Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Thankful for affliction

In my daily reading of Psalms I came across these two verses, which reminded me of an essay I'd written:

"It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn Your statutes." Psalm 119:71
""I know. . .that in faithfulness You have afflicted me." Psalm 119:75

If you would have asked me ten years ago if affliction was "good" I would have said, "You're crazy!" But now I understand why it's good, and have learned to be thankful for the affliction itself.
(From 2005, the year everything changed)
I never thought I'd be grateful for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Having cancer at age 46 was not in my plans. I had a bursting-at-the-seams, simultaneously-juggling-several-roles-at-once kind of life. Even though it was exhausting, it was exhilarating too. But I was not thankful for my many blessings--I was too busy to notice! I did not listen to my body's needs; I pushed beyond fatigue and illness in my attempts to please everyone and keep more obligations than was prudent.

When my body "betrayed" me by developing cancer, at first I was stunned, then angry, then depressed. Everything happened so quickly after the diagnosis that my life turned upside down and inside out, especially when the chemo side effects began. Most days I didn't have the energy to do more than lay on the couch in misery. But during that time of quiet inactivity, I learned to be thankful.

I rediscovered small joys I had forgotten: the trill of a wren making a home in the bush outside the window, the patter of raindrops, the beauty of a single ray of sunshine, the voices of children walking home from school in the afternoon, cards and flowers send by many friends, remembered hymns and Bible verses that suddenly had new meaning. I learned to appreciate my husband and my teenaged son more than ever for their patience and the loving care they showed me each day.

I don't think I would have taken the time to be grateful for each new day and its blessings if I hadn't been sidelined by cancer and forced off the hamster treadmill. This illness has made it possible for me to see life with new eyes and appreciate how precious is every moment. For that I can honestly give thanks that I have lymphoma.

 I've gotten to see both sons graduate from college AND a grandbaby, too!

Monday, March 24, 2014

A living tribute to a writer friend

Only a few of the books I've helped Diane critique over the years.
The recent unexpected death of a longtime writer friend made me wish I had written something while she was still alive, because I'm having trouble writing about her now.

That reminded me of an intro speech I'd given for another writer friend, with whose critique group I've been a member for many years (at least twenty). I dug out that speech and decided to share it here, because tributes should not only be given after a person is gone. I originally gave this speech in 2005 at the main San Antonio (Texas) library to introduce my friend, Diane Gonzales Bertrand, when she was to be given an award by the library:
Our group after last December's critique/Christmas lunch in Fredericksburg, Texas

Being a fiction writer is a strange and wonderful thing.  Your head is full of characters in various stages of evolution, all clamoring for you to tell THEIR story!  To a non-writer it must seem a form of madness, and so naturally, fiction writers are drawn to one another to share this madness.

When you write a rough draft, the words pour directly from your heart in all their unpolished glory.  Reading these awkward nuggets gives a glimpse into the writer’s soul.  Being able to offer and receive honest feedback from one another not only polishes prose into a saleable diamond but strengthens the personal relationship between the writers. 

I first met Diane about 15 years ago (note: now 24!) through the San Antonio Writers Guild.  We were both young mothers and teachers with an insatiable need to write.  We began publishing about the same time—Diane in the book market and me in magazines and anthologies.  At first I was a little in awe of her—I was still insecure about my abilities and she seemed so confident and vivacious.   However, through our exchanges in a small critique group, I came to know her as a generous friend. 

For example, about two years ago we were both invited to participate in a book fair at San Antonio College where the authors were assigned tables under a large tent so people could buy their books.  Diane asked the organizers if she and I could share a table.  I was especially glad because in my experience it has been difficult for me to sell books without the benefit of my presentation, since my name is not a household word.

I learned a lot from Diane that day.  She cheerfully hawked her many books with bubbling enthusiasm.  She always encouraged people to check out my book, too!  By the end of the day most of her stacks had disappeared.  I wouldn’t have sold any if it weren’t for her sales pitch!

Another more poignant example of Diane’s generosity happened this spring when I had to undergo chemotherapy and missed several months of our critique group.  She not only emailed me on almost a daily basis but took time from her busy schedule to write me real letters filled with day-to-day happenings just like a “chat over coffee” to help me feel connected to the outside world.  She also sent me pages to critique which helped me feel like I was still a valuable member of our writers’ group.  She sent me a copy of her latest book, Upside Down and Backwards, which our group had critiqued.  Words are not adequate to describe how much those gestures meant to me during that desperate time.

Diane and I have often bemoaned the frustration of breaking in with the big houses in New York.  But I am so thankful that Arte Publico Press and the people of San Antonio recognize Diane’s talent and her valuable contribution to children’s literature.  Someday New York will figure out what we have known for years:  that Diane’s books tell the story of familia in a way that touches the heart, just as her life has touched mine and that of so many others. 

To paraphrase the last line in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”  Diane is both.
Two weeks ago at the Boerne, Texas library--Diane on right
Our critique group (all writers for children, from picture books through YA) has changed over the years as writers have come and gone (and Jan was the second one to die--I wish I'd thought to get a photo while she was with our group), but Diane and I keep going and going, as long as we have stories to share.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Parenting Humble Pie

With his foster brother, Manuel
As foster parents, my husband and I were required to attend ongoing training sessions to better equip us to deal with different situations. One lecture was entitled, "The Three Different Types of Children."
As the instructor discussed the first category--the "easygoing child," I glanced down at our six-year-old foster daughter, who was quietly coloring beside me. I realized that although she had multiple issues stemming from her dysfunctional family, most of the time her behavior could be classified as "easygoing."
Next came the "slow learner," which I felt sure the six-month-old in my lap would be labeled someday. He had been born two months premature. When he came to us he was four months old, on a heart monitor, and only weighed eight pounds. Even after two months of care and regular feeding, in size and development he was more like a typical two-month-old.
Finally the instructor said, "And the third type is known as the difficult child."
At that moment our own four-year-old son chose to throw a very loud tantrum. My embarrassed husband carried him, kicking and screaming, out of the room.
"And that," said the instructor without missing a beat, "is a very fine example of a difficult child."
With his foster sister, Mandi
P.S. In hindsight, I'm thankful our son was so strong-willed. It was a huge challenge when he was small, but it has made him the strong and capable man he is today.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lessons from my children: Growing pains

He was exceptionally, scarily smart.

I don’t suppose anyone is ever truly prepared to become a parent.  During my first pregnancy I spent a lot of time talking to my unborn child and feeling (overly) confident that things were going to be just swell.  Boy, was I in for a surprise!  Colic, sleepless nights, “projectile vomiting,” a one-month-old hospitalized for pneumonia, "purple fits" (screaming so hard he would turn purple and nearly pass out), strong-willed “terrible two’s” that began at fourteen months and lasted for several years, biting other children, “expelled” from three babysitters, hyperactive, ADD, broken bones, stitches, etc.  This boy was challenge with a capital C.
Mr. Personality had 2 speeds: High and Off (asleep)

"Catch me if you can!"
The more trying he became, however, the more I realized that being a mother was a tremendous opportunity to grow in my relationship with my heavenly Father.  It’s humbling, to say the least, to be forced to see yourself as you really are through the words and actions of your children.  Parenting, like studying the word of God, can be a beneficial mirror to help us examine ourselves (II Corinthians 13:5) as we grow in faith and (hopefully) wisdom.
With our dog, B.J.

As exasperated and disappointed as we become with our children’s disobedience, imagine how the Father must feel when we willfully sin or neglect to serve Him or choose the pleasures of this life over the trials of the strait and narrow way.  The reward for choosing the way that leads to life is not visible with the eyes, nor does it come immediately.  We, like children, sometimes focus on instant gratification rather than patiently wait for the expectation of our hope--eternal life.
"I put it on myself!"
Blowing bubbles (bruise on forehead from running full throttle and falling on his head)

So as my children grew to maturity, I experienced growing pains right along with them--sometimes in ways I never dreamed possible.  With our heavenly Father, however, all things are possible, even bringing one headstrong mother and her hard-headed child under submission to Him in all things!

Look, Olivia, your Daddy loved books, too!
There were days...but I wouldn't trade the memories now.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lessons from my children: Great Expectations

            When my youngest son, Robert, was six or seven years old, he and I had the opportunity to travel to Houston with my oldest son, my husband, and their Boy Scout troop to visit the Johnson Space Center and the Museum of Natural History (which included a one hour “Mission to Mars”). Since I grew up during the heyday of the space program and wanted to be the first lady astronaut (even though I get sick on carnival rides), I was anxious to go. I didn’t find out until AFTER we’d paid that the deal included camping with the troop on Friday night at a “primitive” campsite.
            I’d never ever been camping, not once, but I had no preconceived ideas about the glory of it. Not so Robert; he was THRILLED about his first campout with the "big guys." The five hour trip to Houston sandwiched between two hyper scouts didn’t bother him. Waiting an hour for the rest of the troop to show up didn’t bother him—he was too excited about the prospect of a REAL campout.

            When we finally reached the campsite, it was HOT, it was MUDDY, it was ALMOST DARK, there were MOSQUITOS the size of sparrows, and I just wanted to go to sleep. My husband expertly set up the three man tent, and Robert and I “got ready” to go to sleep. As soon as we crawled into the airless tent, Robert looked at me. “This is camping out?” he asked. “Yep, this is camping out,” I sagely replied.
            We tried to find a comfortable position in the stifling heat. The scouts were making about as much noise as twelve boys can make. This lasted for at least three hours. Once they settled down, a group of (obviously) drunk young people who were camped not too far away turned up their music to full volume, drowning out the bullfrogs in the nearby pond.

            Robert looked at me again. Sweat rolled down his face. “Camping out is not much fun. I thought it would be fun.”

            I patted his hand, and he managed to fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. I dozed off and apparently rolled onto my side too close to the tent. I was awakened by the sudden presence of a weight on my face. A BULLFROG had jumped onto the thin tent where my face happened to be! (I'm proud of myself—I did NOT scream.)

            I hadn’t expected camping to be any different from what I experienced (except the frog part), but poor Robert’s “great expectations,” born in his fertile imagination, were utterly dashed.

            Aren’t you glad our great expectations of heaven will never disappoint us?  Our finite minds can’t even begin to imagine the glory that awaits the faithful--eternity in the presence of Almighty God! 

            I think I can safely say that no frogs will jump on our faces there.