Monday, January 11, 2016

Being a Writer

Recently I digging through boxes in my mom's basement and was wondering why she has held on go my old retainer for the past 20 years archiving my childhood when I happened upon a book I had written in the fourth grade. 

Since my awkward stage lasted from age eight-15, 
here's an author photo from when I was five. 
I wrote many as a child; perhaps you're familiar with some of my early work? My first publication was circa third grade . It was a horror-comedy (I was mixing genre at a very young age) entitled Gladys the Giggling Goblin. I soon followed up the success of my debut by trying my talents in the field of drama with, A Horse Called Rosedust. Quickly after that I co-authored a joke book with a friend named Lindsey (most of my friends were named Lindsay or Lindsey as a child, but I remembered that this was the Lindsey with an "e"); however, I'm almost certain we plagiarized all of our material. I distinctly remember illustrating a page for the joke "Why is six afraid of seven?", and I was not a clever enough child to have come up with "Because seven eight nine" all on my own (or even with the help of Lindsey). At best then, I can claim credit for compiling the joke book rather than authoring it.

While my subjects and genres may have varied from one book to the next, there were two things I made sure to include in any publication I put my name on: a dedication page and an author bio section. The dedication page for me was easy. I think almost every book I ever wrote was dedicated to my Granny. She was my favorite person in the whole world growing up, and if she were still here the same would be true today. She was the kind of person who deserved to have things dedicated to her, bigger things than my little stories, like maybe hospital wings or art museums. But since I was never asked to weigh-in on the dedication of parts of buildings, I settled for dedicating my books to her, including Songs Eight Six.

See? You get it now.
The author bio pages of my books were also pretty standard. Typically I included my age (something I would not do now), and usually I proclaimed my undying love for Chicago Cubs first baseman, #17 Mark Grace (again, something I wouldn't do today... probably). However, while thumbing through these early editions of my writing, there was one author bio that struck me:

I stared at this page for a long time.

When we're young, the number of professions we know of are limited. We usually are at least vaguely aware what our parents do for a living. Most of us know what doctors and teachers are because we have business relationships with them. We're also familiar with most of the jobs that answer the question posed in the Sesame Street song "Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?". However, I don't know that in the fourth grade when I wrote this bio page that I was aware that being a writer was a viable occupation. After all, I didn't personally know anyone who identified themselves this way, and Bob McGrath never sang a verse about the local neighborhood writer. So, I didn't consider "being a writer" a type of career path. Instead, I just thought writing was something people did for fun, and I thought it was fun, so it's what I said I wanted to be. I didn't think of it as a real job.

I kinda wish I'd never learned otherwise.

Recently, I left my day job. There were a few reasons it was time to do this that related to the season of life my family was entering into (I needed to adapt to new school schedules, the commute was becoming ridiculous, etc.), but topping the list was that I wanted to devote more time to writing. You see, sometime between fourth grade and now I had learned that being a writer is a legitimate career for a lot of people. I'd become aware of such jobs as novelists, playwrights, journalists, screenwriters, columnists, essayists...the lists goes on and on. 

The Pottery Barn version of being a writer
However, when I thought about pursuing the dream of writing as my job, the definition of  "writer" I imagined was a very narrow one. It involved a desk, a window, a laptop, lots of coffee, and an never dwindling supply of inspiration. I was confident I would be pumping out two to three novels a year with my roughly thirty hours of writing time now available to me each week. "Being a writer" never felt so possible. 

Except that after about a month of doing this, I became completely discouraged.

I started my first novel in 2011 and published it in 2013. At the time I had two children under five and two part-time jobs. In the past two-and-a-half years, my kids have become school age (so my daytime attention isn't solely devoted to them like it was), I left one of my part-time jobs (and can manage the other one as I wish). I've started two more novels, writing over 200,000 words in them combined. 

And as of last week, I had deleted 190,000 of them.

I wasn't inspired. I wasn't passionate. I wasn't a writer. I felt like I was failing every day, all the time. I couldn't escape the tunnel vision of what I had expected being a writer to look like, and it had killed me wanting to be a writer at all. 

Which is fine, I realized. It's totally acceptable for me to quit writing. So, that's what I did. 

For a few days, I let this be true. I quit. I didn't give two weeks notice. I didn't train anyone to replace or assign anyone to finish the works in progress. I was just done. And it felt so good.

For a few days. 

And then, it didn't anymore. 

I missed creating. I missed storytelling. I missed whatever it was that made my ten-year-old self want to be a writer when I grew up. 

In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks to frustrations such as mine (and countless others...Seriously you guys, this book is amazeballs inspiring). She knows how to do this because she's been where I'm at. Most writers want to quit being writers at some point, she claims. After all, writing can be an extremely lonely, very thankless, highly criticized, deeply vulnerable job to impose upon one's self. 
Example of what I mean by "deeply vulnerable and highly-criticized." Also, I think s/he meant to write "review" and not "reread." I certainly wouldn't want to reread a piece of crap, and I wouldn't expect this reviewer to either. 

But that's the thing I realized--I imposed this upon myself. Being writer was a choice I made, and I made it because I like writing. I've always liked writing. Long before I ever had a reader, I was writing. I like writing because it's fun. Sometime in the past few months I think I forgot that. I started defining writer as something I had to do instead of something I wanted to do. Success became a goal that I thought I had some sort of control over achieving instead of it being a feeling of satisfaction in the work I enjoy. And subsequently, I didn't enjoy it anymore. 

One of my favorite parts of Big Magic is when Gilbert talks about her own decision to become a writer: 

Like Gilbert, I feel fortunate to have found that nothing interests me more than writing. Many people spend their entire lives with nothing interesting them at all. It's a privilege then, to be frustrated doing what I love than to love nothing and feel no frustration. Given those two sides of the coin, I'd call frustrated every time.

So, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to be frustrated and keep writing. Because when it comes down to it, I still really want to be a writer when I grow up, whether or not it's a real job. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Post You've Been Waiting For (If You Have Ameloblastoma)

Before I had my surgery, when I researched people who had survived ameloblastoma (which spellcheck wants to change to "ectoplasm" - and that's awesome), I was discouraged by the number of people who began to document the journey to recovery but never finished it. I told myself that I would not be one of those people - that I would complete MY story if only so that the next person diagnosed could see this process from beginning to end. The good, the bad, and the ugly. 

But my surgery was back on September 17th, and here I am almost five months later, and I've said nothing about it. At least, not anywhere that anyone searching for it could read it.

When I was in high school and into college, many of my writing teachers advised that to best tell an autobiographical story, the story-teller needs to be far enough removed from the situation to have reflected upon it. It can be therapeutic to write when emotions are raw, but to accurately relate what happened, time must pass. I've found this to be true in regards to my surgery, and I think I'm ready to talk. 

I'm okay. I'm healthy. I'm recovering. Life is - for all intents and purposes - what it was pre-tumor. And I'm grateful for that and for all the blessings and love I received during this difficult season of life. 

But, I'm also human, and what I went through was hard. 

First things first - to recap, this is what happened.


See that section of the model between the two, faint blue lines? That part of me no longer exists. A team of about five surgeons cut out and removed approximately four centimeters of jaw, tooth, and nerves (and that purple blobby thing which was the tumor) and replaced that section of bone with an equivalent piece they cut from my hip, as well as that fun metal jawline you can see in the image (It was screwed into my bone and is still there. And no, I don't set off metal detectors.)  The surgery itself was about five and a half hours long, and it went well.
The morning after surgery...pre-swelling
I couldn't eat or walk or even stand without help - but I didn't need any sort of pain management once I woke up from the surgery, and for that I was grateful.  Twenty-four hours later, I was released with a walker and a lot of instructions on how to recover at home.

The swelling was intense and peaked around day three. If you're wondering whether or not I'm comfortable sharing these pictures - I am not. I, like most people, am more vain that I care to admit. I have pride issues, and part of my pride issues is that I DO NOT LIKE to be seen unless I'm "put together." I don't even like admitting that to myself, let alone the Internet, but it's true. However, I feel it's important to share this, and important trumps pride, so I'm getting over myself. 

Holy crap stage
Basically, I went from not looking like I had a tumor, to having a tumor removed, to looking like a giant tumor was taking over my entire head. Or that I was a monster who had eaten my former self and was slowly taking on her likeness.

The surgeons were able to make the necessary incision in my neck fold (that's an attractive word, isn't it?) so that once healed the scarring would be as discreet as possible. My neck incision required 17 stitches (pictured), while my hip required only 14 (not pictured, because this is a G rated blog... well, sometimes). I am looking forward to the opportunity that - when asked about my scar - I can tell someone I had a head transplant. Because honestly, that's sorta what it looked like. 
Neck stitches and more swelling
During the ten days after surgery, my body did show signs of healing. I remember being amazed at how quickly I was able to walk again. I remember also being very hungry. Very, very hungry. And very, very grateful for all my friends who had bought me Panera gift cards so that I could "eat" soup. My mouth opening had been reduced to around ten millimeters at first with the hope that I could eventually reach 30 millimeters with time and stretching. Someone who could open their mouth 40 millimeters is considered to have a wide opening. Pre-surgery, I could fit both fists in my mouth at the same time (again, not pictured, but it's totally true). I basically had a flip-top head (pictured). So, to only have the hope for 30 millimeters was discouraging.  (UPDATE: I'm proud to report that last my surgeon checked, I'm opening WIDER than 40 mm - and I can get MOST of one fist in, in case you were wondering) 

Artist's rendering of how wide I could open my mouth pre-surgery
What was also discouraging to both me and to my doctor was the rate at which my swelling was subsiding. When I returned to work thirteen days after my surgery date, I still looked like this:

But, my stitches were out of both my neck and my hip. So, I was taking the bad with the good. 

With stitches
Without stitches
It was at two weeks and two days after my surgery when I started to run a fever. I wasn't in any pain at all, but I was lethargic. We called my surgeon the following day and he actually performed a house call (which is unheard of and shows his dedication to his patients). After just one look at me, he sent me back to the hospital with a suspected infection in my jaw.

When I originally went to the hospital for surgery, my husband and I had taken every measure to ensure life would be uninterrupted for our daughters. We had planned then for me to be in the hospital for at least four days, but I had been released after one. It was a shock to be sent back with no time to plan, no one to watch our children and no idea when I would be getting out. 

Worst case scenario when I was admitted was that I would have to have the bone graft removed from my jaw (another surgery), heal (without that bone in my face), and have the same surgery performed again months later by cutting out a piece of my other hip (another surgery). 

After about four hours, I was cleared of worst case scenario and just told I would be staying there until my swelling began to reduce. There are many horror stories I could insert here from that hospital stay (But who doesn't have those? And unless you're having a baby, who actually enjoys going to the hospital?), but instead I'll just say that I was kept there for four long days before I was finally released looking more like this.
About three weeks post-surgery
I was put on antibiotics for three weeks following my release, and from this I developed something called "drug fever." Every time I would take my medication, about an hour afterward I would become completely lethargic and get a fever of around 100 degrees. This of course terrified me because I assumed each time (for the 10 days in a row this happened until we discovered what was going on) that my infection was returning. 

It was also during this time that something else became apparent. I had known prior to the surgery that I was going to lose sensation in a section of my mouth and face because in order to remove my tumor, a nerve had to be severed. This was not a "maybe you'll lose sensation" - it was definitive.  On the list of "potential" side effects of was the lost of motor function. As the swelling finally resolved, I noticed that I didn't have full function of my lower lip. It was lagging when I talked and smiled, I would chew on it without realizing it. When I opened my mouth it would creep in over my teeth and I would have to manually pull it back down with my fingers. 
After (now skinnier thanks to not eating for six weeks)
The change looks subtle in person, but it's very noticeable in pictures. And I'm completely self-conscious about it. Additionally, underneath my chin and extending to my throat there is a large mass of protruding scar tissue beneath my skin that "may or may not" resolve. If I want it removed, it will be an additional surgery with an additional hospital stay, heal time, and risk for infection. 

So, in the meantime, since I don't want to do any of that, I'm just becoming very creative with how I pose for pictures. 

I wish that I could say that I bounced back from all this with a spring in my step and a song in my heart, but I didn't. And I don't think I was supposed to. I went into this with a positive attitude and faith that God was going to use this time in my life for His purpose, and I still believe that's true. But part of recovering from this whole ordeal is processing through it all. It's realizing that sometimes random. awful things happen to people. It's feeling the love of my community as they rallied around me, supported me, and prayed for me. It's being depressed for awhile. It's watching too many movies on Netflix. It's having a huge writer's block. It's not feeling pretty. It's feeling guilty for feeling so vain that not feeling pretty bothers me this much. It's learning how not to value myself on my appearance and realizing how much I did before all this. It's - as a dear friend of mine puts it - recognizing the beauty from the pain.

If I had waited until I was "fully recovered" from this to have written about it - I would have never written anything. But, I'm a writer.

I hope that if you are someone who stumbled upon this because you have ameloblastoma that you don't find my story discouraging. I am not discouraged. I had periods of discouragement, but they passed. And yours, when you have them, will pass, too. And if you need a cheerleader in the meantime - contact me and I will personally break out the pom-poms.

Thank you to everyone who stuck by me through this and never said anything like "at least..."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Velociraptor Contingency Plan

I gave birth to my oldest daughter during a season where my husband was traveling a lot. As a result, I spent much of my postpartum alone in our apartment with my baby, worrying. Much of what I worried about were things that all new parents do, I'm sure: What do I do if she gets sick? How will I know that she's breathing while I'm asleep? What do I have to do at this age to prevent her ever becoming a contestant on The Bachelor? However, there was one subject that I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about when I was a new mother that I can almost guarantee no one else does.


I would never forgive this person, ever. 
I was about 13 when Jurassic Park debuted, and like everyone else, I went to movie theater to see it. At the time I remember thinking it was a frightening movie, but I still enjoyed it. I've never been someone keen on horror flicks or gore-porn, but by my adolescence I'd been desensitized to the mild violence and action/suspense that was present in the dino movie, so I survived watching it unscathed. 

Or, so I thought. 

I had no way of knowing at 13 a part of that movie had buried itself deeply into my subconscious and that years later I would be lying awake at night, my baby sleeping in her crib down the hall, mentally devising what I refer to as my Velociraptor Contingency Plan (VCP). 

As a new mother, I had learn to coach myself through the worries that inevitably befall parents by coming up with a "plan" on how to handle just about every situation I could imagine. I was trained in first-aid and CPR for infants/children. We had smoke/carbon monoxide/everything else detectors installed in our apartment. I had specifically chosen a first floor residence so that there was no chance our daughter would accidentally fall down the stairs or out a window. Everything was baby-proofed with cushions and covers and locks long before she was mobile enough to benefit from the precautions. I had taken all the necessary measures to ensure that nothing bad was going to happen to my daughter on my watch. 

But of course, I knew that there were things that were out of the area of my control (as cataloged in the television series Law and Order: SVU) when it came to the safety of my daughter no matter what I did to prevent it. For me however, all the worry of hypothetical situations manifested in likely the most absurd of all the scenarios (and likely the ONE subject not ever handled by Detective Olivia Benson): dinosaurs. 

The scene I attribute as the basis for my need of the VCP
As I would lie awake in my bed, baby monitor static blaring in my ear and my husband six hundred miles away, I would plan what to do in the event of a velociraptor attack.  Thanks to this terrifying scene in Jurassic Park, I knew that these dinosaurs were the breed most likely to break into my house because THEY CAN OPEN DOORS. Of course my doors were kept locked, but I wasn't sure if maybe the more advanced velociraptors were also able to pick locks, so I had to account for that possibility in the VCP. 

I'll spare you the details of the VCP (until the inevitable invasion - then I'll post it online and save the planet), but I'm sure because everyone here is a rational human being (unless you are postpartum) and can logically see that in the grand scheme of parenthood, a velociraptor attack should have been quite literally the least of my worries. With the extinction of the dinosaurs, it had been ruled out as a possibility of something I would have to worry about at all. 

I think it's human nature to try to prepare yourself for the worst-case scenarios in life. I think that this can be helpful (when they are actually plausible and not dinosaur related) to think through the possibilities of things that can go wrong and prepare for them. And it's also important to be grateful when the worst doesn't happen. However, in situation where there is something bad that does happen, being thankful that what's happening isn't something worse can't be the only method for coping with the problem. I agree, it is a healthy perspective to take initially, but it doesn't change the fact that something bad is happening and where ever that particular "something bad" falls on the spectrum of life and death, it still needs to be dealt with. 

In the past few weeks, I have been told "at least you don't have cancer" countless times.  And more than anyone else, I am grateful for this. When my tumor was first discovered back in May, this was my greatest fear, but I met with the oral surgeon immediately after its discovery and was told that while it needed to be removed, it wasn't going to be cancerous (I don't know how he knew, he just did). So, I've been being grateful it's not cancerous for awhile now. Because as child I had watched one of my parents battle colon cancer, perhaps I have an ever greater perspective of being grateful that I don't have cancer than someone with less experience with the terrible disease. 

Cancer is awful. On many levels, it ranks higher on the good and bad scale than do velociraptors. However, I would be doing myself a disservice if I only concentrate on what this tumor isn't instead of dealing with what it is. 

0 - Terminal Cancer 10- Benedict Cumberbatch
No, it's not going to kill me. No, it's not going to make me sick. No, I'm not going to have to go through chemotherapy and radiation. But, it is going to change my life. I have to face that, embrace that, and move forward. 

I know that when people say "at least it's not cancer" they aren't trying to downplay or minimize what I'm going through. I'm grateful for any attempt at encouragement someone would offer me, and I know it really is hard to know what to say to someone in my situation because not only is my diagnosis so rare, but the treatment process seems backwards. The surgery isn't going to make me feel better (I don't feel sick/bad now). It's not going to improve anything noticeable (the tumor was caught before I was physically deformed). The surgery is going to make me feel worse, and I'm going to look terrible for a long time afterward and it will leave a part of my body without sensation forever (a part that feels totally fine right now without the surgery). The whole situation is strange beyond strange that I don't even know half the time what to think or say about it. 

So then, what's the right response? 

I can't speak for everyone else in the world who doesn't have cancer, but for me best encouragement is this: 
If you are a natural hugger, I also welcome hugs.
Just don't make it awkward. 

1.) I'm sorry (if you are)
2.) I love you (if you do/and are also not a creeper)
3.) I will pray for you (if you really will)

So many people have written to me and talked with me this week, expressing these three very things. I'm not kidding when I say that I've read your notes multiple times each and replayed our conversations in my head over and over. I am so fortunate to have such an amazing support system, and I need it. This is the very reason I have made my news so public: I cannot get through this without the prayers and support of the people in my life. I am not meant to. People were made for community (think about the Holy Trinity). We are designed to need one another, and just like I'm grateful that I don't have cancer, I'm also grateful with what I am going through, I have my friends to encourage me. 

There are a lot of things about this whole situation that I have no choice about. I didn't get a choice whether or not to have a tumor or whether or not I wanted to go through these surgeries. The only choice I really have in this is my attitude toward it and how I allow God to use it. And right now, I'm choosing to laugh at the following dinosaur video: 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Plot Twist

Usually, I can see them coming. 

I'm a conditioned audience member. Throughout my childhood, television was a third parent to me. By the age of five I had learned that most of life's problems could be fixed in twenty-two minutes of TV if I was willing to sit through eight minutes of Nabisco, Duracell, and Playtex 18-Hour Bra commercials. No matter how much trouble Bo and Luke got themselves into, by the end of the night everything would be fine in Hazzard County. I knew that no matter what life threw at him, nothing kept Alex P. Keaton down for long, and whoever it was that shot the guy from I Dream of Jeannie would eventually be found out and justice would be served in Texas. 

As a child, I liked this predictability. There was no Wikipedia or Google to help me through the suspense of drama back then (I read all spoilers, all the time, without fail) so it was nice to be able to rely on the consistent exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution pattern that all stories on television seemed to have back then since I had no means of finding out what was going to happen before it did. 

I still find comfort in these types of shows as an adult. I've been known to night-marathon The Golden Girls (if you say that you haven't, you are a liar) on the rare occasion I'm sleeping somewhere that has cable. But as I've matured in age, I have begun to gravitate to shows where I can't predict what's going to happen. Stories where characters are more three-dimensional, not so easily classified as heroes or villains. Shows with that perfect plot twist that I didn't see coming but makes everything so much more interesting. 

I admire writing like that. I want to write like that. 

However, I'm not really a fan of life being like that.

When I first went to have the tumor in my lower jaw removed, I didn't give much thought to there being reason for worry. There was no way for me to predict that there would be--no foreshadowing, no scary music... no warning before the beginning of the doctor's appointment that this episode may be disturbing for sensitive viewers (a clear sign to me to turn the channel). There were just words (really yucky ones like ameloblastoma) and a prescription for a CT scan and then a lot of waiting. 

When my doctor told me that my tumor was rare, it didn't matter to me. It didn't matter to me that I am one in two million people to have this. It didn't matter that of the one in two million people who have this, barely any of them are white, women, or in my age range. It didn't matter to me that it didn't make sense that this would happen to me statistically. All that mattered was that it was happening to me. 

To me, there are no odds. There just is, and is not. And in this case, there just is. 

I prayed that of the options the doctor has laid on the table for me, my CT scan would prove that I'm best case scenario. That my treatment would be the easiest one possible. Others were praying this for me, too. Lots of others. More than I probably know. 

I was confident for good news today. I believed that I would go to my appointment and be met with a smile by my doctor and that he would start by saying, "It's not as bad as we thought."

That was the plot twist I wanted. 

It was not the one I got. 

On September 17th, I will undergo a surgery where four centimeters of my jaw (bone, tissue, nerve) will be cut out of my body. Replacing it will be a titanium plate that will be screwed into my remaining jawbone. If all goes well, while this is being done, a second surgeon will be cutting off four centimeters of my hip bone for use in reconstructing my jaw. This surgery will result in the permanent sensory paralysis of the left side of my lower face (inside and out) and mouth. The incision will need to be made on the outside of my jaw rather than the preferred inside (thus, scarring).

Oh, and all of this is going to hurt like a swear word. 

Of the options the doctor had laid before me (this is bold so that you read this sentence in context), in all three categories, I was once again, worst case scenario. 

Now, I know that this could be worse. In so many ways, health and beyond, I am blessed in this life. Even in this season, I am blessed. I don't doubt that at all. But, I am also human, and words like "permanent paralysis" of any part of the body is difficult to swallow (maybe there's a pun here, but it was unintended; however, if you need to laugh, go ahead). 

To know that a kiss will never feel the same again is hard for me. I'll never be able to feel my daughter's hands on my face or know whether or not I got all the ketchup off my cheek without a mirror. I could go on here, but making a list of sadness isn't going to help me or you cope any better, so I'll stop. 

And anyway, I'm okay. 

Really, I am. And if you know me personally, that might surprise you. I know me pretty well, and I'll all but shocked by it. But, I truly am. 

It's strange, I know. Ever since I found out about this, I've been praying for the best case scenario. I've been begging others to pray for me, that somehow I might get that miracle and be spared this season of my life with all its pain and disfigurement. I've read so much throughout my faith journey about suffering and God and how its such an impasse for so many people. How could a loving God allow suffering? Especially a God I am a follower of? 

God didn't spare his own son (Jesus, for those of you new here) of suffering, even though he asked (through tears and begging so intense that HE SWEAT ACTUAL BLOOD) to be spared of it. In fact, Jesus got an infinitely worse case scenario dealt to him than what I'm going through (Google it). 

Jesus didn't want to do any of that, but ultimately he relented to the will of his father. And all that pain that Jesus felt going through what he did on the cross--God used it all for good (Google this too). 

My pain will be much less than this. My suffering will not compare. But, I truly believe this with all my heart-- it will not be in vain. 

Romans 8:28  says, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

If I allow him, God will use this season in my life in ways that I cannot imagine. And that is the plot twist I am excited for. 

Thank you for all the continued support. Your prayers are felt. And next time you see me, I could probably use a hug. Unless you're a creeper.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why You Should Always Get Dental X-Rays

This post is going to be more personal than previous. Proceed if you wish.

At first I thought that this was ironic. But, upon further study of the word, I decided that what is happening is a coincidence.

However, the most recent chapter I wrote in the sequel to Songs Eight Six—before I knew that any of this was happening—was about how one of the central characters of book two doesn’t believe in coincidence.

Is that ironic?

When I wrote Songs Eight Six, there were many pieces of the story that required some research. One such area was Micah’s injuries. I knew little about broken jaws at the time, and so I had to spend many hours on Web MD and Google Images (I do not recommend this) to figure out the hows/whats of injuries to the mandible.

This is knowledge that, in light of my recent diagnosis, I can’t decide if I’m glad I possess.

Earlier this year during a routine dental X-ray, my dentist discovered an area of concern behind my bottom lower left molar where my wisdom tooth used to be. When I had those suckers removed seventeen years ago, I remembered that there were cysts/tumors growing on them, but being I was young and was never told that I had to worry about them after they were removed—I didn’t. My dentist thought it best to pass along the X-ray to an oral surgeon who confirmed that there was problem, and that the problem was to be solved with hopefully oral surgery.

"chipmunk" phase after first surgery
I opted to remain awake for the surgery (because I’m a little bad-a and more so because I ABSOLUTELY HATE ANY SORT OF SEDATION/PAIN MEDICATION). Afterwards, the doctor showed me the tumor (gross) and said that he thought he’d gotten all of it out (I’d kept my eyes closed for the procedure, but I pictured that he’d extracted it with a mini-ice cream scoop). He then informed me that pathology would categorize the tumor in one of three ways. Two of them meant I was in the clear. The third option was bad, not Cancer bad, but bad enough that he mentioned words like “bone graft.” We both decided that we didn’t want to talk any further about door number three unless we had to, so we didn’t.

I left the surgery feeling really confident that everything was over. The surgery had been an experience that I’d survived. I was going to look like a chipmunk for the days following, but then life would return to normal.

Today was my post-op. I was suspicious when the office called to see if I could come in earlier than my scheduled time so that I would have “more time to talk with the doctor.” You should probably always be suspicious if this happens, because while a lot of doctors are personable people and some can even be a little chatty, few of them have the time to chew the fat with patients during work hours about non-scary health issues. And, as it turned out, I was right to be suspicious.

The doctor wasted no time not-sugar coating everything he had to say. At the time, and even in retrospect, I’m glad for this. If he would have seemed sympathetic or sorry, I would have cried. But, as it was, he gave it to me straight and answered my questions, and I sat there shocked for a few minutes, and then went on with my day.

My tumor was the dreaded third option. While not cancerous (thank God), it’s still aggressive. It’s called ameloblastoma (you probably shouldn’t Google Image search it), and left untreated very unpleasant things could happen to me (I’m warning you, don’t Google Image search it). There will be surgery in my future (one at least, possibly more), and (very likely) a bone graft (the-hip-bone’s-connected-to-the-(pause)-jawbone!). The was talk of long hospital stays, long recovery time, facial scars, loss of teeth, and permanent loss of feeling in my mouth/face.

My book research hadn’t included all of this. I hadn’t needed to know any of how Micah’s body was going to heal, because Micah’s injuries were healed by a miracle (spoiler alert… sorry, but really if you are reading this blog, you SHOULD have already read my book, unless you’re a really bad friend or strange stalker). So far, that is not the direction the author of my life has taken my story (though, I’d be grateful for it if it happens… hint, hint).

As the doctor was describing this future for me, I was just sort of…shocked. I mean, the tumor had been detected incidentally through routine X-rays. It has never caused me pain (except when it was cut out of me). And now, in its absence, it was going to be changing drastically the next season of my life. Of all mouth tumors, only 1% of them are ameloblastoma. They aren’t hereditary. They aren’t caused by anything I did or didn’t do (though if I like and said flossing prevents them, would you do it?). They are just, as the doctor put it, “bad luck.”

post-surgery (artist's rendering)
My bad luck, or irony, or coincidence is going to shape the next chapter of life for my family and me. I’m already pre-grateful for all the love and support that I know my great friends and family will selflessly heap upon us while we figure everything out. I’m also expecting (and kinda excited) about potentially being called “Trap-Jaw” (any He-Man fans?) the rest of my life. But as someone who doesn’t feel she handles many things in life with grace or poise or really anything other than panic, I’m hoping that this journey will give me an opportunity for new levels of faith in God as my father, my healer, and my comforter. I know I’m going to need him in new ways, and I know he’s going to show me he’s there in ways I’ve never known before.

Throughout this season, I will be marching ever forward in writing the sequel to Song Eight Six. The story is not over, and Cosette’s journey is not nearly complete. However, perhaps I’ll try to refrain from writing about bodily injury (and mute characters… did I mention I won’t be able to talk for awhile? Avalon would make really good company…) since my life imitates my art.

Maybe I should just change book two to be all about Cosette meeting Benedict Cumberbatch…

Over the course of the next few months as all this unfolds, I will update here (it just seems more personal than a Facebook post). I’ll also try to update more with other things (since I won’t be much for talking ;)).


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book Drunk Confessions: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

**Let the record show that I really haven't slept in about two nights, and this is probably slightly more like a blog I've accidentally drunk-dialed than anything of coherent thought**

I am incredibly poorly read. On all those meme lists of the hundreds of books everyone is supposed to read, I’ve usually only read about five percent of them, and of that five percent, ninety percent of that list are books I was forced to read under the duress of a grade.

I wish this wasn’t true. Part of me has always aspired to be an academic, or at least be respected as one. I mean, I do have an English degree and I was a high school literature teacher (which I realize that in light of the confession in the first paragraph of this blog, makes me seem like a hack), so I am at least good at existing on the periphery of academia even though I’ll likely not ever have residence there.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading—I absolutely do. And when I find a book I’m interested in, I binge read, forsaking food, sleep, and hygiene to free up  the time it requires to devour an entire story in one sitting. Since having children, this has become a problem since there are now little people who require me to not have my nose in a book so that I can provide for them the food, sleep, and hygiene they need to survive, so I’m even further behind on that list of must-reads than I was before babies.

Earlier this week I was in need of a book to kill the endless hours of free-reading time I was promised that jury duty would turn out to be (see my previous post), when it suddenly occurred to me that I don’t really own any books anymore. I’m an anti-clutter freak, and I get rid of everything all the time. If it’s possible, I think I get high from the sight of a cleared-off table or organized closet, and I’m equally excited by a book shelf with room to spare.  So all the books I used to have, unless they are attached with some nostalgia I can’t convince myself is ridiculous, have long since been donated to Goodwill and are likely sitting on some a shelf belonging to another struggling writer who just happens to have a little less self-control about hoarding than I do.

One exception that I was happy to discover while frantically pulling books from the basement’s inconspicuous and well-organized bookshelf was Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. I remembered reading this book a few weeks before becoming pregnant for the first time (thus ending my leisure reading and beginning my study of the required textbook for moms-to-be, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), and feeling both blown away and paranoid by it. Typically, I’ve got a fairly accurate photographic memory. Occasionally though I’ve noticed that my mind will Photoshop  certain things I see so that I remember them better than they actually looked (like, for instance, my senior prom photo and James Van Der Beek’s hair in Season 1 of Dawson’s Creek). It would be extremely rare that I wouldn’t remember anything at all about something I’d spent any real amount of time looking at or studying (with the exception of all math passed the geometry level), especially—ESPECIALLY—a book.  This is why I never read things twice, I rarely watch movies more than once, and if I’m repeating a Netflix binge of a tv show, I need to wait at least a few years in-between ending the series and beginning it again (except for Sherlock; Benedict Cumberbatch is always the exception to every rule). But since because I’m not currently pregnant, I had nothing in the house to read except for Prep, I decided that I would pick it up again, just skip what was too familiar and reminisce the second time through about how much I enjoyed reading it the first time.

Because jury duty was not the vacation it appeared to be in the brochure, I didn’t much time to read while I was serving, but after an almost five hour bender ending at 3:00 this morning, I have now finished Prep for the second time… though it felt like the first.

I’m not sure if it’s because the book is not action-packed that I didn’t remember it (the book is 10% stuff that happens, 90% the neurosis of a high school girl interpreting the 10% that happened), but it was all new to me. Well, everything felt new except the last chapter because there’s something about Cross Sugarman and the surprising and very graphic sex scenes (I’ll admit it, I’m completely a prude when it comes to sex in books and I blush continuously and shift if my seat while reading them. I more at ease when the scene cuts away, or everything is implied, but that’s probably way more indicative of me as a person than anything else, which suddenly makes me feel naked) that tends to leave an impression eight years away from the story did not erase. That’s not a judgment about that section of writing—it was so painstakingly honest that it made me uncomfortable, and by that account was actually a very GOOD section. It’s just that I have different convictions about the inclusion of that topic in my own personal writing that… Well, I’m getting off topic, and I’m also blushing and shifting, so I digress….

This book was amazing, and it was even more amazing because it amazed me the second time through it. I’m not sure there has ever been a character I have related to more—including any of my own creation—than Lee Fiora, the narrator of Prep. This book is her coming-of-age story—a girl from small town (actually, MY small town) Indiana who gets a scholarship to attend a boarding school in New England for high school. Now, I didn’t go to boarding school (otherwise, I’d probably be better read), but apart from that difference, Lee’s perspectives, her neurosis, her constant over-analyzing of everyone and everything is exactly me—both at fifteen years old, and still, somewhat today.

There were moments when I was reading where Lee’s words were so familiar to me—her confessions living on the periphery of existence—that they felt almost extracted from me. Like my identity had been stolen and decoded tangibly into words and sentences and paragraphs and their subsequent emotions.

It was a bit jarring to discover this again. But it was also very freeing to feel like somewhere out there, there was an author who understood Lee well enough to write her (either because she identified with her herself or because she intimately observed someone like her). And strangely, this became comforting to me, because it meant that there was someone out there—though I’ll never meet her or know her personally—who understood me. Who had written me, fictionally. Lee is only complex because, I think, she chooses to be. And she’s not completely likable. I don’t even completely like her, and I feel like we’re the same person. But I think most people are able to recognize their flaws when they’re explained to them through stories. Like parables.

In light of all this, I’ve begun to wonder if anyone who has read Songs has felt this way—about any of the characters. Like, maybe there’s a Cosette out there or a Micah (they are the two more self-aware in the fictional cast of the book). I wonder who knows a Bronwyn or a Westley, and if the story has changed any relationships…

Those are my dreams as a writer. As much as I’d like to compose “the next big thing”, I would receive more satisfaction knowing that what I have written has meant something. That it’s bridged a connection between two unknown points on the planet. That somehow, my story has helped to solve for x, like Prep has done for me. 

Jury Duty

This week was one of those unexpected time-sucks that you don’t prepare for when you loftily plan a writing spree.

I knew that I was summoned for jury duty for—what could be more appropriate?—April 1st. This was a first for me since the only other time I’d been called was sometime shortly after my first daughter was born, and I was graciously not forced to go. From the time the letter arrived in the mail, whenever I mentioned casually to people that I had been summoned, I received many of the same responses: You’ll spend half-a-day in a room and never get called up. Bring a book! or If you get called into the courtroom they’ll never take you because 1.) you work in ministry 2.) you father/uncle/aunt/cousin is/was on the police force. or If you end up on a case,  it will probably be something ridiculous like some homeowner suing a contractor for shoddy workmanship. I received so much of this encouragement, that I was SURE I wouldn’t even have to show up at the courthouse, or at worst, I’d go and be sent home a few hours later, the better part of the day left to sip a non-fat Butter Bear Latte at Biggby and march Cosette ever forward through the sequel (which by the way, I think, has a title… to be continued).

What I did not expect was to be called up after 10 minutes of waiting into a courtroom where someone would hand me a sheet of paper with the word MURDER written at the top and a list of charges beneath it that filled the entire page. I also did not expect to start crying in the jury box when I learned that because of the nature of the case, the accepted jurors would be subjected to graphic photographs of the MURDER victim. And I definitely did not expect a judge to have mercy on my squeamishness, and excuse me from the case.

I should clarify here that I did not cry to get out of jury duty. That was not my intention. Had I thought it was a viable option, perhaps it would have crossed my mind (as did such excuses as “I’m prejudiced against all religions” and “I think that all people that police officers arrest are guilty”). My tears—as are my hands-over-the-eyes and finger-in-the-ears reactions to blood/death/violence/suspenseful music on television/movies/real-life—were legitimate. I’m not sure why or how it happened, but at some point near the time I became a parent, my sensitivity button was reset, and my tolerance to such things became non-existent.

As I exited the courtroom, I knew that my service was not finished for the day. I would have to report back to the juror room with all the others rejected during the voir dire portion of selection to await reassignment. And, I also knew somehow, that I was not going to leave that day without being assigned to another trial. I’m not sure how I knew this, but I did. The next time I was called up into a courtroom, I wasn’t going to get excused.

And I didn’t.

Perhaps it was because I was schlepping  a To Kill a Mockingbird tote bag (Okay, seriously, WHAT was I thinking?) or perhaps it was because I was carrying a purse made from a hardcover collection of Sherlock Holmes stories (Maybe I should have just worn a giant neon sign that said PICK ME!) but for whatever reason, after asking for my profession and answering “I work in the ministry field and as a writer”, no one asked for further verification that I was fit to serve as a juror on this new, non-murder, criminal case.

Jury duty is a pretty unique concept for a lot of reasons, but one of the most intriguing to me is that it’s the only situation I can think of where I might find myself in a room with people with whom I have no common ground. Think about it—people don’t put themselves in situations with strangers very naturally. We might find ourselves sitting next to people we don’t know at a baseball game or a concert, but then if you’re forced to talk, you at least already have something built-in to chat about: “So, do you think the Tigers are gonna make it until October this year?” “This is my fourth Dave show in two years, what about you?” But, with jury duty, the only things you’re guaranteed to have in common with everyone in the room are 1.) the county you live in 2.) that you have a driver’s license and 3.) you have been inconvenienced by being called to jury duty.

In normal situations of awkward people-juxtapositioning, like a bus ride or standing in line for the bathroom (which only really happens to women, let’s be real… I mean, c’mon, this isn’t a new problem; just build the ladies rooms twice the size of the men’s and let’s be done with it), most of the population find is not only socially acceptable but almost a REQUIREMENT that these moments are spent with all parties eyes’ fixed upon a smartphone or other electronic device and not in the throes of idle chit-chat about weather or how long the wait is. Jury duty, however, removes this crutch of the introvert by banning such devices from the premises of a court house thereby leaving very large groups of people alone in very strange silences or on their own to remember what it took back in kindergarten to make a friend.

“Hi—my name is Lisabeth. What’s yours?”

But, I actually did make a friend. She was walking around the parking lot waving her jury summons and searching for someone to show her the place we were to report. Having made my husband drive with me the 20 miles to the courthouse the previous Sunday for practice in the slight chance I would actually have to serve my summons, I already knew the answer this her question, and I decided that I would share this knowledge with her.

She was pretty and older than me, but she absolutely looked way too young to have been fifty—which, over the course of the two hours we spent together in between being rejected by our respective juries and waiting to be called to another courtroom, she confided to me was her age (you really wouldn’t have believed her either, trust me).

Her name wasn’t Marie, but to you—that’s what I’m calling her.

I instantly liked Marie, and perhaps it was because she felt I had saved her from the anxiety of not-knowing-where-the-heck-to-go, but she instantly liked me, too. I feel like most people don’t instantly like me often because I’m not overly-friendly to people over the age of eight (it’s insecurity more than anything, but I think that I come across as snobbish sometimes—I blame my ski-jump nose and lack of knowledge on how to appropriately shape my eyebrows), so I had my own reason to feel grateful to Marie.

For awhile, Marie and I were the only ones in the entire jury room (there were well over 150 of us there) who were speaking. In the quiet, it almost felt like we were breaking the rules of study hall, but then I remembered that I was a grown-up (I have to actually remind myself of this a lot, in many different situations ) and the jury room had no posted signs of etiquette requiring our silence. People around us had to have thought we knew each other—that maybe we were co-workers or neighbors, and it was a coincidence that we both had been called for the same day of jury service. Because surely, no two complete strangers could have hit it off so well to be talking like old friends in the time it takes to walk in from the parking lot.

But, we had. And I think that such an opportunity for something as unique as meeting Marie is my favorite thing about jury duty.

I’d forgotten about the beauty of the stranger. That there are people and stories and life experiences out there beyond what I have and better than I can create in my mind when scripting a character. Writing can become redundant when you reuse the same recipes to concoct interesting fictional people. And it’s not like Marie had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro or was related to Benedict Cumberbatch or anything… she was just new. Sometimes the way someone is new—the way you would describe them differently than you could have anyone else (Marie was motherly and youthful, hip and concerting, with very white teeth and the wit and smile of a middle-school teacher)—compose an authenticity you can’t just invent. If I were to place a character modeled after Marie in my next novel, she would be effortlessly believable.

An hour after the lunch break, Marie and I were both called up to the same courtroom, and I was immediately (as I had predicted) been called into the penalty box (I’m pretty sure that’s not what it’s called, but it is what it felt like).  Thanks to Atticus Finch and Dr. Watson, that’s where I remained while both the prosecutor and the defense were satisfied with our 13 member jury without Marie on it. She remained in the gallery, never to be called up to be interviewed. Instead, when the jury was named, she and I exchanged glances—mine to her saying, “Luck you” and hers to me sincerely saying, “Sorry about your luck.”

As far as criminal cases go, the one I sat on turned out to be pretty open-and-shut. Eleven of my fellow citizens (we lost one who was excused as an alternate right before we went into deliberation so that we would only have 12 deciding guilt or innocence—he waited in the courtroom until we’d reached our verdict rather than taking off because after having spent the past four days engrossed in the judicial system, he didn’t want to not see the case conclude) came to a unanimous decision within ten minutes. Though it was a clear decision, it wasn’t an easy one. After all, we were chosen to decide someone’s fate, and that’s heavy weight no matter the consequence. I appreciated the decorum and patience and respect all of us—a very diverse group of strangers—gave to each other as we discussed our reasons for our position. I imagine the same 12 of us together at the Secretary of State or waiting for our numbers to be called at the deli might not have been so cooperative, but there’s something about the duty part of jury service that made us all act like professionals. And I think that’s why I felt a little sad when we were released from our jury-bondage to one another. We’d been teammates for a little while. Crime fighters. Super heroes, in a way. We were important together, if only for a few days, and then we were saying goodbye before we’d known one another long enough to remember names. I’m sure they all think I’m Elizabeth, or maybe something equally generic as Jennifer or Caroline.

It sort of seemed a waste of our collective potential, to tell you the truth. Though I was as outwardly excited to have finished the trial before the weekend as everyone else, I wanted to linger together as a group. I longed for a few more hours of downtime to learn about these people. To listen to their stories, observe the unspoken, and tuck them away in mind. To write new recipe cards.

I’m aware that this is a strange re-introduction into my “author blog” after I’ve been silent here since—November? Really?—but it was either take the time to write all this down now, or spend the next few weeks with it fighting its way into the lives of Cosette and Micah and the garden.  And who knows? Maybe Marie will make it in there, or maybe one of the other lessons I learned this week, but sometimes it’s better to just listen to what your mind is telling you when it’s talking.

I promise that I won’t ignore your sequel for much longer. I’m still making progress.