Into the Library

Really Old Books (Wikipedia)

Really Old Books
(Wikipedia)

I know…you’ve heard it all before, My Dear Readers, that I get all excited about this and that and the other thing and I forget that people need sleep and food and fresh air. Well, I’ve done it again. I’ve been stuck in the “Well, what is that author over there doing? Is he/she selling more books than me?! How can I sell a million and a half books?! What is required of me?! Maybe there’s no way to win this writer game! Maybe I’m just a born loser!”

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…

And then I remember that my writing is about, well, my writing and not about what everyone else is doing. Recently, I’ve been concerned that my publisher is taking on too many writers, that this will muddy the pool of talent, make us all look bad or something. I got so caught up in the terror and frenzy of not being special, that I could think of nothing else to do but wander into the library and gather more books to sooth my soul (and, also, I bought wine).

I actually went to two libraries, and not one, and I combed the aisles for all the familiar authors and tales that have made me happy in the past. What I walked out with was interesting, because my big heartburn these last few weeks has been how isolating it can feel to write Literary Fiction. It can bring you down. Make you low. Like the Great Depression. Like infidelity. Like an amputation.

“Why?” you ask. Because these are the subject matters that are the darlings of Literary Fiction.

And then something else occurred to me – that I was depressed because I was reading and writing too much Literary Fiction.

But before I realized any of this, I had walked out of two libraries with two contemporary romances, two thrillers, a collection of Western prose, and one Graham Greene. Oh wow. It seems that when I want to sooth my soul with books, I don’t read Lit Fic (save the Graham Greene book – and he can heal anything), and that this prosy cow-hand (my true inner literary voice) is moved by stories and not themes.

Also, I started writing copy and articles for various marketing firms again in between novels and more graduate courses, because, as it turns out, I am also a workaholic and need more things to do.

Sometimes, you think you know yourself and then you wander into a library and find your real self there.

Posted in A Berlin Story by Tiffani Burnett-Velez, All This Time, Booktrope, booktrope literary fiction, complaining, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writers in Residence Rescheduled

My Dear Readers, I regret to inform you that I have chosen to reschedule the Writers-in-Residence program, as many of my readers have requested that I wait until the summer to offer these outstanding posts. Many are busy and don’t have the time to dedicate to these wonderful pieces by my brilliant writer pals. For that reason, I am going to reschedule this program for sometime in the summer of 2015. More information to come. I’m sorry for any inconvenience this has caused.

That being said, we still have a winner who will receive a free copy of A Decent Woman by Eleanor Parker Sapia! Janet Ursel left us a comment and was randomly selected as winner. Congrats, Janet!

Everyone else, see you when it’s hot and humid and we’re all complaining about how we miss the winter ;)

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Enter to Win a Copy of A Decent Woman!

a_decent_woman

Eleanor Parker Sapia is wrapping up the wonderful week that she has spent here with us at This Writer’s Life. She’s garnered a lot of attention on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest through her words and thoughts on writing. She doesn’t know it, but she will be cited in a Drexel University graduate thesis on creativity and culture soon :) Great thing are happening here at This Writer’s Life, thanks to Eleanor. I can’t wait to see what we’re going to learn from our other great Writers-in-Residence.

To celebrate our week with Eleanor, I’m giving away a free copy of A Decent Woman to one lucky reader. Post a comment here to Eleanor, a question, or praise for her words. I’ll pick the winner randomly and he, or she, will receive a paperback or Kindle copy of A Decent Woman (their choice) on Monday 4/13/2015.

Comment below! Enter to win :)

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A Creative Journey: Nature, Nurture, or Genes?

Welcome, My Dear Readers, to the first installment of Writers-in-Residence at This Writer’s Life! In honor of the recent release of All This Time, my novel about the struggle of Syrian-American, Lydia Fadoul, and her attempt to save the reputation of her deceased fiance, Thomas Miller, accused of murdering two fellow Marines while on tour in Iraq, we are hosting one new writer each week at This Writer’s Life. We’re calling our writers, “Writers-in-Residence,” because they are making themselves available to answer your writing questions, and they’re sharing their own writing tips, struggles, and experiences with you in each post.

Our first theme is “How Culture Inspires Writing,” and our first Writer-in-Residence is Latina author, Eleanor Parker Sapia. For the next six days, Eleanor will be with us to discuss culture, creativity, writing, and anything else readers are interested in talking about. Take the time to read her short post and leave your comments here. I will make sure Eleanor gets ample time to respond to them.

Puerto Rican-born novelist, poet, and artist, Eleanor Parker

Puerto Rican-born novelist, poet, and artist, Eleanor Parker

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s work in social services in the US and with Latin American refugees abroad, inspire her passion for introducing readers to Caribbean and Latin American characters and stories. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, and she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago a second time. A Decent Woman is her debut novel. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children , and she currently lives in West Virginia.

A Creative Journey: Nature, Nurture, or Genes?

Eleanor Parker Sapia

Ponce_town_center_(1900)

Ponce Town Center 1900 (Wikipedia)

A Creative Journey: Nature, Nurture, or Genes?

by Eleanor Parker Sapia

“Creativity is a DNA imperative. It is impossible for us to not be creative. We make things by nature.” – James Navé

I love reading and writing stories about intrepid souls with unshakable confidence; those characters who pursue their dreams, passions, and adventures despite crazy odds, challenges, and inner demons. Many writers learn and perfect the craft of writing with little regard to the critics, naysayers, and the dreaded, interior censor, which sounds a lot like me.

A writer continues the creative journey for years, amidst myriad rejections from literary agents, a few disappointed readers, and publishers they never hear back from. She digs deep into emotional, mental, and spiritual wells, while perfecting the craft of writing, discovering her voice, and finally accessing the dark place where a golden vein hid from her until three in the morning.

And at that exact moment, she ran out of coffee. That really happened. I drove to Sheetz in my pajamas, bought supplies, and wrote furiously until the sun came up. A writer, despite all the odds, challenges ahead, obstacles in front, and yes, lurking inner demons, toils night and day for years, and finally hits the perfect vein—the one they believe and pray will bleed gold for their story.

So which vein did I pierce when I wrote A Decent Woman, my historical novel, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico? The veins I unconsciously tapped into were my life as a Puerto Rican-born woman, blessed with two rich heritages, Puerto Rican and Polish-Russian, and my maternal grandmother’s veins, which flowed with rich, colorful stories about growing up in Puerto Rico—the same blood that flows in me.

I knew my grandmother’s stories by heart, and the character who stood out the most was her midwife, Ana, an Afro-Caribbean woman who smoked a cigar and enjoyed a shot of rum after every birth. This formidable woman caught my mother, two aunts, and my uncle, and through the stories the women in my family told me, Ana seemed larger than life. But there wasn’t a lot of information about Ana, so in my story, Ana Belén became a tall, gritty but kind, Afro-Cuban midwife, born into slavery. But who did I think I was writing and inhabiting the body, mind, and soul of a black woman in colonial Puerto Rico? Would readers believe this story written by a white, five foot tall woman with green eyes, who’d only ever been a ‘slave’ to her children during soccer and football season? I’m fluent in Spanish and I still travel to Puerto Rico to visit my family, but could I tell Ana’s story?

As a budding writer, I had two things going for me—inexperience and naivety—it never occurred to me that I couldn’t write this story.

Ana was a great character and I knew dozens of colorful family stories. In addition to my grandmother’s life blood and stories flowing through my veins, I’d worked as a Spanish language social worker and refugee case worker, a counselor, and one of the staff members of a residential treatment center/school for children. I knew what pain and struggle looked like and I felt the pain of my clients on a daily basis. I also had a love of the mystical and magical world we live in, and a damn good imagination, so I forged ahead, finished the novel, and four years later, it went to layout.

a_decent_woman

Then something wonderful and unexpected happened. One of the early readers of A Decent Woman, an African-American woman, called me. She loved the book and during our first phone conversation, she shared her surprising discovery with a hearty laugh—I wasn’t black. I laughed with her because I’d thought that might eventually come up. We laughed a good bit, and I asked my new friend what she thought of Ana.

She replied, “You wrote a beautiful character.  I love the story.”

What a beautiful gift my friend gave me that day. I was relieved and encouraged by what I’d heard—A Decent Woman a believable story and I’d reached a reader on a deep, emotional level. That is what we want for ourselves as writers and as readers—we want to reach others and we want to be moved. Yes, I researched the history of Puerto Rico for years, but a ton of historical information isn’t an historical novel. I had to become Ana with all the information I’d gleaned from research. Her blood had to flow with mine, and it did. It still does. She is a character I will never forget.

I encourage you to tap into your life experiences as you write. Take risks. Think of your cultural background, learn about and understand other cultures if travel is not possible, and reach deep to find empathy and compassion for others.

Pain is pain no matter where we look or what era we decide to write about, but the story and characters must be believable, or the reader will sense something is off, and possibly close the book. And Lord knows, we don’t want that.

Happy Easter Monday, everyone. I offer my deepest thanks, Tiffani Burnett-Velez for this wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

*You can follow Eleanor’s work and read more about her upcoming projects at her website https://elliesbookz.wordpress.com/.

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Writers-in-Residence Hosted at This Writer’s Life!

All_this_time_II

Something new is coming to This Writer’s Life on Monday, April 6, 2015. In celebration of the release of All This Time and the upcoming release of The Gate, This Writer’s Life will be hosting a new Writer-in-Residence for one week through June 5th. My Dear Readers, you can come here, read the posts, ask questions, and learn something new about the great craft of writing. Gain support from your fellow authors. Extract new ideas from those who share your passion for the literary arts. Post your questions to authors in the comment section, and I will make certain they personally get your questions, and either the writer or I will return with answers within the week.

Additionally, every week, This Writer’s Life will be publishing an additional writer’s essay on the work and joy of writing. You’ll want to visit here often, as there will be a weekly giveaway as well.

Meet the spring Writers-in-Residence:

Our first theme is How Culture Inspires Writing.

Puerto Rican-born novelist, poet, and artist, Eleanor Parker

Puerto Rican-born novelist, poet, and artist, Eleanor Parker

Writer-in-Residence 4/6-4/12/2015 – Eleanor Parker Sapia talks about the cultural influences on her writing and the faith that inspired her. Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the best selling historical novel, A DECENT WOMAN, available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A Decent Woman is the unforgettable journey of friendship between an Afro-Cuban midwife born into slavery and a socialite, set against the rich and combustive backdrop of colonial Puerto Rico, where women are treated as possessions.

You can learn more about Eleanor here https://thewritinglifeeparker.wordpress.com/

Jennifer Chow

Jennifer Chow

Writer-in-Residence 4/13/2015 – 4/19/2015. Jennifer Chow discusses how her own cultural experiences helped shape her writing. Jennifer J. Chow writes Asian-American fiction with a geriatric twist. Her short fiction has appeared in Yay! LA Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Mouse Tales Press, and IdeaGems. The 228 Legacy (Martin Sisters Publishing) was a 2013 Finalist for Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year Award.

You can visit her website here http://jenniferjchow.com/.

Scarlet Darkwood

Scarlet Darkwood

Writer-in-Residence 4/20/2015-4/26/2015. Romance novelist, Scarlet Darkwood, writes about the culture that influenced her unique and expressive writing. Her website is simply beautiful and perusing it will immediately inspire you to pick up a pen or spend an extra hour at the keyboard. Scarlet is truly a writer’s writer. “I’m an indie author, and wouldn’t have it any other way. I like writing what I want to write, and hope others enjoy my novels too. I’m happiest when I’m in the throes of writing a book or working in my own business.” 

You can read more about Scarlet, and her work, at http://scarletdarkwood.com/

The last week in April brings us to our next theme and a whole new set of wonderful writers. April – through mid-May invites a discussion about How Faith Inspires the Writing Life. 

Tess Thompson

Tess Thompson

Writer-in-Residence 4/27/2015-5/3/2015. First in line, is the bestselling romance novelist, Tess Thompson, who has recently pulled back the many layers of her beautiful prose to reveal a talent for Literary Fiction as well in her book, A Duet For Three Hands. This Writer’s Life is currently reviewing that novel, and it’s stunning in its beauty and depth. Look for that review to appear here and other places (in print and online) soon. In the meantime, mark your calendars for a week with Tess Thompson. Tess Thompson is a novelist and playwright with a BFA in Drama from the University of Southern California. In 2011, she released her first novel, Riversong, which subsequently became a bestseller. Like the characters in many of her novels, Tess is from a small town in Oregon. She currently lives in a suburb of Seattle, Washington with her two young daughters, Emerson and Ella, where she is inspired daily by the view of the Cascade Mountains from her home office window.

You can learn more about Tess here http://tesswrites.com/

Travis Norwood

Travis Norwood

Writer-in-Residence 5/4/2015-5/10/2015. Travis is an emerging author with several exciting new books in the works. His first novel, Blood, Sugar, will be released by Booktrope in the summer of 2015. Travis will talk to us about how his faith has sustained him during times of trial and joy, alike. Be sure to spend this sure-to-be beautiful spring week with Travis at This Writer’s Life.

You can learn more about Travis and read some of his essays and articles at  http://travisnorwood.com/

Daphne Lamb

Daphne Lamb

Writer-in-Residence 5/11/2015-5/17/2015. The beautiful Daphne Lamb hails from the city of my childhood, Los Angeles, so I am particularly excited to spend a week with her, learning more about the craft of writing through her eyes of faith. Growing up a Christian in southern California had its challenges, and Daphne comes to us from the movie business. I can’t wait to learn from her. This Writer’s Life is excited to host her in mid-April. Daphne spoke to This Writer’s Life a few weeks ago, saying,  “Currently, I live in Los Angeles and work in the entertainment industry where there is great darkness but a great need for the light. My faith permeates my writing…”

You can learn more about Daphne by following her on Twitter https://twitter.com/stabbymcfires

Our last theme, and one that is close to my own heart, is Military Life – how it inspires, effects, and changes a writer’s experiences. Because, All This Time, is a book about the military life through civilian eyes, I am thrilled to have convinced Kate to spend a week at This Writer’s Life talking about her experience as an Air Force veteran.  We will have a surprise military writer announced just shortly before his/her arrival. Stay tuned.

Kate Anslinger

Kate Anslinger

Writer-in-Residence 5/18/2015-5/24/2015. Kate Anslinger is an Air Force veteran and author. Her work has tackled PTSD and the military. Her post here will definitely encourage your questions. EJ Hanagan is a fitness fanatic, obsessive reader and animal lover. She currently lives in a sleepy little beach town just outside of Boston with her husband, their new daughter, and the family’s two giant Newfoundland dogs. After spending four years in the Air Force, she put her fire for fitness to good use and worked as a personal trainer while attending college. EJ credits the amazing, brave people she met in the military for giving her the passion and focus to raise awareness for veterans with PTSD. Her hope is to bring the invisible scars of war to the surface through her writing and community involvement.

You can learn more about EJ, her books, and her charity work at www.ejhanagan.com.

Writer-in-Residence 5/25/2015-6/5/2015. TBA

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Friday Friend: Lunch Break at the Saturday Cult

Just in time for Passover, let me tell you about the time I made a best friend during a cult luncheon. It was the kind of cult that liked things to be quasi-kosher and they spoke in tongues. Being a half-Jew raised going to Mass, I found my twenties to be a time of great inner conflict. I felt guilt at Easter and guilt during Hanukkah. On the West Coast where I had grown up, no one gave a rip what I believed or where I came from. Everyone living in southern California is really from somewhere else and only carrying their actor names around anyway. I could be anything. As long as I remained blond and thin, no one ever asked who I really was. And then I moved to the East Coast, where content often matters more than cover photos. Not always, but often.

I only attended the cult for a short time, long enough to draw my friend out of the cesspool of their bastardized Judeo-Christianity, and I ask myself every now and then (when I’m brave enough to even consider the question), “What the hell were you thinking? You love Sacraments and liturgical calendars. How did you get roped in with these people?” But then I drop this line of questioning, because it becomes uncomfortable. We’ve all had moments when our faces were full of zits, when we dated people who turned out to actually smell bad in public and whisper-scream in libraries, and some of us visited a cult for a few weeks during our younger, more boring years. For Lenya and I, it was the cult, and not the zits and bad relationships that brought us together.

She was sitting across a cracked linoleum Sunday school table from me. To this day, I wonder what legitimate church would allow these freaks to borrow their basement for worship – which consisted of synchronized jumping and blood curdling songs about war, but to each his own. Lenya, as I call her now, her real name is Elaine, but we have a strong Slavic connection, was scowling at me in between bites of her plain egg bagel with a pounds of sour cream slathered across it.

“There is no vaccine for malaria!” she was arguing.

Someone had told her that I had been to the Soviet Union recently, and that I spoke Russian. She was saving money for a missions trip to her great grandparents’ Ukrainian village. She sized me up from the moment I sat down and smiled, extending my hand. She just stared at the hand.

“Why were you in Russia? What were you doing there? Are you Russian? Why would you want to speak Russian if you’re not Russian? How do you even know that Russia exists if you’re not Russian?”

“Well,” I said, retrieving my sticky Everything Bagel hand. “My father is Jewish, and a lot of ‘my Jews’ were Russian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Polish…You know. The Pale.”

Lenya sat up straight, indignance pouring from her irritated aura. She dropped her bagel onto the plastic plate and a small dab of sour cream plopped onto the table, covering a child’s fading crayon marks. “Of course I know the Pale. I read Chaim Potok!”

“So do I!”

We had something in common. I was very excited. I was determined to win over this grouchy beginnings of a friend.

“Hmph.” Lenya looked away to a shifty-eyed guy with three combed over hairs and collection of stories about his accidental pornographic experiences. He had photos in his hands for this luncheon, and he was eyeing up Lenya. She narrowed her slate blues at him, and he turned away quickly and shuffled to the next table where a large woman in a trench coat sweated heavily through her armpits while she slurped a bizarre soup that was labeled “Mixed Kugel and Chicken”. She greedily inhaled the wet potato bake between her broken brown teeth. I later heard that they married, but the guy, I believe his name was Larry, left her because she was too old at 45.

“My favorite book is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” she said, finishing the last of her bagel and drinking down a large bottle of Pepsi.

“That’s not Potok. That’s Solzhenitsyn.”

She smiled this time. She had finally found something in her adversary to respect, and began to open up about how she had lent her copy to a coworker once and he disrespectfully refused to return it. “I never lend books to people anymore. It doesn’t pay. People steal things.”

We both agreed on this point and several others, and though I thoroughly hated her at that moment in time and vowed to avoid her at all costs after that, I knew deep down we were meant to be lifelong pals. You know, My Dear Readers, how you sometimes meet someone and you realize that in a past life, or this present one,you were related? That you’re family and that’s all there is to it? Well, that’s Lenya and I, and even then, as I was complaining to my husband, “This place is a psych ward and she is the rudest person I’ve ever met!” I was making plans for future meetings.

From that first time, Lenya and I have created a lasting and bonded friendship. Together, we have begun and failed at several small businesses (mostly direct sales ventures for things that even God could not market efficiently). We began a brief laundry business where we both agreed to invest in this no name company that created organic detergents for sensitive baby butts, and we thought we’d boost our sales by offering to wash exhausted young mothers’ household filth every week for a monthly price. We gained exactly no clients from that effort, even though we pounded on the doors of several lonely acquaintances and asked them if they wanted a nice meal and clean sheets. Of course, they all readily accepted the offer, but no one ever paid us and so we went into used books.

We began an online bookseller called Poor Richard’s Used Books when Amazon first came out. We uploaded all the trash novels our grandmothers had given us and we collected a few more from the local Goodwill and placed them online for a fair price of $3.99 each. It was the one and only time I ever held a Jackie Collins novel between my fingers and considered sharing it with the known world.

“I guess it’s true that people will do anything for a little money,” I said to Lenya, and then I threw up and she threatened to follow suit.

We immediately made three sales, forgot to mail the books, and got banned from selling anything more as Poor Richard’s Used Books on Amazon for the remainder of our natural lives.

We began an after school daycare, which I mostly ran, but Lenya acted as consultant, because her mother used to run a daycare. We had three children in the group. Lenya hated the sounds of their screaming and it made her say bad words in Pennsylvania Dutch (a culture in which neither of us is a member) and that job fizzled out when we started pretending that we forgot children were coming over and we started going to McDonald’s for dollar vanilla cones instead.

The entire time, we had a very consistent writer’s group and book club. We even hosted Jonathan Maberry once and interviewed some very cool and, also, creepily brilliant writers. Lenya wrote a paragraph of a novel, and I wrote Budapest, which did so well in the early days of independent publishing, that we decided to begin our own imprint. That, too, was very successful and led to a literary magazine, which also won several literary awards and garnered some nice sponsorship. However, we both became busy and I moved and we shut down the press and the magazine and I went back to freelancing for magazines, newspapers, and writing lucrative copy for marketing firms.

Through illness and falling down farmhouse renovations, through kindergarten graduations and college scholarships, Lenya has been the defacto Godmother for each of my children and the best thing that ever could have happened to them outside of my husband’s and my parentage. She’s the extra appendage to our family, and of all the friends I will talk about on Friday Friend, none of them will surpass the great Lenya Papciakova. None of them. In fact, I would suggest, if you are a human being reading this, and you’re hoping to become a better person, you should try to be more like Lenya. My one amendment to that statement would be that if you’re going to be like Lenya, become a little more flexible with discussions about foreign travel vaccinations when you’re eating hard bagels at during lunch break at the Saturday cult.

Lenya

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Friday Friend Blog (hosted at This Writer’s Life): The First Smile at Booktrope

Years ago, I had this habit of blogging a friend a week. I believe I called this activity “The Friday Friend”. I know that’s a lame title and it sounds like they’re only friends on Fridays, but of course, this is not so. They were friends every day to everyone, always an unusually kind person who left in the wake of their everyday paths, a rule for life, a set of gifts that could just as easily go unseen as seen for all the rarity of them. These were friends who, maybe, fed the poor and cared for the sick, but more often, they just knew how to make sad people laugh or how to grow big beautiful roses and then give them all away. These are the kind of people, My Dear Readers, who bless us so profoundly we often cannot see them amid the relentless activities and the gnawing anxieties of American life. And truly, these Friends do not even realize their own value, because they give without asking for a return on their investment of spirit and light.

I have friends who write, preach, make music, clean air filters, soothe dogs, repair broken fences on the High Plains, hike whole mountain ranges, right the wrongs done to children, erase bad memories with experimental therapies, teach at Ivy League institutions, give chemotherapy to cancer patients, teach preschoolers, tutor the mathematically challenged, defend their nations (mine, there’s, yours), etc…and I will get to each of these people in time, on a certain Friday when the wind blows just right and it feels that today is their mention that matters, but this Friday Friend reflection is for someone that – if you ever meet her – you will know exactly why she came first on this list.

Last year, I sold a novel to Booktrope, or rather, I sold a whole series of book concepts and this brilliant new publisher took a risk on my words and my outlines and one finished manuscript. Today, that book released and I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have a group of people believing in my ideas and my interpretation of the world.

Through Booktrope, I have found friends whom I have not met in person, but who permeate my online experience. From the fray of new voices, a sea of genres, a constant daily introduction…one face stood out – a sweet, smiling face that seemed to hold all the happiest moments of childhood and keep them bottled in the eyes and spreading through her smile. I have lived in five states and visited four countries, but in all of them, I have never met a person who so boldly channeled kindness just through a simple smile. The pure unaltered kindness of childhood.

She must have a ton of beautiful babies, I said out loud one evening when Facebook was firing away with new welcomes and write on urgings. She was the very first person to, in fact, welcome me, and I kept a note of her kindness in the back of my mind thinking, I bet it would be cool to meet her one day, but I’m an introvert who loathes even, sometimes, visiting with my own dear lifetime friends. She brightens dark rooms, I’m sure of it. And then the thought drifted out of my mind and into the mix of repairing broken characters, filling in weak outlines, fleshing naked ideas.

But a few months pass, and the next picture I notice of her is one where she’s wrapped in a hospital gown and she’s talking about her baby, and insisting that he’s fine and so is she, but she’s asking for good thoughts. She looks Catholic, I say stupidly to myself, with the sweet round face and the sheen of dark hair. Maybe, if I say, “God bless you” and “I’m keeping you in my prayers” it won’t be offensive. With writers, you never can tell whether or not you’re going to wake the beast of God or the Antichrist. But there was a light in her soul that reached beyond the Facebook walls and said, “I’m a human and I’m living a real life with heartbreak and trials and joy” and so I said the words, “God bless you. You and your sweet baby are in my prayers.”

She “liked” my comment and took the time to personally respond to my comments, which were deeply heartfelt, but as generic as all the other endlessly rolling good wishes. Hundreds of Booktrope writers and book managers and editors and designers were wishing her the same, were sending her good vibes and prayers and hopes and hanging in there with her while she endured a medical situation that I didn’t really understand. What I did understand, was the concept of life and death, of hospitals and trauma. I’ve been hit by a car, paralyzed by a rare neurological disease while pregnant, had surgery multiple times on both kidneys, had two miscarriages and one stillbirth, had spinal taps too many to count, had a tonsillectomy to remove cancerous tonsils and to stop chronic bronchitis, had a complete hysterectomy to remove pre-cancerous ovaries, had a thymectomy to remove a precancerous thymus gland that had already begun to attack my nervous system, endured immunoglobulin treatments every few months, etc and most before age 35…Medical trauma is not my friend, but it’s too close and constant to be a stranger. I’ve been there, just like the girl with the sweet face and the big smile, and so my heart bonded to hers, even if it is wrong, or weird, to bond with a stranger through Facebook.

More weeks go by. My new Facebook Friend reports good news, and everyone rejoices with her. She makes a daily contest of challenging everyone to share the cutest puppy photos, and she makes us all laugh. A lot. Whenever she’s online, she’s spreading that smile, that joy and laughter – the rare gifts that deserve mention, because they take purposeful cultivation.

I hate cute puppy photos. I find them to be a waste of time, but she so inspired me with her pictures, that it made me love Sancho Panza, my big brown Labradoodle even more. I started posing him and putting Bed Head hair gel in his hair to give his natural perm a twisty little Mohawk, or to show off the infamous “puppy head tilt” he offers when I’m dangling a marshmallow over his face. My Facebook Friend’s challenge to laugh, got me laughing, got me away from the computer and working harder on being happy than I had worked in a long time. She offered a near-daily overabundance of free light and joy, and she encouraged all of us to see where that same joy was hiding in our own lives. And as the winter drew in and darkened all of the northeastern coast of America with white impassable drifts that had become street mountains and freezing rain pellets that sounded like Gatling Gun firings against our tired snow-sunken roofs, that kept us all indoors for days on end, Facebook Friend continued to smile and encouraged us to do the same.

And then, somewhere in that frenzy of last minute edits and book promotions and holiday gift-wrapping, there was no more baby and no more puppies and the news became as grave as the high walls of winter snow that blocked us all in and the sorrow that moved throughout our small world of tightly woven writers seemed to press against all of us. And the internet was silent. I thought of myself for a moment, but only in as much as it made my heart break for hers. I know something of this pain, I wanted to say to her, and there’s nothing I can offer but your own childlike kindness back. It grows where you have watered it.

“Daddy, why does it feel like sadness is a jail?” I asked my father once when I was three and my guinea pig had just died, and he turned to me, patted my head softly.

“Because it tells the truth at first, that something bad has happened and then it makes a lie and tells you that nothing good lives anymore.” He crouched down and looked at me, “And this is how sadness gets you down and keeps you there, by making you believe that life is over and not very beautiful. But it is, right? You still laugh when your brother does something silly? You still feel happy inside when you’re outside playing with your friends? And you have Poochai, your cat, and he’s mean and grumpy and loves peanut butter?”

And I felt my own smile begin to form, thinking of my fat cat named for Thai words of endearment that my father had picked up somewhere in Southeast Asia. I nodded slowly, listening, ever-bending more to this concept that life might, indeed, be more beautiful than ugly, and soon, some of the high snow inside my heart began to melt, slowly, but the thawing had started. This was the same kind of joy my Facebook Friend dropped in small and big pockets with every post. You think your online presence doesn’t matter, but your voice is part of you, and you leave bits of yourself wherever you go, even if you don’t believe it. Even if you’re one of those people who fancies themselves a realist who believes in a world without spirit and a universe without energies that cannot be measured.

I sent my friend a note, unsure of whether or not she might find me a little nuts – sending a personal note like this to a stranger…the only thing we’re sharing is Facebook and the same godforsaken winter, but I want you to know that my prayers belong to you…Sorrow is always easier to grow in times of great loss than joy is, but she had done it. She had built up the big reserves. I wanted to offer back to her some of that bottled up childhood joy, that pure gift of light, she had shared so freely with me from my very first unknown day on my publisher’s Facebook wall. She did not have to offer me anything more than one of the welcomes and write ons, but she did. She offered an immediate and distance-evaporating kindness.

The reason these kinds of things – like reaching out to talk of another person’s trauma – feel uncomfortable is, because it’s hard for us to believe our own value and, therefore, reflect it back, but the instructions are all around us. I believe God reflects back to us his love through nature, through the crunch of bright fall leaves, through the crystal silent surface of summer pond, through the howl of winter wind, through a stranger’s unbridled smile. These are his moments of encouraging us that we’re of consequence to him no matter how broken our lives feel at the moment – all of this you see, this is Me trying to impress you. If you doubt my version of God, you’ve never stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon or had someone visit you for hours at your sickbed. All we have to do to give someone joy is draw up, from inside ourselves (sometimes deeply, because ours stores are low, and sometimes easily, because our stores are plenty) the same kind smile a stranger shared with us online or in real life. It doesn’t much matter, because the spirit of kindness is not bound by geography or even time. This is why Mother Teresa, dead already these few years, still inspires us and warms our cold thoughts.

That’s how my Facebook Friend’s smile seemed to me, like a gift that, once given, cannot be erased. She lost so much this winter, and it’s not fair and no one understands it. Yet she continued to offer peace and a kind word to everyone who’s path she crossed in an online world where she could have vented and screamed and used words to punch back at the world that must have, surely, seemed to hate her with the bitter cold and with all the cruel falsities about life not being all that beautiful.

Today, I reopened my old blog page on Facebook and she was the first person to acknowledge it (of course), actually thanking me for inviting her in to my world of nonsensical half-Southern/some-California/mock-Russian/broken-Spanish made-up writer vernacular, failed dinner menu posts, pictures of Sancho Panza – world’s greatest Labradoodle (this is her fault, however), and book talk so repetitive it probably looks to some readers like a permanent tic. This is my story…this is my book…these are my words…This is my…But she ignored all that and went straight to the kindness.

“Thank you for adding me, darling!”

No, thank you, for being the nicest person I’ve encountered this Friday, and probably most Fridays, even though Fridays are truly great, and that’s why we should all be nice to each other on the last leg of an aging week that may have already seen too many terrible things to mention. This is my Facebook Friend’s gift, and a powerful one, that she probably doesn’t realize she possess and leaves strewn about the dry fields of the barren everyday, like a flower seed that will unexpectedly grow in the dark season.

And this is my first Friday Friend since 2003, when I lost my own baby and just stopped talking about nice people all that much. It’s interesting how long the streak lasted and who broke it first. Happy Friday, Cait!

cait_reynolds

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