Boys

My nephews are here. They came over the mountains for a brief stay, to attend my son’s birthday party. My house is full of boy noise. Between my sons and my nephews, there are six of them, ages four through ten. The toys around here haven’t seen so much action in months.

So far this morning, they are getting along, playing together in twos, threes, sometimes more. This makes all the noise fun to listen to. Brothers aren’t arguing with brothers. Cousins aren’t fighting cousins. Just regular, monster truck, Lego, building blocks, imaginary play sort of noise. And I love it.

Later, it will likely devolve into angry words, drama and tears. But for now, I will enjoy it.

World War Lego

This morning, my youngest son ran toward me, screaming in terror. Following close behind him was the biggest one trying to catch him and shouting angrily about something I couldn’t quite understand. I stepped between them in order to keep one from pummeling the other before I could determine the cause of the conflict.

I found out the crisis was over a Lego piece smaller than the tip of my smallest finger. The youngest had the right of current possession, but the oldest claimed a prior ownership. He played with it yesterday, or possibly the day before that. In his six year old mind, if he touched it once, it belongs to him. But of course, the three year old is of the opinion that he found it abandoned, and it is now his by right.

As a parent, this is an ongoing struggle as I try to show my children a proper response to conflict, to teach them the values of sharing and unselfishness. I am faced with resolving this conflict in such a way to impart fairness and justice. I must decide who the Lego now belongs to. Before World War Lego breaks out in earnest.

Any parent of more than one child knows the struggle of trying to mediate between siblings and settle the multitude of conflicts that arise on a daily basis. And we struggle to teach our children how to resolve their own conflicts. They learn this skill from observing us, the parents, in how we resolve our own conflicts.

What then, is conflict? And how do we resolve it? I found this description on livestrong.com:

Conflict is a natural, everyday occurrence between children.
(Conflict Between Children, by Barbara Sorensen)

In truth, it is an everyday occurrence even between adults. After all, as humans, we are born with the natural inclination to seek out self-interests, often in conflict with others. We are greedy, selfish and we lust after power and control.

When I went looking for a definition of human conflict, I found nothing that summed it up quite so well as that of James in his epistle to Jewish Christians of the first century:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1-2 ESV)

In the midst of this crisis this morning, I realized it is in a way a microcosm for conflict on a much larger scale. On a global scale, even.

Take, for example, the triggering event of World War I. Though it was certainly not an insignificant event, in the greater scheme of things, it was a small event. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary sparked fire to the dry tinderbox that was Europe in 1914. Increased tensions and ongoing, unresolved conflicts turned a small, local event, tragic as it was, into a global mess.

This, of course, is only one example of many in a seemingly endless world conflict. Are we any better at arbitrating conflict as adults? Should we step into the middle of someone’s conflict in order to determine the cause? Can we truly decide on behalf of another what is significant and what is not?

I think that, no, we cannot adequately resolve conflict on any level if we are still at war within ourselves. Where there is greed and selfish ambition, conflict will inevitably arise. And compromise is doomed to failure unless both sides of a conflict can achieve a level of selflessness.

In my home this morning, World War Lego was averted. For now. Not without unhappy tears being shed by one party. And it is an uneasy peace, for where humans exist together, there will be conflict.

I Am Mom

In response to The Daily Post’s daily prompt, Sanctuary:

Arms and legs dangle over my chair. He’s too big really, but it doesn’t matter.
Tired bodies, scraped knees, angry tears from fighting with brothers.
Wherever I am, they will find me, climb into my lap.
A hug, a kiss, a snuggle, and all is well.
I am mom. I am a sanctuary.

On Gratitude and the Price of Freedom

Thank a veteran? No, I’m afraid I can’t.

At work the other day we had an Independence Day celebration combined with a day to recognize those among our coworkers who were veterans of the US armed forces. We were given the opportunity to say “thank you” and write our thoughts on an index sized card.

Though I am privileged to work with a number of former (and in some cases, current) members of all branches of the US military, I didn’t have anything to say on that day. Not because I’m ungrateful, or don’t respect the sacrifices these men and women have made. I just didn’t have the words.

It can be all too easy to get caught up in daily life, pursuing a career, an education, a family. Pursuing faith, the meaning of life, happiness. In shuttling children to school, going to work, paying bills, or folding the laundry. In doing all the things we have to do every day. Taking time for a simple kindness, is too often overlooked.

Then I look around and I see the pictures and read the stories of mothers and fathers hugging their children fiercely as they say good-bye for an extended absence. Of the parent left behind to do the work of two alone. Of parents, sisters and brothers rejoicing at their loved one’s safe return.

And I look at my own children and I think I could never be that brave. I don’t have that kind of courage. What amazing strength someone must have to take on the mantle of the armed forces. As I think of all of these things, I realize something else. Words are not enough. My gratitude feels empty and inadequate.

Instead, for your wife you left home alone, maybe I could be her friend. For your children, maybe I could be a source of compassion and encouragement while you’re away. For your parents, maybe I could be a neighbor, willing to listen or lend a helping hand.

Thank you can never be enough. But I will pray for you. I will pray for your safety while you are deployed. I will pray for your safe return. I will pray for your family to remain strong in your absence. Above all, I will pray for peace.

I will continue to pray for you on your return home. I will pray for you as you recover from injuries sustained. I will pray for you as you adjust back to civilian life. I will pray for you as you battle the demons left over from combat. Above all, I will pray for peace.

Writing Mental Illness: A Resource For Fiction Writers

In my current work in progress, one of my characters experiences symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and other mental illness. I want to be able to present this character with honesty and compassion, giving the reader a sense of the realities of this man’s life.

And so, I’ve been doing a little digging around the internet, trying to find the best sources for accurate information on various mental illnesses. Information including typical symptoms, first-hand accounts of what these disorders are like from the inside, as well as available treatment options.

My goal is to present this character with a sense of reality and offer an honest look at what it means to live with mental illness. I went looking for examples and resources on how to best convey my character. I found some very thoughtful insights on the subject, and thought I’d share what I found.

First I wanted to find out about mental illness in general. This website for Mental Health America includes a wide variety of resources, including a list of specific mental disorders with more detailed information on each. For example, this page on OCD. I like that it also links to other mental health organizations such as National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for even more information.

My search also led me to some resources for how to write about mental illness. Because I believe this is an issue we must address compassionately, I want to share what I found. If you find yourself writing characters with mental illness of any variety, I would encourage you to do your own research into the specifics of the disorder you are trying to portray. In the meantime, here are three articles that give helpful advice on how to (and not to) write about mental illness.

My research also started me thinking about how mental illness has been portrayed in fiction, movies and the media. And about how that portrayal impacts our societal view of mental illness. Tragic events in recent years, such as the death of actor Robin Williams, have loomed large in the media and brought an increased awareness to the realities of mental illness. However, these issues are far more common than we seem to be willing to admit, and it shouldn’t take the death of someone so famous to encourage conversations about the subject.

I went looking for examples of how mental illness has been portrayed in fiction. I found this list 11 Of The Most Realistic Portrayals of Mental Illness in Novels as well as this other list Top Ten Books Dealing With Mental Illness of specifically YA books about mental illness. To be honest, I’ve not actually read any of the books on either list, though I hope now to remedy that. If you’ve read any, and have a suggestion of where I should start, I’d welcome your input. If there are others not on these lists, I’d love to hear about those as well.

Too often media (including books and movies) have contributed to the stigma attached to mental illness, portraying those afflicted with it as dangerous or even in some cases evil. Words are powerful. And as writers, we have the responsibility to present mental illness in a fair and accurate light, not to paint it in the broad brush strokes of evil madmen. If I can stand against this trend in my small way by presenting a character and the realities of what his experience is, then I will make the effort to do so.

And on that note, here is an excerpt from my new short story, “Shattered”

Jana didn’t come to me as I expected. Night approached and I wondered if I should go to her. To be sure she was alright. But that meant going out. Outside, where the voices could not be silenced. I could feel her unhappiness. I wished I knew what troubled her. Was it Andreú? Something else? I wished she would come to me.

I paced around my tiny room in the men’s dormitory, my hand touching each talisman as I passed. I circled three times, four, five before I stopped, facing the door. I would go to her.

Before I could open my door, however, I heard the tower bells begin to ring. I’d only heard the sound one other time since coming to this place. It signaled an alarm of some kind, and summoned all residents to the main hall.

My heart raced, pounding painfully in my chest. I broke out in a clammy sweat, and I thought I might black out, or vomit. Maybe both. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t breathe. I thrust my hand into my pocket, gripped the small figure I carried there. In the shape of an owl, I had worn the thing smooth over many years. It brought little comfort to me now as the bells continued to ring.

The Method in my Madness: How I Write

I’ll be honest. I’m a terrible writer. My methods leave much to be desired. But, terrible or terrific, this is the way I’ve been writing for some time now, and other than doing a lot more of it lately, my method hasn’t changed.

I write very chaotically. I’m all over the place when working on a project, whether it’s a blog post, short story or novel. I will write down whatever idea has come to the fore at any given moment, often skipping around in sequence. In a novel, I’ll write whatever scene comes into my head. Still, in telling a story, I sometimes find it difficult to skip ahead through linear scenes, and have to power through some really boring stuff in order to get the story moving again.

I don’t plan my stories in advance. I don’t usually do any sort of outlining or plot development. More often than not I’ve started with a character and the barest hint of an idea. I write from that beginning point and see what the characters tell me about their own stories. This isn’t necessarily the best approach, but it has been my most successful approach.

That said, I have on occasion, planned my stories in advance. I’ve written up a fairly detailed outline and created exhaustive character profiles. More often, however, I will use the outline as a tool once the story is underway and I have a better grasp of who the characters are and where the story is supposed to go. Sometimes this mid-point outline is more a way for me to reconnect with a story when I’ve run into a roadblock. It motivates me to continue writing and gives me a road map to continue my progress. It can also reveal any gaping holes in my plot line.

One flaw I’ve recognized in my chaotic method is that I often end up writing far more opening material, or back story, than is necessary as a way to learn for myself about my world and characters. This sometimes feels like a waste of time and effort, but who can really tell, until the story is finished, how useful that material will really be.

So there you have it, my crazy writing style that somehow works. Comments? I’d love to hear what works for you.

Happy writing!

On Your Mark, Get Set… Read! – Why I Love My Local Library

Without libraries, what do we have? We have no past and no future. – Ray Bradbury

My kids, like most kids in America, are out of school for the summer. Now, what to do about the “brain-drain” and keep them occupied for three months? Public library summer reading programs, of course!

The local library in my city, the Salem Public Library, offers a fantastic summer reading program for all ages, from preschool, grade school, teenagers, even adults. Yes, I signed myself up for the program too! The kids earn the chance to win prizes for every ten hours of reading (or listening) they do. Plus they can earn extra chances by participating in all kinds of summer activities: outdoor play, visiting a local park, cooking with their adult and so much more. For the adults, there is the Exercise Your Mind Bingo game, with chances to earn prizes for each bingo completed. To complete a bingo, I have to do things like read a book with a happy ending, or participate in a library event.

My youngest is a preschooler, and only my oldest is actually reading by himself, so our summer will involve a lot of reading aloud. So far we have read nearly seven hours worth of children’s books such as I Stink! by Kate & Jim McMullan and Kindergarten, Here I Come! by D. J. Steinberg. We are reading through the Minecraft Handbook series and the Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis. We went to the library on the weekend and filled our book bags with amazing tales. And, I even got a chance to pick up a book for myself!

DiscoveryRoomThe children’s section of our city library offers some incredible fun for young people. First off, when I go with my boys, we like to see if the Discovery Room is open. Dependent on volunteer staffing, the room isn’t always available when we go. Most recently, the Discovery Room was set up with stations celebrating the human boy. Displays, games and puzzles showing the human skeleton and musculature, stations encouraging physical activity such as yoga, a hopscotch rug and so much more! One such station asks, “How far can you jump?” encouraging kids to test their horizontal leap. My oldest jumped five feet!

After Discovery Room play, we go to the story room where one of the children’s librarians reads three or four story books and sings several songs with young children and their parents. The books and songs center around a theme and encourage the children to engage with the storyteller in a variety of ways. The theme when we went last time was Bugs! We listened to The Fly, by Petr Horacek, Butterfly, Butterfly: a Book of Colors, by Petr Horacek, and Tiny Little Fly, by Michael Rosen & Kevin Waldron. As we leave, the kids get a theme-centered stamp on their hand and a fun coloring page.

Before we can leave the library, we go to the shelves and fill our bags with books. Books! So many books! The children’s story book section is also full of more fun things like puppets and phone booths, all designed to encourage the imaginations of the very young. My children subscribe to a sort of “smash and grab” method of choosing their library books. Or maybe it’s more like a “grab and stash” where they pull books off shelves and stuff them into our bags, usually without even looking at the cover. So when we get home, we  have a glorious variety of books to discover.

Besides our city library, I was pleased to learn that my child’s school is providing a weekly library event for students throughout the summer. They can go to the library each week, listen to a teacher or staff member read a story, and select two books to borrow for the week. And there’s also a chance to win prizes if they attend at least five times. I had the day off from work for the first event, so I had the privilege to go with them. We brought home a book on Captain America and a giant book about dinosaurs.

Local libraries are an important part of our communities. No matter what age you are, learning never has to end. Libraries provide learning, entertainment and an opportunity to explore endless worlds. If you’re looking for something to do this summer, whether you have kids or not, I encourage you to check out your local library. I have to agree with Mr. Bradbury, without libraries, what do we have?

SummerReading

What are you reading this summer? Do you have children you’re reading with? What do you love about your local library?

Happy reading!