Mostly, I remember Christmas Eve at my mom’s parents’ place, their little house lost in the middle of all those rolling hills and farmers’ fields. It was a small, cozy house, alone in the valley, a light on those dark Christmas Eve nights. We always arrived with hugs and shouts of “Merry Christmas!”, Grandpa looking at us with his lopsided, mischievous grin, and Grandma’s round face kind and beaming Continue reading “Finding Light on the Darkest of Days”
He sits quietly with me at a small, old-fashioned school desk in the basement where we’re preparing a space for my office. He is six years old, writing a book, a book that is nothing more than printer paper folded in on itself, stapled to keep it from falling apart. But he works on this book for hours. Finishing it, he is as proud as I’ve ever seen him.
* * * * *
What I remember most about Leo’s birth begins two years before his actual birth, with a miscarriage. A long, painful day filled with blood and tears and contractions and a weary grief that was like a long needle, pushing the pain into my joints, into my bones. It led to a box we buried in the woods, standing around it as a family with four children, thinking it was set in stone. There were six of us, and that was good, a blessing. Something to be cherished. But never more than that.
Still, that miscarriage, Maile’s second, left us feeling empty again.
Hours after Maile miscarried, we attended my grandmother’s funeral.
This loss is where Leo’s story begins, at least for us.
* * * * *
Nearly two years later, Leo. Unexpected. Unhoped for, if only because we had stopped hoping. The kind of gift you can no longer bring yourself to think about.
And ever since he arrived, it’s like he knows what his existence came up out of, the light he brought. He is smiles and long hair and cleverness. He is light and kisses and spindly arms around my neck. Leo carries with him the kind of joy you feel when hope is regained.
A friend of our lost her son weeks before Leo was born, and I think of them all the time when I see Leo, and a different kind of grief mingles in me. It’s a what-if kind of pain, a wondering.
* * * * *
Leo sits at the small desk in my office. He confirms the spelling of words he is only just now learning.
“God is G-O-D?”
“You got it.”
“How do you spell guide?”
He works his way through the book, adding drawings, words that are arranged willy-nilly on the page. He asks if he can read it to me, so I stop working and swivel around, facing him. Every page has something on it, but there’s one page in particular that jumps out at me.
It’s the picture of a boy, a stick figure with large eyes and long hair. And written beside the drawing are three words.
“God guide Leo.”
* * * * *
I watch him work on his book and am suddenly aware of all the long years between us—him, 6 years old, and me, 44 this year. That’s 38 years. I have a few memories from when I was his age, but they seem long ago, like from a book I read and can’t quite remember how it goes.
When he’s my age, 38 years from now, will I still be alive? Will he have a little boy, one who asks him to sing “There’ll be a light for me at the river” or “Great is Thy Faithfulness”?
I hope he’s at least as happy as I am. I hope he has someone in his life who brings him as much joy as he brings me.
* * * * *
I keep his book in the bottom drawer of a desk my grandfather used, a desk that is now mine. I was around Leo’s age when that grandfather died. Such a strange world we live in, with so many twists and turns, so many unexpected crossings. What is this life, and where is it leading us?
How can we ever find our way, without a little guidance?
Five cousins and I bore the weight of my grandmother’s body, trying to keep our footing as we meandered the short distance from the hearse to the gaping hole in the cemetery ground. Like death and grief, carrying her was heavier and more awkward than I had expected. In the movies, the pallbearers maintain a certain appearance of stoic removal, gliding right along, but there in that small countryside graveyard, I found myself stumbling, breathing hard, trying to find my footing, especially when we got to the grave and had to skirt the sides of the hole, holding the coffin out in front of us. It was a relief, setting her down on the boards and straps that we would soon use to lower her into the ground.
There is something very tangible about death when you feel the weight of it. It’s one thing to view from the distance: the closed coffin, the shiny hearse, the green grass of the cemetery. It’s another thing entirely to wobble under the burden of it, to grip it with your own two hands, to carry your own grandmother to her final resting place.
* * * * *
Weeks before my grandmother died, we sat with her at my parents’ house, asking her about her life. As was usual, she answered our questions quietly and to the point. From where I sat, she looked as she always had: pretty, healthy, happy. But on the other side of her face, the side I couldn’t see from where I sat, a tumor grew. It had spread over most of the side of her head, along her ear, stuck out a few inches at her temple, and crept down her jaw, making it difficult for her to chew.
Even though that side of my grandmother’s face looked disfigured, my mom would often touch it, run her fingers along it. There is a kind of intimacy in that touching, a kind of love almost foreign to our world. What unfathomable grace, to stroke the black cancer where it breaks through the skin, to remember that beneath it is the one who bore you.
When we left my parents’ house that day I walked over to where my grandmother sat and kissed her forehead, told her to enjoy Florida. She would head south in a few days to Sarasota, where she always spent the winter. I had a feeling it would be the last time I saw her. It was a strange sadness.
* * * * *
My son Leo served as comic relief at the funeral. When a long, drawn out line of people walked from the church to the cemetery across the street, he remarked in a loud voice, “It’s kind of like a parade without all the fun stuff.”
* * * * *
My family has Amish roots, and the Amish have long-held traditions when it comes to funerals and burials. The grave is hand dug, the coffin is lowered manually into the ground using straps, and the hole is filled in by the deceased’s loved ones. My family wanted to maintain some of those traditions.
The six of us cousins gripped the straps and eased my grandmother’s coffin into the ground. After it was situated in the plastic container at the bottom of the grave, we lowered a second lid on top of it. Then, I took a shovel from the ground. I bit into the dirt with it, picked up a few clods of earth. But just before I dropped it in, I glanced over at the row of my grandmother’s children–my mom, my two uncles, my aunt. I felt a kind of remorse for what I was about to do.
I tilted the shovel and the clods of dirt fell onto the container surrounding my grandmother’s coffin. The sound of the dirt was hard and stark in the graveside silence. My cousins followed suit. It was a quiet, sunny day, and it felt oddly comforting, the work of digging, of filling. The cold gripped us, and a gentle breeze swept through the stones, out into the cornfield. Wispy white clouds drifted over the countryside, this place where my grandmother had been born, where my ancestors have lived for 250 years. Thirteen generations living on this dirt.
And in all of that space, all of those years, all of that silence, the only sound was that very dirt thudding onto my grandmother’s coffin. The sound muffled as the hole filled.
* * * * *
Leo walked over very close to the grave, watched as the dirt begin to fill up the hole. When he spoke, it was in a wistful voice full of genuine longing.
“I wish I could lay down there with grandma and go to heaven,” he said, looking up at me with big brown eyes.
I ran my hand through his hair, pushed it out of his eyes, and leaned my forehead onto Maile’s shoulder. And I wept.
I’ve been writing a lot of fiction in this rocking chair lately. It’s the one in Leo and Poppy’s room. Leo usually falls asleep in about 27 seconds (he’s recently transitioned into not taking naps, so he’s zonked by about 5 p.m.), but Poppy lays quietly in her bed, under her peach and yellow-colored blanket, her pacifier making little cricket chirps as she drifts off. Her eyelids get heavy. She stares at her tiny fingernails, at the nightlight, at the ceiling.
And as she settles into another night of sleep, I sit here in this chair and type away.
This is the thing about writing that maybe non-writers haven’t really considered, but many of us writers are doing this crazy story-creating or book-writing in the slim margins of our days. Yesterday, Maile walked Sammy to school with Leo and Poppy, then went to a nearby park so that she could write while the two Littles played on the playground. It was cold. It was in the 50s. But she saw a window of time and she grabbed it.
Soon, Sam’s wrestling season will begin, and you’ll find me two nights a week from 6:30 to 8:00pm perched on a rolled up wrestling mat off to the side of the practice room, writing. Many nights, if one of us isn’t too tired, you’ll find Maile and I in bed, both of us on our laptops, working on our stories.
This is how the words find their way home. This is how stories get told. This is how books are written.
* * * * *
Recently in one of our podcast episodes, I told Maile that I will often tell writers to keep going. Keep going. You’ll get there. And she asked me, where is “there.” What does that even mean?
A good question.
And then this afternoon, our two oldest kids brought a few friends home from high school, and they spent the afternoon in the family room, one of them on the piano, one on a guitar, one singing, and one writing lyrics. They worked on making up their own song.
Where is “there”? Where is this writing taking us?
Maile or I may not win the Newbery award, and we may not win the Pulitzer, and we might not win the Nobel Peace prize for literature, but our kids see us creating, they see us fitting the thing we love into our lives, they see that we value creativity, and now they’re doing it, too.
They’re making space.
I think we’re getting there.
* * * * *
If there’s something creative you want to fit into your life, start small. Find a fifteen-minute window here, a thirty-minute window there, a ten-minute slot at the beginning or end of the day. Don’t put it off until you can rearrange your life to do that thing full time.
Get your words in. Draw up your business plan. Start painting or taking photos or fixing up furniture. And watch these things begin to take on a life of their own.
* * * * *
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Ten years ago I was running a residential painting business, and I was in my van outside of a potential client’s house, writing up an estimate. The real estate bubble had burst the year before, but it took a while to filter down to little people like me. In any case, the summer had come and gone, business was much too slow, and as I sat in that van writing up the estimate, I was trying to figure out how to tell Maile that the worst-case scenario had arrived: I wasn’t making enough money. Our business was in a lot of debt. We needed to make a major change.
That second-half of 2009 lives in my mind like a long-ago series of unfortunate events.
I had co-written one book at that point and was deep in the writing of my second co-writing project.
After many sleepless nights, long conversations, the support of friends, and the overwhelming graciousness of our families, we decided it was time to hit reset. Start from scratch.
I remember how all of our friends came out to help us load the moving truck. I remember the long drive through the rain, 150 miles north to Lancaster. I remember how dark it was at my parents’ house, shuffling the kids down into the basement, getting them in bed, and then lying there, wondering how it had come to that. I was in my 30s, my family of six was living in my parents’ basement, and we were starting over.
Maile would later tell me how she was lying there, too, in the dark, when she felt God whisper, “Maile, this is a gift!”
And I remember her response to God, before rolling over and going back to sleep.
“Well, God, it’s a pretty shitty gift.”
* * * * *
Here we are, friends, ten years later. And it is good.
And it was a gift.
I can’t say the ensuing years were simply victory after victory, a constant upward trajectory. Nope. Nothing like that. And I’m not going to use our story to say that you should leave your job or chase your dreams so that you can live your best life now.
Nothing like that.
But I will say this–if you’re living through a large shift in your life, and you’re more focused on learning from the journey than you are on any particular destination, then eventually you will see it for the gift that it is.
I know that’s a pretty sweeping statement, but I stand by it.
* * * * *
Last Saturday night, Maile and I were walking back from Luca, one of our favorite restaurants in the city. We had sat at our table and had a good-but-hard conversation about where we are, where Maile is, where we want to be, what we want to do with this “one wild and crazy life.” Maile was in tears at some point–I don’t think she’ll mind me saying. And I held her hand and listened. And the waiter was kind, even though it took us days before we were ready to order.
As we walked home, I said that to her, “Do you realize it’s been ten years since we left Virginia, since we moved here?”
We walked quietly in that realization, the late-night darkness all around us. The street lights seemed bright, and the air was cool. Fall had arrived. Someone had decked their front porch out for Halloween, and the scarecrow sitting in the lawn chair made me jump again, just as it had when we passed it earlier in the night.
I couldn’t see our future ten years ago: the two additional babies we would have, the 20 books I’d co-write, the novels I’d see published. All the words. All the new friends. The ways Maile and I would change, and grow, together.
I couldn’t see that incredibly hard thing for what it was: a gift.
“Ten years,” she said quietly. That was all. We each knew what the other was thinking.
It happens in long stretches of disciplined days, where much goes according to plan. It happens in late evenings when the children are finally asleep and Maile is writing in the bed beside me. It happens while I’m waiting at long athletic practices and on the front porch and sometimes in the early mornings when it’s only Leo and me sitting at the dining room table.
This is how a novel gets written: in the cracks and crevices of an ordinary life. In both scheduled and unexpected bursts, until 100 words pile up to 1,000 words, and chapters form and arcs are fulfilled and characters emerge while 80,000 or 90,000 or 100,000 words come together, like atoms gathering.
When I wrote Light from Distant Stars, I decided to keep a journal every day. I wrote a short entry each morning before my novel-writing time, sometimes about life, sometimes about writing. It was a warm-up for me, a time to stretch my mind before diving into that day’s work.
I would like to give this journal to you – all you have to do is preorder Light from Distant Stars from any of the following book sellers:
…and the PDF of my journal entries will magically appear in your inbox. It’s not available anywhere else. You can’t buy it. The only way you can get it right now is by preordering Light from Distant Stars.
Also, everyone who preorders will be entered into a drawing for a $50 gift card to the bookstore of their choice and a signed copy of four of my other books: The Day the Angels Fell, The Edge of Over There, Once We Were Strangers, and How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp!
I hope you enjoy the journal! Here’s a little excerpt:
Is there ever a perfect time to begin writing a novel?
For at least the last month or two, I had today, January 8th, earmarked as the day I would begin writing my next novel. Mondays and Fridays will always be difficult days for me to get my writing in – I’m in between co-writing jobs at the moment, which means I need to drive for Uber and Lyft on those two days to make some extra money. Making enough to feed six children is no joke. But I planned on getting up early, writing my at-least-1000-words for the day, and then moving on to ridesharing.
Is there ever a perfect day to begin writing a novel?
Our younger two took longer than usual to fall asleep last night, so I didn’t fall asleep early, as planned. Leo was up multiple times in the night. My (ambitious for me) plan to wake up at five o’clock faded quickly. I had imagined the perfect morning – me, sitting in a quiet living room, children asleep, radiators hot, my fingers gliding over the keys. Instead it was a chaotic morning, making breakfast, waking up the older kids, folding laundry, and trying to get out the door to an 8:30am meeting with a friend.
Is there ever a perfect day to begin writing a novel?
I’ve never run a marathon, but is there ever a perfect day to run a marathon? Do you ever wake up to perfect temperatures, zero mental and emotional qualms, a body that feels ready, all after a perfect night’s sleep? I suppose it happens. I suppose there will be days that go perfectly during the writing of this novel. I suppose.
But this morning was a good reminder to me. I must fit the writing into not-so-perfect days. I must find a way to write through the self-doubt and hesitations. If I am going to write this novel, there can be precious few things I put ahead of it. So, even on a morning that doesn’t go as planned, I push everything else back. Everything else must wait until I get my words written for this day. This is the cost of writing a novel. This is the price I must be willing to pay for the next three months. Four months. Six months.
Now, I begin. And beginning a novel is one of the most wondrous things in the world.