amanda, if she would mind participating in an honest conversation about the adoption process for my blog. After the years that have passed, I wondered if we could together provide some insight, whether new or old, that might help other birth parents and adoptive parents, especially those just beginning their journey.
Always gracious and giving, Amanda agreed. And what follows is the result.
Kathy: Let’s start at the beginning! You must’ve looked through a ton of family scrapbooks filled with pictures and letters from couples like us wanting so badly to be parents. How did you choose us? Were you looking for something in particular?
Amanda: There were a lot of scrapbooks to go through; it was great with me being into scrapbooking myself. There wasn’t any one thing I was looking for. B. (B. = birth father) and I just knew. It’s like a mother’s intuition of some sort.
Kathy: So after we got our “Match Call,” the agency set up our first meeting. I was so nervous my hands were shaking on the way over to meet you and B. for dinner. Were you nervous, too? What was going through your mind before you met us?
Amanda: I was definitely nervous … not knowing what to expect or if you guys would be as nice as you looked and seemed in the scrapbook. One of the hardest things in my position was thinking I was being judged. I know Allison, our bulldog, (LOL) made me feel much better about it.
Kathy: Allison (from Creative Adoptions) was so completely awesome. She was definitely our champion and bulldog through it all, wasn’t she? I was so glad she was there for our first meeting. That’s funny that you were worried you’d be judged when we were worrying about the same thing. R. and I were so afraid that we would do or say something wrong — something that would make you change your minds about choosing us. You really held our little world in your hands that night. How do you remember our first meeting?
Amanda: I remember our first meeting going better than expected. Even though we had completely different lives, we still had a lot in common, like our personalities. You and I were quieter than R. and B. (I’m not saying they talked too much!) I knew after the first few minutes you guys were the ones. It was like God intended on me getting pregnant to have your son.
Kathy: I remember that, too. The guys talked a lot, trying to bond over men stuff. I remember concentrating on my salad a lot. Ha.
But you stayed the course with us. And then about six weeks later … you left a message for us that you were headed to the hospital: “Are you guys ready for your son to be born?” R. teared up. I think I was already in the car with the engine running.
And then, you allowed us to be with you during delivery. That was equal parts brave and kind. Did you have second thoughts about us being there? Could we have done anything differently to make it easier for you? What would you like other adoptive parents to know if they are lucky enough to be so involved at the hospital?
Amanda: I never had second thoughts about you guys being in the room … not at all. And you guys did more to comfort me than my own husband did. All I have to say to future adoptive parents is that if they are in the room, pay attention to signals. If the birth mom seems irritated, which obviously she’s going to be a little, maybe just back off. Respect any of the birth parents’ wishes.
Kathy: I remember getting you flowers and thinking that it was just stupid. Flowers? You just handed me my life in a tiny blanket. Should I have done something more? Or different?
Amanda: I think what most adoptive parents don’t understand is that for me personally, and for a lot of birth parents, you are giving us a great gift, too. You are giving us the gift of knowing our children will be safe and have what we couldn’t give them, whether that’s material things or to have the loving parent they need. So for me the flowers were great, but you and R. taking on the little guy when B. and I couldn’t is the gift. And just the love and compassion you guys have for all of us (especially me and my children) is amazing, and we are very lucky to have you all.
Kathy: Wow. It’s hard for me to think of it that way. We have always felt like the lucky ones. But I do remember Allison saying at the hospital that she could feel the love and respect we all had for each other. And that was so true.
And then came those first few months. We saw you and B. and the girls several times. We saw how you loved this baby so completely. We worried: Would you change your mind? Were we enough? Each time we talked on the phone, I hurt for you. What was it like for you those first few months before the adoption was final? You should know I never knew what the right thing to do was. Should I call you on the day the adoption was final? Should I give you space? I think I didn’t call; I just didn’t know if I should. And I didn’t want to cause you any more pain.
Amanda: The first few months before the adoption was final were emotional. My marriage was pretty much over and things were kind of falling apart right before my eyes. It was hard, but the one thing I was sure of was that M. was going to a good home and had everything I couldn’t give my two girls. On the day we went to court to give up our rights (I’m in tears just thinking about it), I believe I sat in the back seat as Allison and B. and I took that long drive to the courthouse. While I never second-guessed any of it, even the judge got teary-eyed and said how amazing and strong we were for doing what we did. He said that even though it’s a good thing, these were the hardest court cases. But look at us! We made it.
Kathy: What a great judge to have talked to you compassionately as human beings and not paperwork. I think that, so many times, people who aren’t knee-deep in adoption don’t really understand the full range of emotions that are there for both birth and adoptive parents. I’m glad that you felt confident in us.
Now, well, it’s been almost seven years. We still talk and we still see you, but not as much. And B. doesn’t want anymore contact for now. So looking back, has this experience been what you thought it would be? Has it disappointed or surprised you in any way?
Amanda: The experience was better than I expected, and I have to give great thanks to our counselor Allison. Without her, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it; she was amazing. I think all of us did very well. We all know the one sign God gave us was, even though I wasn’t too sure about M. being his name, once Dr. M. came in and introduced herself, that was all the confirmation I needed to know that God had intended on M. being created just for you. I’m sure not all adoptions go as well as ours but I certainly know this is the one decision I made in my life that I am truly proud of and will never have one bit of regret.
Kathy: I know – totally freaky when the name we picked out for the baby turned out to be the last name of the attending doctor. Even spelled the same way. I am getting goosebumps thinking about it all. And I have tears streaming down my face from your words, too. I remember you suggested we name him, “Owen.” I liked that name, but we wanted to honor R.’s grandfather who had recently passed away, and you were sweet about it. I’ve told M. many times that his name was almost Owen. Maybe he’ll name his own child that one day. And I think you’ve also hit on a very important point. It wasn’t just us that made this adoption go well; the agency we both chose and the staff made a huge difference in their support of all of us.
Now, is there anything you want to say to adoptive parents out there, especially those who are just beginning their journey?
Amanda: What I’d want to say to adoptive parents is that even though it may seem like you’re not enough or doing as much as you feel you should, some of us birth parents feel we’re just as lucky as you guys are. I’m not every birth mom, but I know that I’m not sure where my life would be without you and R. You are still behind me and my family 100 percent. Adoptive parents: All you can really do is listen to the counselors and respect birth parents’ wishes. Hopefully you will be as happy and lucky as everyone involved in our adoption.
Kathy: Thank you, thank you. <wiping tears> Is there anything you want to say to birth mothers like you, who are giving a gift so precious it’s almost unspeakable?
Amanda: Stay strong. You will know the right match when you meet them. Adoptive parents are probably more nervous than you are. But I believe, and I have to say I’m not a religious person, didn’t go to church, but you will know what God intended for you. Deep down you’ll know. Just follow your instinct as well as your heart. It may seem hard, but something will tell you or show you what you need to do to feel ok with whatever decision you make.
Kathy: Well said, as always. You have always been wise beyond your years. Finally, though, is there anything you would like us to know?
Amanda: To the amazing parents my boy was lucky to be blessed with: I am grateful that my son (our son) has such amazing parents and will have opportunities we couldn’t give him. I can only imagine where all of us would be had we not made the choice we did. I am most thankful that you continue to be here for me and let us all be a family like we agreed and wanted to. I would like to also give your families huge thanks for accepting M. and my family into your lives. I love all of you.
Kathy: I think you just summed up the best things about open adoption in just one short paragraph. And we love you, too!
NOTE to readers: There’s a lot of love in here, and I’m proud of that. But I also don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that open adoption is a breeze, and there aren’t things that both birth and adoptive parents have to work through. Everyone has to understand their boundaries and expectations; I think Amanda would agree we had to muddle through the first couple of years like most open adoption relationships. And we had hoped our son’s birth father would want to continue a relationship, and that hasn’t panned out. We’re still hopeful for the future.
Overall, I believe the main message here is that it can work if you’re willing to try, and it can be a beautiful, wonderful, loving way to raise a child.
Especially this one, who comes by his awesome fishing skills from ALL sides of his family.
6.5 year-old happy boy, in the zone.
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* Special promotional note: I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because proofreading my own work is for sissies. Kidding. Kinda.
* Special non-promotional note: This article first appeared in the awesome The Write Life magazine earlier this year. Reprinted here with permission. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend this cutting-edge, digital publication.
Now, on to the actual post. I wrote this in response to the question: Why do you write?
This is Ernest Hemingway. (public domain photo)
Ernest Hemingway once said that there’s nothing to writing; all you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. E.B. White was quoted as saying that writing is not only hard work, but also fairly bad for your health.
And even though Hemingway was likely drunk when he was quoted and White can’t really be trusted because of the whole talking pig thing, there is some truth to their words.
As a professional writer with 25 years of experience (obviously, I began writing in utero), I agree that writing can be a soul-wrenching thing. After all, writing means staying up until 3 a.m. to finish a chapter you’re working on, even when you have to get up at 6 a.m. for Real Life. It’s revising and revising until your corneas get angry at you. It’s putting your words out into the universe only to have one reader simply comment, “Meh,” in a one-star review on Amazon.
So why would any sane person do it? Why do we writers continue to put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard when we could be watching Downtown Abbey or Duck Dynasty instead?
For some of my writer friends, the need to write is like the need to breathe air. Others say they write mostly because they love to tell a good story, and the world needs more good stories.
Me? Well, I think it comes down to three factors.
1) I write because it’s not socially acceptable for me to play with Barbie dolls anymore. Even though I was a tomboy in every other way possible growing up in a ranching family in South Texas — with the scars to prove it — there was one “girly” thing I loved. And while the feminist in me today reels at the thought, here it is: I loved to play with Barbie. And Skipper and Ken. Only I renamed them Cherry, Hayley and Holden, respectively.
This is a headless Barbie.
That’s right. I played with plastic girls with sparkly tube-tops and unrealistic 38-18-34 measurements. But unlike a lot of Barbie fans, I didn’t care what she looked like, or what dresses she wore. I didn’t envy her twist-n-turn hips, blonde hair or blue eyes.
To me, Barbie was a mere tool for my vivid (and probably not quite normal) imagination. I put those dolls in situations no doll in the history of dolls would ever want to be in. They were probably praying every night for Mattel to come and put them out of their misery.
The stories I created were soap-opera-level in intensity. There was illicit activity going on in the broken elevator shaft in the Dream House. It wasn’t unusual for miniature furniture to be thrown in anger from the penthouse. There was a scene involving beautifully crocheted clothes (made by my unsuspecting grandmother) being torn off in passion. (Note to Mom: I watched Showtime when you weren’t looking.)
Now that I’m a grownup — or at least pretend to be one — I still have the same crazy imagination, and stories still pop into my head all the time. Only now, I pour the drama into short stories, novels and other types of writing.
I think Cherry, Hayley and Holden would be pleased.
2) I write because I can’t afford therapy. Most writers I know aren’t necessarily rolling in the dough. Yet we tend to have varying degrees of tormented inner lives that make us great candidates for therapy. So for me, writing is a great, zero-percent-down alternative.
In all seriousness, writing is how I try to make sense of the world. It’s how I deal with my constant restlessness. It’s how I delve into my past and figure out my place in the here and now. It’s how I deal with the ugliness and goodness out there, and inside.
Through placing characters at tough crossroads, I can consider how I would react in that same circumstance. Through placing characters in situations I have actually been in before, I can work through what I could’ve done differently, and how that would’ve played out. And I can help those characters find strength and courage and humor when life becomes one hot mess.
This is therapy.
I can even face my fears — and write my way through it all until I see light at the end of tunnel, or at least until I can get it ALL OUT and move on.
Sure, I could spend months in a therapist’s office and come to all the same conclusions. But you’re not allowed to drink copious amounts of vodka at a counseling appointment, are you? Plus, writing doesn’t demand a copay.
3) I write because I want to make a difference. (Cue the We Are the World music now.) Throughout my childhood and in college, I always believed I would one day do something important that would help make the world a better place. Basically, I wanted to be a kick-ass combination of Susan B. Anthony, Mother Teresa and Ann Richards.
This is Mother Teresa.
After college, I took up causes. I was knee-deep in political campaigns and volunteering for activist organizations. I was working at animal shelters and marching for better elder care.
And I was frustrated.
I felt like I was scratching on a well-trodden, muddy surface, and any difference I’d made was quickly gone when the next rain hit.
Today, I still do some of those activism things. But I also understand that through the effective use of language and storytelling, I can sometimes reach readers in a pretty darn deep place — a place where thoughts and ideas linger long enough for questions to be raised, and a search for answers to begin.
In fact, when a reader tells me that my work has touched them somehow, and made them think about something a little bit longer than they would have otherwise, that’s when I know that what I’m doing with my life — this whole writing thing — does matter.
After all, books and stories and poems have been known to change lives, you know. And if my work can trigger just one little change in just one person, then, well, it’s worth it.
* The following words are registered trademarks: Amazon, Downtown Abbey, Duck Dynasty, Barbie, Mattel, Showtime, and probably some others I’m failing to mention. Please don’t sue me. Refer to #2 above.
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I’m cheating a little tonight. I was going to write a quick blog post before hitting the hay, but then I realized I had recently answered an Author Q/A for a blog during my two-week blog tour, but the content was never used.
So I think I’ll publish it here, just for kicks. The really cool thing? It includes a quick teaser of content from my second novel, A Good Kind of Knowing, which will be out this summer. I hope you enjoy it. But first, the Q/A.
Q: What inspired you to write this book, Blue Straggler?
I had written a short story with three of the characters that now appear in Blue Straggler (Bailey, Rudy and Idamarie), and I just loved them so much that I needed to put them into a broader story. Plus, the main character in the short story (Bailey) was going through a kind of early mid-life crisis, and I knew a lot of friends who were going through similar things, as was I. I thought the story could be universal and really explore what it means to find out who you are and where you’re meant to land in life.
Q: Do you have a favorite place you like to write?
Our deck in the summer = paradise for me.
Yes! On my deck in the spring, summer and fall. I live in a log cabin in a beautiful area in the Colorado mountains, in the middle of a national forest. It’s so peaceful; I can’t think of a better place to settle in and crank out stories. When winter rolls around, and the deck is not an option due to 20-below temperatures and snow, I write in my back bedroom or in the great room, next to a warm, crackling fire. Thank goodness for laptops (and golden retrievers to keep my feet warm)! We’re talking of moving to a lower elevation soon; it’ll be interesting to see how it affects my writing.
Q: Do you have a favorite author of your own?
So many. I love Barbara Kingsolver. She’s probably at the top of my list. Anna Quindlen would be there, too. (Her new memoir is brilliant.) Anne Lamott and Lorrie Moore. Larry McMurtry. Cormac McCarthy. Toni Morrison. I just can’t choose; it’s like asking me which of my many furry babies (dogs) I’ve had through the years I like best.
Q: A favorite character? One of yours or someone else’s that touched your heart?
A: Not to toot my own horn, but in my Blue Straggler, I love, love Idamarie. She’s just so down-to-earth and real and colorful and she always shoots from the hip. She’s the kind of Texan I miss most, living in Colorado like I do now. If I could have an Idamarie in my life, I think life would be even more fun than it is now. And I’d likely be more grounded with her sage advice around.
Q: Are you currently working on anything? If so, can you give us a tease?
I am putting the finishing touches on my next novel, A Good Kind of Knowing. It’s set in a small, rural town in Texas, and explores how all of these small-town lives are interconnected, and how even though we all come from different places in our lives, we have a lot in common — big things like humanity and small things like a love of good music.
So, I’ll leave you with a super tease! This is the most I think I’ve revealed of any part of the book. As you’ll see right away, A Good Kind of Knowing is a different kind of novel than Blue Straggler. It’s not comic fiction, though there is some humor.
This is the kind of jukebox mentioned in the excerpt below.
This is an excerpt from about halfway through the story. Sera is the main character in the novel; she owns a local music store. She’s married to Bill, but has a “special” relationship, which is growing in intimacy and closeness, to a handsome young musician (Mack). She’s been pretty sick for a while, and most people in town know it. Some of her friends have been trying to help out at her business while she deals with her illness.
Mack waited for her at Antonio’s bar. Antonio stood over by the pool tables, emptying ashtrays from the night before. The afternoon sun filtered in through the small windows up front, sending sleek slats of light into the otherwise dark room and catching the perpetual dust of the place in a kind of suspension around the room. Two men, both in their eighties, sat at a square table in the corner, smoking thick cigars and playing cards. Every now and then, one of them would chuckle and cough. Antonio had turned on the jukebox—an old Wurlitzer with just one remaining front bulb flickering—and pushed the numbers for his favorites, mostly Freddy Fender hits.
Antonio mumbled the words to “Vaya Con Dios” as he picked up the previous night’s litter around the booths in the back. Empty beer bottles knocked together in his hand.
Mack sat at the bar, his felt hat on the barstool beside him, his hands working to fold a square bar napkin into the shape of a flimsy paper airplane. He shifted his weight on the barstool, glanced back at Antonio, then shifted again. “Sure I can’t help you back there?” It was the third time he’d asked.
Antonio hollered his response. Same as before.
The front door squeaked a little, drowning out the low-playing music for a second, and Sera stepped into the bar, jeans hanging loose on her hips and one of Bill’s sweatshirts tied around her waist. A blast of fall slipped in behind her and the wind sucked the heavy door back hard as she came in.
“Hey there. Been waiting long?” She greeted Mack with a quick kiss on the cheek. He wondered if she’d meant to let her lips linger, or if it was only in his mind.
“Thanks for meeting me, hon. I needed to get out of the house for a while.” Sera waved to Antonio as she talked. “I don’t know how long I can stay, though. I never know when my body’s going to give up the ship for the day.”
“I was glad you called,” Mack replied, nodding again at Antonio as he motioned for them to help themselves to the cold longnecks chilling in a long, aluminum tub next to the bar.
Mack picked out a couple and used the corner of his brown work jacket to twist off the caps.
“Can you even have beer?” Mack hadn’t thought to ask before he handed it to her.
“Oh hell yes. Why not? Not like a little beer every now and then ever killed a person.” She laughed at her joke and nudged Mack’s shoulder.
“Funny.” He didn’t mean it.
Antonio walked over to them and put his hands on Sera’s neck.
“How’s my favorite lady today?” Antonio asked, squeezing her thin shoulders. Mack straightened next to her.
Sera smiled and swirled around on her barstool to face Antonio. “Tony. Join us? I’m taking a walk on the wild side, going to see how hops and barley affect pancreatic distress.”
Antonio glanced at Mack, then back at Sera. “Maybe later, okay?”
“Later,” Sera agreed.
As Antonio left to check on his two customers, Sera turned back to Mack and asked how things were at the store.
“Nobody’ll tell me a thing, Mack. Bill hardly even speaks to me these days. I’m lucky if I get a good morning from him, much less a report on how things are going. And I went by the shop on my way here, and Tommy Lee and Ruby D. were down there—on a Sunday, mind you—arguing over shelf space.
“I think it’s all gonna be alright, Sera. Everybody’s tryin’ real hard.”
“I know,” she said, letting out a long sigh. “You know, I’m really thinking you all are crazy and we ought to just close the shop for a while. It would ease my guilt of you all trying to make this work.”
Mack cleared this throat and nodded toward the bar door. “Guess this weather’s gonna stay cool for a while longer,” he said, doing his best to change the subject.
Sera didn’t answer. They sat together, listening to Freddy Fender sing about being there before the next teardrop falls. One of the men sang out to the chorus in Spanish.
“I’ve been thinking about heaven, Mack. I mean, there’s a side of me that wants to believe there is this garden of sunshine up there waiting for me with all the people I’ve ever lost in the world sitting around sipping lemonade in the shade. The weather would never get hot, and there’d be cats everywhere and my mother and Otis Redding and Patsy Cline would all be singing every night at a little dive. But something tells me it isn’t that simple.”
“It could be.”
“Yeah, but what if we’re living in heaven right now? I mean, what if we’ve got it all wrong, and we’re already there.”
“I guess there’d be some people going around missing out on the lemonade.”
Sera smiled. “Maybe we ought to switch the lemonade to Shiner Bock.” She clicked her bottle against Mack’s.
In the back, Antonio turned the key on the jukebox and punched in new codes to start the music up again.
An old Johnny Rodriguez song dropped into play, a melody about being down on the Rio Grande, lovers walking hand in hand. Sera hummed, and Mack watched the beer swirl against the glass as he moved his bottle in circles with his wrist.
“Do you realize we’ve never danced together?” Sera turned to face him.
Mack smiled slightly, concentrating on his beer. “Guess there was never a time, what with me on stage and all.”
Sera waited for a moment. “What about now?”
Mack surveyed the room. “Now?”
He looked at her—this woman with eyes that danced no matter what the music, with a face that could weaken any man, with a spirit that spread around her like a magician’s stardust.
He blushed, then stood up and offered his hand. She grinned and he grinned and the old men in the corner grinned. Even Antonio looked up from his calculator—and slowly grinned.
Together, Mack and Sera swayed and moved in a slow two-step around the center of the hardwood floor. Daylight streamed in around them like nature’s spotlight. Mack held her loosely at first, but Sera moved as close to him as she could, her left hand at the nape of his neck, her right in his leading hand.
He heard her breathe in, but was not aware that she was actually trying to hold on to his scent—an earthy combination—part leather, part cotton. Part hay, part rope. Part beer, part coffee. Part horse mane and part crushed wild weeds.
As she rested her head on his shoulder, Mack let his own breath out slowly, for fear she’d know, finally, full well, the effect she had on him. Her hair, blown in many directions from the wind when she came in, tickled his nose. But he couldn’t brush it away, didn’t ever want to brush it away. He closed his eyes and memorized how her body moved, how somehow he was no longer leading and his body was only reacting to the sway of Sera’s hips, his boots following the sliding of Sera’s across the floor.