An Update on Leo and Further Thoughts on Pain

Our crew, circa October, 2017. Yes, Poppy is chewing on a stick.

Leo looks at me nervously while I move to change his bandage.

“Wait, Dad, let me tell you something!” he exclaims, so I relent, and I listen (again) to some small thing he is using to delay the inevitable. Except the changing of the bandages doesn’t hurt anymore. But he’s still nervous about it, so he stalls. It is the memory of pain that scares him now, and it is as intense for him as the real thing.

When he’s finally ready to let me do what I have to do, he slumps his shoulders, worried. I move to change the dressings, and he says quietly, as if to himself, “Gently, gently.” This makes me smile. He grins, too, as the bandages come off, realizing (or remembering) that it doesn’t hurt anymore. It really doesn’t. That particular pain is behind us.

He looks up at me, smiling. “I really love you, Dad.” That gets me every time.

* * * * *

Since Leo’s surgery, I’ve been thinking a lot about pain, how being in its proximity (whether in proximity to our pain or someone else’s) will always change us, often at a very deep level.

The pain Leo experienced after his minor surgery, the emotional pain Maile and I went through in trying to help him heal, these are things that will not leave us for a long time, maybe never. Our relationship with him is fundamentally different because of the journey we’ve traveled over the last week. I’m not sure if “better” or “worse” are helpful words when describing how things change when pain is involved. I think I feel things deeper now, especially when it comes to my children.

I also have a different view of healing, the long arc we are all on when it comes to getting better, whether from disease or emotional pain or old hurts that linger. I have a lot of questions about the relationship between pain and healing. I need to think about it a bit more.

* * * * *

Maile is away this weekend, speaking at a women’s conference in Orlando, Florida, and I am so, so proud of her. If you’ve followed along in this space, you know our family has been trying to adapt to some changes (which I wrote about in my most-read post of all time, “In Which We are Beginning to Find Our Way”), trying to rediscover a new way forward. Like any birthing process, it has its own discomfort, pain, and a sense of disorientation.

Early yesterday morning, before the house had woken up, Maile kissed my face and said good-bye. She was off on her adventure. She said some other things to me, but I was too tired to really hear her. The door sensor rang three times when she walked out, and I went back to sleep.

* * * * *

The sun is out this afternoon, and spring is here. There’s no denying it. The trees are blossoming, daffodils are peeking up through the ground, and kids’ eyes are getting itchy. Every season, something new.

We’re entering a new season of life, and I’m not talking about spring. Maile is growing towards a new light, my writing is evolving, the kids are getting older. Our family is changing, but it’s a good thing, a necessary thing. I know there will be more pain, but for the pain there is always healing in some form or other. This is the hope I hold on to.

So My Son Wants to Become a Writer

My son is turning into a writer. And that is a good thing.
I mean, there are easier ways to live a life. “Get a job,” I could say, “a good paying job that has benefits and health insurance. Always insist on the health insurance.” Or I could list the benefits of submerging in corporate America, with its six-figure executive paychecks and winner-winner-chicken-dinner mentality. Success there seems so easy to measure.
The truth is, the writing path is one of heartbreak and insecurity.
* * * * *
To read my entire guest post about whether or not I discourage my son from becoming a writer, head over to Southern Writers Magazine.

Regarding a Weekend We Won’t Soon Forget (and Exciting News About My Next Book)

We sat on sofas and on the floor. We tried to catch up on each other’s lives in a few short days. We ate and we laughed and listened. Some of their written words read out loud made me cry.

There were late nights over hot tea and a game that had us shouting and laughing all over again. There was a wood fire in the fireplace. There were quiet walks on an empty street.

There was this sense that, while I write alone, I am not alone. This realization felt like bread and wine.

We hugged outside the restaurant, knowing another long year awaited. But it felt like it might be okay.

* * * * *

Maile and I drove away early, heading towards our home, 500 miles away. The snow came down, and the roads were covered. We advanced slowly, followed the tracks of the car in front of us. The world was coated in white, and the road felt tenuous, unpredictable, like it might tire of us at any moment and toss us aside.

We passed four accidents within a mile of each other, cars spun off onto the shoulder. Hoods smashed in. They faced the wrong direction, as if lost. One car was burnt to a crisp.

At dusk, as we passed the exit that went to the college where we had met, Maile pointed.

“Did you see that?”

“See what?”

“Five deer,” she said, awe in her voice, and a bit of sadness, “standing at the edge of the wood, in the blowing snow.”

* * * * *

We picked up the kids at my parents’ house, loaded their belongings in the back of the truck, the snow settling on us like a light blessing. We drove slowly home, unloaded, and entered the house. It was a whirlwind of children and suitcases, snow clothes and snacks, wet floors and the repeated command that turned to a plea, “Go to bed!” The radiators were already hot. Out front, James Street was quiet, covered in a layer of snow.

In the mail that had been waiting for us, I saw a manila envelope, and I tore it open. Inside, the designed pages for my new novel, Light from Distant Stars. There it was: the title page, the dedication, the first line.

“Cohen Marah clears his throat quietly, more out of discomfort than the presence of any particular thing that needs clearing, and attempts to step over the body for a second time.”

As Maile had said as we drove slowly along the snow-filled highway, “Well, this is a weekend we won’t soon forget.”

* * * * *

To find out more about Light from Distant Stars, or to find links to preorder (and basically make me the happiest person on the planet), click HERE.

My Great-Great-Grandfather Wrote on Barn Walls (or, Some Thoughts on Creativity, and the Cover of My Next Book)

I’m sitting at the small red table beside one of our large living room windows, looking out at James Street. There’s our porch, the wide sidewalk, the busy street. There is the sycamore tree, ancient and leaning, the leaves gently browning in this mid-autumn light. It is 50 degrees and the sun is shining, shining, shining, as if summer is still within its grasp.

My book, Once We Were Strangers, released only last week, but I am in the thick of editing my next novel, one that releases in July of 2019. I can tell you now that it’s called Light from Distant Stars, and it’s the most challenging story I’ve ever tried to write. It is a standalone novel for grownups, not connected with my YA novel The Day the Angels Fell. But I have lots of time to tell you more about that.

What I want to tell you today, or share with you I guess, is the fact that even in the writing of this current book, in working through the edits, I am assailed by voices of self-doubt and questions about my ability to write well. There has been no magic turning point, at least not for me, where I have woken up self-confident and swaggering, convinced that I am finally the writer I have always wanted to be. Not when I co-wrote my first book and saw it in Barnes and Noble in 2008. Not when I signed a contract with my first agent, or landed a book contract, or when The Day the Angels Fell won an award.

And yet. There has been something magical about the last few weeks, a kind of turning point. I have experienced a peace in who I am, in what I write, in the words that I share – no matter the sales numbers, no matter the Amazon rank, no matter the mentions or shares or high-profile praise (or lack thereof). I am determined to enjoy each of my writing days, to work hard at getting better, to read more widely, and to sink deep, deep, deep into the stories I am creating. God is there, somewhere, waiting for me.

I know now that there is no Promised Land in the distance where, once there, I will have arrived – this creative life is nothing but a journey, nothing but one more word, one more sentence, one more chapter, and one more story.

This is what I offer you today, in whatever creative pursuits you are digging into: give yourself the freedom to chase excellence, to go after whatever creative thing is calling your name. Don’t be afraid, and when you are, let it fill you with exhilaration at the risks you are taking. Keep going. Keep moving. Keep breathing. Be present, really present, wherever you are.

This isn’t just for writing – it’s for painting and photography and starting a business and running for office. It’s for when you become a parent or get married or take a trip or start a church. Keep going. Keep moving. Keep breathing.

Anyway, these are my thoughts today, looking out the window onto James Street, watching the traffic go by, pondering a sycamore tree that was probably planted when my great-great-grandfather was a boy – the same man who used to write on the walls of his barn, stories and news and thoughts about life. That is all I am really doing here. That is all any of us are doing.

And here is the cover of my next novel, in case you were interested.

The Best Kind of Messages (or, When Maile Finished Writing Her Book)

You know how days run along like a stream and all through that fluid movement you receive texts or emails or say hello to people you pass in the street and everything blends together into a seamless day but then something happens and everything stops, the sounds around you fade, and you see something, really see it? That happened to me yesterday at about two in the afternoon when Maile sent me the email in the photo. When I read it, everything else stopped.

She finished writing her book.

On the day she turned 40, she finished writing her book.

An upper-middle grade book that is delightful and moving. I can’t wait to read it in its entirety. I can’t wait for you to read it.

If you’ve been following along in this space for the last few months you’ll know that this has been a time of huge transition for our family. 3/4ths of our school age kids are going to public school in the fall. We decided not to move out of the city. And as a family, we began setting aside time for Maile to write.

Her finishing this book seems like an affirmation in so many ways, mostly that we are doing the right things and moving in the right direction and taking better care of each other.

* * * * *

We celebrated by going out to Wasabi, our favorite sushi place, and we took the kids and Leo was super-tired and Poppy was mostly grumpy and wouldn’t let Maile eat her food but we celebrated anyway, all of us raising our glasses (of water, of root beer, of Sprite, of lemonade), a resounding “Cheers!” sounding out. Leo laughed at that.

* * * * *

So we’ll take the next month or two and focus on revisions and then she’ll wade into the publication process and who knows how that will go but we’re hopeful. Always hopeful.

Thanks for all your encouragement.

“Daddy, what’s inside gum?” and Other Questions

Another 7:00 p.m. finds me in the same place, the same white chair in Leo and Sam’s third-floor bedroom, the dusky light glowing white, Leo sucking on his finger and reaching his foot up towards the ceiling. He barely napped in the truck today while we were going to pick up Lucy, but even a five minute snooze seems to add hours to his day.

“Daddy, why can’t I chew gum in bed?” Leo asks.

It’s nearly a month since my book The Edge of Over There wandered off into the wide world, trying to find its way. Next week Maile and I are driving 20 hours to Minnesota for a book event with my friend, Steve Wiens. When a book is a month old, well, it’s a strange time, because things can start to feel a little quiet. If you’d like to host a little reading in your house, and you think you can get 15 to 20 people there, let me know. I’d love to come hang out and talk about these books of mine.

“Daddy, what’s inside gum?”

Maile’s away tonight and I got Poppy down and once Leo’s down the rest of the night will be in front of me. The older kids can take care of themselves. I’ll get a little work done, maybe play around with the next novel idea I’m working on. Do a little reading. Try not to get to bed too late because early enough Poppy will be shouting from her bed or Leo will come wandering down, needing to use the bathroom. This is the humdrum passing of a life, these quiet days, these uneventful days, and as I get older, I’ve grown to love them, these days when nothing sensational is happening, these days one month after a book release.

“Daddy, why do I have to go to bed?”

Being a writer is such an emotional yo-yo. One week, I’m on top of the world. The next week, I’m wondering if writing is worth it. Worth what? I don’t even know. But I don’t think about it very long, because then another heady day arrives. It’s a constant back-and-forth: confident, doubtful, easy, hard, encouraging, despair, determination, ambivalence. (It took me five tries to type ambivalence before spell-check gave me the all-clear.)

“Daddy, how much longer until I will wake up?”

It’s a good life. Even with all the questions. Maybe because of all the questions. Leo’s. Mine. All of them. Leaning into the questions, the doubts, the wonderings, the curiosities, for me, makes life interesting.

This is Leo when he was much younger, shortly after I gave him the haircut that landed me in serious hot water with Maile. His hair is long again, and all is right with the world.