Potential Ax Murderers, Judgement and a Flock of Teen Girls

Wow, the past two weeks have flown by. I’m tired, but in a good kind of way.

aa1On June 12, I was all packed up and excited for my first writers’ retreat in almost a year.  After a knock at my door, I opened it to find author, Christine Steendam, someone I’d only met on Twitter and Facebook, on the other side. She looked trustworthy, so I grabbed my luggage and hopped into her car along with comic author, Andrew Lorenz. It occurred to me that I was violating every warning I’d given my kids about meeting up with people they met online. I chuckled as I told them, “I hope you’re not ax murders.”

aa2We drove out to the middle of nowhere to this trailer where we’d be staying along with another author, A.P. Fuchs and his wife. Yes, this could be the den of ax murderers and there did happen to be an ax, but it was beside a wood pile. My head remained intact, and I got to know a fabulous group of writers. Oh, yeah, and I got some writing done too. I didn’t quite make my 15,000 word goal, but I was pleased with my 13,000 words. I’ve since finished the novel I worked on at the retreat for a total of eleven completed manuscripts.

aa7At the end of May, I had the privilege of judging my first short story contest. I’d entered plenty of writing competitions, but this was my first time on the other side of the competition. What an enlightening experience! I judged the teen category and let me tell you, the future of writing is bright. The Writers’ Collective Gala was held on June 16, where I had to honor of handing out awards to these very talented young people. I also received my own award–an honorable mention for my short story, Bread for Five.

A few weeks ago, I’d been invited to speak at a teen girls retreat through Living Bible Explorers. This past Friday, I journeyed out to their camp to share during four chapel sessions. I’d chosen the theme The Fault is Not in our Stars–Bible Women with a Powerful Purpose. I spoke on the daughters of Zelophehad, aa3Rahab, Ruth and Esther. The camp is still under construction, so there was no electricity and no plumbing. Nothing like going without those things for the weekend to make me appreciate them when I got home.

aa5It was a huge blessing to get to know the ministry leaders and the girls. I’m told the retreat went well, and I’ve been invited to return in the future.

I have one more event to prepare for this week–my first school visit! The mother of one of my readers contacted me a couple of weeks ago to tell me that her son enjoyed my book so much that he decided to use it for his end of the year language arts project. She also asked if I’d be willing to stop by his class for his presentation and share a little about the book.

So, as I wrap up a busy two weeks, I take a deep breath and reflect on all of it with thankfulness. Writing is my passion, and it’s taking me so many wonderful places. aa4

Inspiration for the Setting of #Enslavement

IMG_0793 IMG_0929 The setting for Enslavement has a special place in my heart. As a young teen, I spent two summers with my aunt and uncle who lived outside of Comfort, Texas. Yes, Comfort is a real place. I returned after I graduated from high school to attend bible school. It’s there that I met my husband. I was 18, he was 19 and we were engaged by spring.

Many of the sights I talk about in the book really exist–the small deer, the narrow roads, the limestone, the dry twisted junipers. Justin tells Rielle a story about a flash flood on the Guadalupe River–that really happened. On July 17, 1987, school bus full of children was swept away by the flood waters. Ten children did not survive.  This is the same type of flood that Rielle got caught in. You can view the story here:

It was wonderful to get to return to this beautiful and sometimes dangerous place, if only in my thoughts. 

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Moms, No Matter How Hard You Try, You Will Never be Dads

I came across this meme on Facebook and it instantly made me hot under the collar. I don’t normally anger easily, so it took me a moment to figure out why it hit a nerve.AA

First, you should know that I am not a single mother, but I was raised by one and that’s the point of view I’m writing from today. As a child of multiple divorces, this meme totally pissed me off. Why? Because no matter how hard moms try, they will never ever be dads.

When my dad exited stage left, my mom gained a ton of new responsibilities that she had to tackle without support. She had to go to work full time and make ends meet when child support cheques were sporadic. She had to find us a place to live and feed us on a tight budget. She had to look after me and ensure I still had a childhood. She had to nurse her broken heart and try to put her life back together. Her job description expanded exponentially. But, she never became my dad. She couldn’t.

Implying that my mother could become mother and father, would have negated my need for a father, negated the gaping hole his absence left in my life. There was a hole. There is a hole. And that hole was impossible for my mom to fill. She was a good mom, but never for a moment did that make up for the fact that my dad left us. I’m glad she didn’t have the outlook conveyed in this meme. I’m glad she recognized that she couldn’t be my dad and that instead she strove to be the best mom she could be.

Dads own a special dynamic within the parent/child relationship. I’ve watched my own children with their dad, like one watches a wildlife documentary, thinking, “So this is how it would have been to have an attentive father.” I could never replace him in their lives.

I have other family members who were raised without their father—they’re all the same, they want to know their dad. They desire a relationship with him no matter how much of a douchebag he’s been. If moms could take the place of dads, no one would feel that way. And yet we do.

Hats off to all you moms out there going it alone. I remember my mother’s tears, her exhaustion, her frustration, her quest to give me the best of everything even though she was suffering. Be a great mom. But, don’t be a dad. That’s something that will just be missing. It always will be missing, even if you don’t want it to be. If you can recognize the loss and stop pretending that everything is a-okay, everyone concerned can heal, learn how to move forward and learn how to live each day without Dad. It hurts. It just does. 

Nobody Wants to Hear About My #Failures, or Do They?

IMG_20150502_162838Over the past few days I’ve had a couple of new, stretching experiences that I count as successes.

On Saturday, I participated in Authors for Indies day, a campaign to support and champion independent bookstores. As a guest salesperson at McNally Robinson Booksellers, it was my job to help connect customers with great books. I was super nervous coming up to it because I’m not much of a salesperson and I do have trouble walking up to people and initiating conversations. IMG_20150504_141632316_HDRStationed in the children’s books section, I had the opportunity to connect with a couple teachers, a librarian and some young readers and their parents. I had a great time and will definitely sign up to do it again next year.

On Monday, I had my first radio interview. I was so nervous coming up to it that I almost ended up in tears. Some stern self-talk kept me from slipping over the edge. The interview was on a Winnipeg radio station, IMG_20150504_135829453680 CJOB on the Dahlia Kurtz show. I came prepared to talk about different aspects of my book from the writing process, the struggle to get published to Enslavement’s theme of dehumanization and how the idea for the book came to me. The interviewer immediately put me at ease and though I could feel my hands shaking, I got through the interview. If you’re curious, click here for a listen: https://soundcloud.com/680cjob/melinda-friesen?in=680cjob/sets/dahlia-kurtz

Both of these opportunities were exciting. I pumped them up on my social media sites. But, yesterday I took a moment to go over my SM posts and it struck me how I’m trumpeting my successes, but silent about my failures. Do people want to hear about my failures? Do they want to hear how I’m struggling through my most recent edit? Will it come off as whining or as me being real with my readers?

Rejection ScreenshotFor the first time in a long time, I opened up an email file called “Queries.” It’s a positive name for a file full of rejections. I didn’t bother counting. There are a lot and I got weary of scrolling through all the rejections I’ve received for my novels and short stories–and that file doesn’t even include old rejections I didn’t transfer to my new computer, hard copies that were mailed instead of emailed and those who just never bothered to get back to me. I suppose I want my readers to know that I trumpet the successes, but behind the scenes there are at least 40 failures for every small victory.

I want to focus on the positive because focusing on the negative would drown me. But, I admit, it makes my life sound idyllic. Look at me living the dream while you suffer failure after failure, which simply is not true. This is a tough road, no, it’s not even a road–it’s a jungle you hack your way through inch by inch.

What do you think? Do you want to hear more about others’ failures? Does hearing about failure make you feel like you’re not alone, or does it make you feel hopeless? Does hearing about the successes make you feel envious or does it give you hope? Where is the balance between the two?

Some Funny for Your Monday–Murdering Elegance

free fallBack in 2012 my short story, Murdering Elegance was shortlisted in the FreeFall magazine prose and poetry contest and in spring 2013 they published it. My rights have reverted back, so now I can share this story that the editors at FreeFall called, “hilarious,” with all of you. Enjoy!

Murdering Elegance

I knew one day I would crack like a jar of baby food dropped on a grocery store floor. Pop. Sweet potatoes oozing between shards of glass. Losing my mind was different than I thought it would be. I thought it would resemble a child’s temper tantrum— screaming, jumping, flailing. Instead, I turned off the vacuum cleaner and sat down. I’ve been sitting in the same spot for an hour watching mayhem unfold like a toddler version of Lord of the Flies.

My three year old, Lily, is shoving her sister’s pacifier into the DVD player. Two year old Rose screams and stomps her feet, while eight month old Fox waves his arms and giggles over the scene. Fox, the result of my X-Files phase, isn’t really mine. They mixed him up with another baby at the hospital or perhaps he’s an alien. In any case, he sees through my good mother act. He looks at me like “what the hell?” When is the real mom going to show up—the one who knows what she’s doing?

It’s funny what sent me over the edge. Hilarious. It wasn’t my husband’s request for a morning quickie after getting up with Fox three times in the night and having him nurse until my nipples cracked. It wasn’t Rose throwing a fit over her cereal and dumping the bowl on the floor. It wasn’t Fox filling his pants so full that it leaked all the way up his back into his hair. No. It was my vacuum cleaner. Elegance Kenmore.

Who names a vacuum cleaner Elegance? Who are they kidding? Is the name supposed to make me feel like I’m not just a maid who doesn’t get paid?

This morning I stopped the machine to pick up a toy and it fell backward against the wall, leaving a long scuff mark. Snap.

I’m afraid to move for fear of what I might do. The ball of angst churning in the pit of my stomach demands blood. I have no choice; I’m going to have to kill Elegance. I walk to the DVD player, pluck Rose’s soother out of the hole, and shove in a Doodlebops DVD. Good moms read and sing to their kids, they don’t plop them in front of the television.

I grab Elegance and heave her over the baby gate to the top step of the basement stairs. I hold her high and then let her drop. She lands on the fourth wooden step and then topples end over end, cart wheeling down the stairs before smacking into the cement floor.

Smiling, I dash down the stairs. Is she dead? I yank the cord out of her butt and plug her in. The moment of truth. I flick her on and she hums. Damnit. Other than a few scratches and a small crack in her purple plastic shell, she’s fine.

I thread my fingers through my hair, grasping handfuls. Tears sting in my eyes as I inhale a deep breath and hold it in. I grind my teeth. I need to get a hold of myself.

I climb the stairs and return my children, who are still fascinated with the Doodlebops. Fox cocks his head to the side and looks at me. He knows what I did. I ease myself down to the floor and sprawl on the carpet. Rose rolls over to me and tucks herself into my side, Lily is too enthralled in the TV to move, and Fox crawls onto my stomach. I stroke Rose’s soft blond hair and sneak a kiss to her forehead. My beautiful children, if only they had a better mother. What they will tell their therapists when they grow up?

I have so much I could be doing: baking, dishes, laundry, my kitchen floor is sticky from milk that spilled three days ago. I feel like someone’s handed me shovel and asked me to relocate Mount Everest. I lay there, riddled with guilt, until the end of the show.

I go to the kitchen and cut up cheese and apples, strap the girls into booster seats, and fasten Fox into his high chair. I’m on the home stretch; the most wonderful time of the day is almost here: nap time. I lean against the counter and knock back some teddy grahams and a cup of cold coffee while I watch them eat.

I can see my neighbour ladies through the kitchen window. Today is scrapbooking day. I used to join them. We would sit for hours with our scissors and colourful paper, letting the kids run helter-skelter around the house, and gossiping about our husbands and other moms. I screwed that up too. I was a little overwrought after I had Fox. I showed up to scrapbooking day with black paper, a print out of The Scream and oodles of pictures of my kids crying. Nancy and the others thought it was “disturbing.” I thought it was reality.

Fox is playing the dropping game. Drop the food and watch mom pick it. The cheese lands on the vinyl floor with a splat. I pick it up to a wide grin on my baby’s face.

“Nummy cheese, Fox.” He drops it again.

When cheese is held in warm, moist fists it liquefies and can be smeared into the hair with ease. I wipe Rose and Lily’s faces and release them from their seats. I scrub at the cheese in Fox’s hair for a few minutes before giving up. The rest will have to dry on and come out in his bath tonight. Good moms don’t let cheese dry into their baby’s hair.        I mix up some formula in a bottle for Fox. I put it in the microwave to warm it—another thing they say I’m not supposed to do. They. The experts who torture me with all their “supposed to’s.” How many rules have I violated today? The movie, the cheese in the hair, and now a bottle of formula when I’m supposed to be nursing him. My kids are screwed.

I tuck Lily into her toddler bed and put Rose in her crib. I pick up Fox and give him his bottle. His eyes roll back in his head as he lies back in my arms. I’ll bet he’s tired after being up half the night. I pull his favourite blanket over him and close his door. Time for plan B.

I drag Elegance to the garage. I toss the baby monitor on the passenger seat and back my mini-van out of the garage. After opening the rear hatch I lay the hose over the bumper and slam the hatch closed over the hose. I drive off my driveway. Elegance follows behind me like a water skier. Pressing the gas pedal, I round the corner of my bay. Elegance tumbles onto her side, skidding behind me. I grin. If only she was made out of metal so there would be sparks. My tires squeal around the next corner as I punch the gas pedal to the floor. Elegance bounces behind me.

On my third pass I see someone on the sidewalk waving her arms. Great. She steps onto the road to block the path of my speeding van. For a moment it seems reasonable to run her down. I slow the van, scrambling for a sane excuse for why I’m dragging my vacuum cleaner around the bay.

I hit the button to roll down my window. A saccharine smile alights on Nancy’s face. After the scrapbooking incident she started talking to me like I’m a child, her voice high and nasal. “Jenny, I think something fell out of the back of your van.”

I form a shocked expression. “Really?” I glance in my rear view mirror for effect. “How did that happen?”

“Is that your vacuum cleaner?”

“Hmm. You know, I think it is.”

Nancy crosses her arms. “How did you not know your vacuum is hanging out the back of your van?”

I peer into her shallow blue eyes. “Actually Nancy, it’s not a vacuum, her name is Elegance and she’s going to die today.”

Nancy’s eyes narrow and she steps back from my car.

I smile. “Have a nice day.” I roll up the window and flip her the bird as I hit the gas pedal. The tires screech as I race back home. Good moms don’t go around flipping off their neighbours.

I jump the curb, run over the front lawn, and skid to a halt in my driveway.

I run into the house to check on the kids. What if a fire started while I was gone?  What if Lily got out of her bed, found a bobby pin, and stuck it in an outlet? What if Fox stopped breathing? I dart to the girls’ room and ease the door open a smidge. They are both fast asleep. And no fire. I run to Fox’s room. Holding my breath, I listen. I can’t hear him breathing. I watch his back. No movement. My heart rate climbs to panic level. He’s not breathing! Oh, wait. Yes he is. He’s okay. They’re all okay.

I go to the fridge. The Teddy Grahams are wearing off and my blood sugar is dropping. Nothing looks good except a wine cooler left over from the last time we entertained. We had some old college friends over and I ended up looking after their brats so she could get hammered. I told Mark to remind me to never invite them over again. I sigh and reach for a Diet Coke. Good moms don’t drink when they’re supposed to be looking after their kids. No matter how bad they need one.

I stand at my front window, sipping from the silver can, waiting for the caffeine to kick in. Elegance sits on the driveway—a little battered, but not too battered to mock me. I guzzle the rest of my Coke and bound up the stairs. Mark keeps a baseball bat under the bed. If Elegance has the nerve to start up when turn her on, I’m going to let her have it.

I plug her in, flick the switch, and she purrs like the day I bought her. I yank the plug out of the wall and stare her down. Elegance is a determined little pig. An ancient radio perches on the metal shelving in the garage. I turn it on and rotate the knob through the stations; only one is coming in today. It’s a fine day for the radio to be choosy about its broadcasting. That’s another electronic device that might meet an untimely end. I lift my eyebrows and smile—a knowing, devious smile.

I crank Simon and Garfunkle’s Cecilia. I want gangster rap, but this will have to do. “Making love in the afternoon with Cecelia.” Damn you Cecelia, setting the bar so high for the rest of us. Maybe sex and babies weren’t so inextricably linked for Cecelia as they are for me.

I walk around Elegance, swinging my bat at my side while scrutinizing her from every angle. I take my first swing. The bat bounces off her purple plastic shell like a baby on a trampoline. I think I pulled something—a muscle or what’s left of my sanity. I lift the lid that conceals all her attachments. Inside a tool called “a wand” is hidden. A wand.  Like, maybe I’m a magical vacuuming fairy princess.

“Who are you trying to fool, Elegance.”

I take another swing and the door that hides the “wand” flies down the driveway. I jump up and down, waving my bat in the air like I hit a home run. “Wooo!”

I swing again. And again. Bits of her purple plastic flesh fly in every direction.

“Cecelia you’re breaking my heart, you’re shaking my confidence daily,” I sing so loud my voice echoes off the neighbouring houses.

My lungs burn as I take a few more swings. My arms are limp as warm cheese. Panting, I drop the bat. Pieces of elegance litter the garage floor. She’s broken, like me. A gust of laughter shakes me. I laugh until I fall over and hysteria overtakes me. The hysteria is delightful, blissful. But, all good things must come to an end. I stand up and survey the damage. How am I going to explain this to Mark?

I stalk back into the house. Fox is crying. I open his bedroom door to his see his eyes glassy with tears. He lights up in a smile the moment he sees me. I muster an uneasy smile back at him; tears are welling in my eyes. What have I done?

            I lay Fox on his change table and give him a clean diaper to play with while I attend to the dirty one. “My good boy. Mommy loves you so much.”  His two front teeth are exposed when another smile alights on his face. I pick him up and hug him close. “Mommy’s not crazy. I’m just tired.”  He doesn’t look convinced.

I snag his blanket from his crib and settle onto the couch to cuddle with him. I smell his head—baby lotion and cheddar cheese. I pull in a deep breath that turns ragged as I let it out. Mark will probably drive me up to Selkirk and leave me there with all the other cracked jars of baby food.

In any case he won’t be buying me another $450 vacuum cleaner. I’ll likely have to settle for a Dirt Devil. I can respect that. There’s honesty in it.

Rose and Lily scribble on the underside of the coffee table with markers and Fox drools over a teething ring as Mark parks his car beside the curb in front of the house. I stare out the window at him. He hitches his hands on his hips and mutters something. Probably lamenting daycare costs if he has to commit me to a mental institution. Maybe I’m crazy or maybe it’s the sanest thing I’ve done in a long time. Like a dog wriggling free of its leash.

I shuffle out the door to meet him on the driveway. What does one say at an occasion like this? I bite my lip as I move closer to him. He looks away from Elegance—what’s left of her, and meets my gaze. Every emotion I possess rockets through me: fear, sadness, defeat, elation, victory, freedom.

I hold my breath as he opens his mouth to speak. “Did the vacuum offend you?”

I blow the breath out. “Deeply.”

He glances around the driveway again and chuckles. “Pizza for dinner?”

I nod. “Okay.”

“Paper plates?”

Tears spring to my eyes. “Yeah.”

Writer as Artist: A Unique and Surreal Experience

I’m always looking for different ways to get my work in front of readers.

I heard about Mennofolk a few months ago. An exhibition for Mennonite artists, they described themselves as, “a visual overload of art in various media and a traditional Mennonite Faspa.”Mennofolk2

After doing some research, I decided to submit my short story, Bread for Five, a perfect match for their theme, Interaction/Isolation.mennofolk6

First, just a little about my Mennonitism. There are cultural Mennonites and denominational Mennonites. I did not grow up Menno nor come from a Menno family. I married a cultural Mennonite and became a denominational Mennonite, if that makes any sense. 

With the piece accepted and set to be showcased in their readers nook, my husband and I headed to the Exchange Community Church in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would anyone sit down and read at an art exhibition? Did writing have a place among visual artists and musicians?Mennofolk5

The gallery was already buzzing when we walked in the door. People, mainly twenty-somethings, milled around the room, looking at the artwork and snacking on the faspa provided–cold farmer sausage, cheese, pickles, zwieback with jam and butter. (Faspa is a light evening meal, typically served Sundays).Mennofolk3

Beside the stage, I spied the reading nook–a couple cozy chairs, an end table and a lamp and, to my surprise, readers reading. Two other pieces occupied the table alongside my short story–one poetry and one a reflective piece. 

With writing, you send things out for publication and you’re happy if they get accepted. You have the satisfaction of knowing that someone, somewhere is reading your work, but you rarely get put faces to those readers. You rarely get to be a fly on the wall and watch.Mennofolk1

I ambled around the gallery, taking in the other artwork and watching the reader nook from the corner of my eye. People would sit down and read, then get up and others would come to take their place. All through the evening one person after another would sit and read my story. Indeed, people do read at art exhibitions. 

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It was gratifying to actually get to see people reading my story and sort of surreal too. I realized how abstract the idea is–being writer. We can’t hang our work on a wall for onlookers to quickly peruse. We can’t play a song listeners can passively take in during conversation. We demand your attention–all of it for an extended period of time. Readers take a piece of writing and usually go off on their own to read. What a treat to have the opportunity to share those often private moments of story with real life readers.

 

 

One of My Most Horrific Parenting Moments

All my posts lately have been bookish, so I’ve decided to throw a little personal one in here. Let’s go with a story–a story about my kids. Ooh, my favourite subject. But, not just any story, one with drama and gore, one that you may or may not believe, but one I guarantee is absolutely and 101%true. levi1

It all started in a dirty little pediatric walk-in clinic. There were sick kids everywhere. Snot flowed like like water over Niagara Falls. My three kids happened to be behaving themselves mainly because I had developed no-fail walk-in clinic survival kit that would keep them from exploding–snacks, books, toys. In those days there were no smart phones full of games–we had to entertain our kids ourselves–with books and toys and snacks. Gasp! Oh the horror!

The kids had some sort of sinus/throat issue that required antibiotics. Of course, I had to wait three hours for the doctor to tell me what I already knew. By the time, I was buckling everyone into car seats, we were past nap time, the snacks had run out and, let’s face it, they were sick and unhappy. Let the meltdown begin!

My two year old began to wail. He had an interesting wail too. He’d kind of hold his breath and then push out this gutteral cry like he was giving birth. While I felt moderately stressed from the morning, I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. We were on our way home. I only needed to maintain my sanity for twenty more minutes. As I cruised down the highway, I said, “It’s okay, buddy. We’re almost home.”

He howled louder. I looked up into the review mirror at the boy. That’s when I saw it. My child was CRYING BLOOD.levi2 I’m not exaggerating. His eyes were red and drops of blood were sliding down his cheeks like tears. I hit the brakes and began to swerve in the middle of the highway. I came to a screeching halt on the shoulder, tore off my seat belt and jumped into the back seat. Grabbing tissues, I started mopping up blood. Then his nose started bleeding too. God help me his brain was exploding or something. 

He continued crying and bleeding and I tried to figure out if I should try to drive to the hospital or get out of the car and wave someone down. Please stop! My child is CRYING BLOOD. As I rocked him, he began to calm. The calmer he got, the clearer the tears became. I held him until his nose stopped bleeding. 

It took me a few minutes to realize what actually happened. To make a long story short, he strained so hard that he caused a nose bleed and then that straining pushed the blood up through the nasolacrimal ducts that are supposed to carry fluid from the eyes to the nose, not the other way around. 

We all went home and had a nap.

And yes, the title did say, One of my Most Horrific…” There is another that rivals this one. We will save the teeter-totter story for another day.