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Dog years

A few weeks back I posted a weepy, quasi-review of The Art of Racing in the Rain, which you can read here.

It’s the story of a family – a dad, a mom, and a child – told from the point of view of their dog.

Completely unconventional and fresh, I loved the premise, was captivated by the story and I balled like a paid mourner when the dog died of old age at the end. (I am giving away nothing here. The book begins with mercifully telling the reader the dog is dying.)

I confessed how I traipsed downstairs to find my 12-year-old Labrador, tears blinding my steps, so that I could wrap my arms around him and tell him what a good dog he was. He thumped his tail and turned his gray Skeletor face to mine, not peeved in the least that I had interrupted his senior dog slumber.

From that moment on I knew I was in for trouble. I had to do something to prepare myself for the inevitable. Luke is 84 in dog years. His days are numbered, just like mine, but he has far less days on the abacus. When the opportunity came my way to add Bella, a five-year-old blonde retriever, to our family, I jumped at it – and not just for me. Luke has gotten emotionally needy the last few months, following us around the house when we’re home, pacing and moping when we’re not.

So we brought her home last night. There was much sniffing and nervous tail-wagging, a growl or two from the old man – and this morning when he woke up and saw that Bella was still here, you could almost hear him saying, “Dang. I thought I had imagined that blonde chick.” But in the end, I think he will come to appreciate Bella’s quiet presence, her desire to please, her warm personality. I know I will.

In the end.

Have a lovely weekend, Edglings. Oh, and congrats to Lia, who won Melody’s book, The Other Side of Darkness.

Peace, friends.

Forward motion

On Monday I was anxious for today, Wednesday, to get here – for two reasons. One, I was tired of the mud-slinging presidential campaign process, and two, I had no deep affection for either candidate and I was lamenting that fact.

Now that it’s Wednesday and the voting is over – and with it the deeply polarizing forces silenced – I can say that I am happy Wednesday is here for two different reasons. One, I was moved by the speeches of both President-elect Obama and Sen. John McCain. Wish I had seen more of that valor and maturity on the campaign trail.

Second, I am proud that my nation will welcome an African American to the White House. I may not agree with every policy that will show up in the next four years but I am applauding the racial divide that crumbled to the ground last night. There was much that was gained on Tuesday, no matter which side of the fence you’re parked on. Well done. . . Now we get busy, all of us, and move forward.

Waiting on Wednesday

You rememember that line in “Titanic” when the young immigrant mother tells her little children, “It’ll all be over soon?”

That’s the most tender moment in the movie, and one I quote far too often because each time I do, I feel like I rob from it just a little.

But to be honest with you, I can’t wait for tomorrow – Election Day – to come and go. I want it over. I love what it stands for and I am wholly smitten with democracy and the privilege of voting but with this rosy privilege comes a slew of thorns. It amazes me that in a nation of millions we can be so polarized. So angrily red or blue.

On Wednesday there will be millions of happy people and millions of unhappy people. And though the mud-slinging and namecalling will end, the half that are unhappy will likely stay that way for 48 long months. Until we get to do this again.

I hate to whine and then not offer a solution, but I don’t know what it is. If there was a standout candidate who everyone could get behind to some extent – and I don’t mean a centrist who has no passionate opinions on anything – I wonder how different an election year would be. To be honest, I am not captivated by either of our presidential candidates; perhaps this is why I am feeling mopey today and walking around the house mumbling “It’ll all be over soon” in an Irish brogue.

Do you remember the character Harrison Ford played in Air Force One? Remember that president? Brave and brilliant, tenacious and transparent, honest and honorable. Selfless and sincere. Everybody respected him. He wasn’t perfect, but he had the respect due him. That’s what I am whining for; I want a president whose resume inspires a commanding John Williams theme song and whom half the nation won’t despise.

Sigh. Pass the soda bread.

Making sense of life

I have been remiss in posting the last few days. I apologize.

But to make up for it, here’s a little gem of poem written by the gentle man sitting next to me at left. This man, Mr. Frank Barone, was my ninth-grade English teacher. More than thirty years have passed since I was his student, but his remarkable insights into writing are still with me.

Long before I had any confidence in my skills as a writer, he read a short story of mine out loud to the class – that’s how much he liked it. He didn’t tell anyone what he was about to do. He just sat us all in a circle and said, “Let me read you a story.” I still remember the flush of joy at having him read my story to a room full of peers. That heady feeling of deep satisfaction and affirmation has stayed with me and fueled me at moments when I’ve been tempted to wonder if I have any knack at all for words. Just goes to show you how influential an adult can be in the life of a young writer.

Frank came to my book launch party on Sunday and presented me with a poem he wrote just for me. Pardon my boldness for sharing it with you here:

“Dissecting a book was the same as making sense of life.
You have to find a way to interpret life or you will go nuts.” – Lauren, The Shape of Mercy

Susan has found a way to interpret life.
She looks at her world through honest eyes
and observes the people she meets
with their hopes and dreams
their hurts and scars
and listens to the unspoken stories they tell her.
Then she sits down with them at her desk
or maybe at Starbucks with a latte in her hand
and writes her way into their hearts
with clear prose and creative imagery.
Day after day they develop into friends
who have learned how to listen in silence
and with compassion
unafraid to reveal their souls to her
unafraid to speak the truth.
They trust her to intrepret their lives
so that their stories become her story
then ours.
And as we read, Susan gives us the chance
to ease our hurts
soothe our scars
and renew our hopes and dreams.
With each page we turn
she invites us to join her growing group of friends
and together try to make sense of our lives
-Frank Barone.

I wonder how different the world would be if each one of us vowed to empower one teenager to reach for the best that is within them. There is a great line in one of the Spiderman movies that says it best. Peter Parker is wrestling with choices he must make and his uncle says to our young reluctant hero something like this: “These are the years you are becoming the man you will be for the rest of your life.”

And therein is enough reason to encourage, affirm, impact, and influence the young adult near you who stands at the starting gate of all he or she will be.

Invisible author

Can you be in love with a book’s words and not be in love with the book? I say you can. I just finished Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scipture and am feeling schizophrenic about it. Loved the way Barry wove the words. But oh, the story. So sad.

Here it is in a nutshell. As a young woman, Roseanne Clear McNulty was one of the most beautiful girls in Sligo, Ireland. The story opens as she nears her hundredth birthday which she will spend, as she has the last seventy-some birthdays, as a resident of a mental hospital. She begins to record her life journey but hides the pages from Dr. Grene, her caregiver. Meanwhile, Grene has been tasked with assessing if ancient Roseanne can be released into society as the hospital has been slated for demolition.

As Dr. Grene researches her case he comes across a document written by a local priest that tells a different story of Roseanne’s life than what she has revealed to the reader through her hidden pages. From the book’s back cover: “As doctor and patient attempt to understand each other, they begin to uncover long-buried secrets about themselves.”

The book’s prose is achingly beautiful. The storyline, achingly sad. A little too sad. There was just a smidgeon of satisfaction in the conclusion. Still, you gotta love Barry’s style. New York Times reviewer Dinitia Smith said it best: “Above all it is the surpassing quality of Mr. Barry’s language that gives it its power. A woman is as “young and slight as a watercolor, a mere gesture of bones and features.” Swans in a rainstorm are like “unsuccessful suicides.” And the moon—well the moon is “prince of all outside,” he writes. “Its light lay in a solemn glister on the windowpanes”… Mr. Barry has said that his novels and plays often begin as poems (he is a published poet), but his language never clots the flow of his story; it never gives off a whiff of labor and strain.”

A good friend of mine told me the other day that while she’s inside the pages of my newest release, “The Shape of Mercy.” I, the author, become invisble. It’s just her and the characters. “It’s like you’re not even there,” she told me. Wow. I could’ve done cartwheels. I’ve never had a compliment affect me like that one. I am invisble. At to least to Tina. Nice.

That’s what Barry’s writing is like for me. Fluid like water, transparent like water. Slips through your fingers. He’s not even there.

Great prose, beautiful words, harsh realities. A great read if you are happy enough already.

Specific acts of kindness

You can always count on my friend Terry Esau to offer deep insights through unconventional means. I love his writing style – it’s edgy (who doesn’t love to peer over the edge to see what lies beyond your ordinary horizon!), it’s fresh, it’s powerful, it’s challenging.

Terry is the master storyteller. He can extract truth from the most trivial of circumstances and he does it in a way that makes you laugh one minute and grab your chest the next. I loved his latest, Be The Surprise. It’s a companion piece to Suprise Me, God – A 30-day Faith Experiment, that challenged readers to pray a simple prayer, and only this prayer, for 30 days: “Suprise me, God.”

In Be the Surprise, Terry turns it back on us, the God-followers, to look past comfy-coziness and endeavor to be the surprise someone else is praying for. And to do it now. I love this quote from the book: “The present will never reveal its full potential unless God is riding with us, enhancing our awarness of it. God brings the present to life; or should I say he brings life to the present. When we live with this awareness, we will no longer desire to rush past the now, hoping that our later will be better, because the now will have become our favorite stretch of highway.”

Foisting kindness onto the hurting world is what Christianity should be all about, you know?. It’s what the -anity should be if we put flesh on it. We show Christ when we give, when we reach out, when we respond to need. We show Christ when our “anity” is love that surprises.

Great book, Edglings. A quick read, a powerful read. A keeper.

If dogs could write

Picture this.

I am reading after midnight alone in my bedroom. Husband is off doing Air Force Reserve duties and I can read as late as I want without bothering anyone. So I do.

I finish The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein sometime before 1 in the morning and as I turn the last page, I am weeping. I climb out of my bed and stumble downstairs in search of my dog. I must see him. I find Luke, my 12-year-old Labrador, asleep on his bed. I kneel down and throw my arms around him. “You’re such a good dog,” I murmur between sobs. He thumps his tail and just lets me do it.

I am not giving anything away by telling you the dog dies in The Art of Racing in The Rain. You learn that from the opening chapter. But reading this rather unconventional book, told from the point of view of a dog named Enzo, took me to a place I fear: the place where I lose my good old dog to old age. Luke is 12. He is losing his hearing. His hips sag and sway. He doesn’t run up the hill anymore. He sleeps a lot.

But I am not ready to say goodbye. Especially now, when I consider the highly remote possibility that Luke, like Enzo, could narrate the story of his life with us if he wanted to. And if he could, what he might say.

I loved this book for the fresh perspective on what a dog might observe as he lives out his life with the humans who gave him a name and an identity. If he had language, what would my dog say if given the chance to tell his life story? My dog has seen me at my best and my worst. He has seen me when life was breezy and when it was as turbulent as a cyclone. And he still wags his tail when I come in the door, whether I’ve been gone five minutes, five hours or five days. and you can just hear his unspoken thoughts: “You’re home. I’m glad.”

If you’ve ever read the excerpt from dog’s and cat’s diary – the author of which is unknown to me – and found it wildly funny, you will understand the depth of my devotion to my dog.

I don’t think I’ve ever cried as long or as loud at the reading of any other book.

Perhaps it was because it was nearly one a.m. when I finished it and I was over-tired from watching the Olympics every night past midnight for two weeks straight.

Perhaps it was because I was alone and didn’t have to hide my reaction from anyone.

Or perhaps it was because I know dogs don’t live near long enough. Enzo didn’t. And neither will my dog.

And it just doesn’t seem fair.

Why do we love our dogs so much? I think it’s because they love us, warts and all. I bet we’d be amazed at the stories they could tell, if we were brave enough to listen to them.

Great book. Don’t read without tissues at the ready.

The many splendored thing

I did what I said in my last post I was going to do.

I took my characters in my current manuscript to the valley of decision, plopped them down in the middle of The Pivotal Moment, and left them to marinate there for the weekend.

Had to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

They weren’t invited, my characters, though they jockeyed for position to ride shotgun on the way to the party. I told them, “No. Sorry. You have to stay here and think about where you’re at right now and how you got there.”

“You put us here,” they whined.

“I will bring you some cake,” I said. “Really good cake. Bavarian cream.”

They acquiesed.

And I had a lovely time and didn’t think about them at all.
My parents, Bill and Judy, (top photo was taken while they were still dating) were married Aug 8, 1958. Don’t you just love the 50’s? Cars were cool, the music was cool, clothes were cool. I love my parents’ wedding pictures. I can just feel the hopeful optimism in those deep black and white tones. It seems like the last decade before the world became a different place. Less optimistic, maybe? Less simple. Less genteel.

Just think of the decades anyone married 50 years has had to wrap their wits around. The rebel 60s, the culturally bankrupt 70s, the big hair-big glasses 80s, the it’s-all-about-me 90s and the techno 00s. I salute my parents on every front for meeting each decade, as it swept them up in it, with grace and humor.

Paul Sweeny once said, “A wedding anniversary is the celebration of love, trust, partnership, tolerance and tenacity. The order varies for any given year.” That’s what makes the 50th anniversary golden, eh? It celebrates the marriage that has been refined, like gold, in the fires that have made it strong and beautiful.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad! Shine on. . .

Fog of Olympic-sized proportions

A friend of mine, sitting on my couch with his head in his weary hands peeked at me and groaned this complaint: “I hate the Olympics.”

“How can you say such an unpatriotic thing!” I exclaimed between yawns.

And then I knew. He was like me, staying up every night past midnight to watch Olympic coverage and it was beginning to wear on him.

I, too, am in an Olympic fog and am navigating the mist with plenty of java in the a.m. and Diet Coke in the afternoons. I would say more on how I wish I could function on a mere fours hours of sleep a night but I’m in the home stretch of a deadline and the end of a book and fog or no fog, I am propelling my characters to the valley of decision today. Today they will face their giants. Today they will face the music. Today they will confront their demons. Today they will reach the point of no return.

Yawn.

Or maybe tomorrow. . .

A little treat from the UK

I am being held hostage at the moment by a cast of surly characters who suffer from severe separation anxiety today.

Could be they know I’ve an August 30 deadline and since they are still dangling over the pit of doom, they keep me bound for my own good.

In any case, I have a little treat for you today in place of my own sage words, a wonderfully clever article from a British newspaper that just made me smile all over. So funny. It’s about how hard it is for authors to let go of their first novel. But you don’t have to be a writer to appreciate the humor – or the pathetic truth. Here it is. Enjoy.

And pray for my release. . .