Stop, Look, and Listen

stop sign

 

Did your parents say this to you before you crossed the street on your own for the very first time? My Dad would jokingly tell me to also watch out for trailer trucks and trains. We didn’t live near any train tracks, but he wanted to stress the importance of paying attention. My husband reminds my daughter and myself that whenever shopping alone, we must notice our surroundings to avoid a bad situation. Unless of course you are a courageous, cane wielding Ninja—which sadly, I am not (but maybe I might write about one).

Today you rarely see anyone walking without conversing on their phone, texting, or listening to an MP3 player. As a result, you have to be even more cognizant of what is going on around you. Not just so you won’t fall off the curb and scuff those adorable shoes you just bought on sale, but also when you are with other people.

Every now and again do you get an email/text from someone and say, “Huh? What do they mean by that?” Emails/texts can be very confusing, especially with all the initialisms (like OMG). You can’t see the other person’s facial expression or hear the tone in their voice. Did they mean that remark as a joke even if it wasn’t followed by LOL? Now, I am the first to admit that most of the time I am not smart enough to own my smart phone. And yes, I still type my texts in full sentences most of the time. But I am sure I am not the only one who ever misunderstood the intention of a text/email.

One or two more emails/texts usually clarifies the intent. But when we are with someone, do we really notice if our friend or family member is twirling the ends of her hair or biting her lower lip because she is nervous about something. What is that they do to get our attention to what they are really trying to convey? When my daughter was a toddler I worked from home. I was constantly tempted to always be “on the job”. There were times that I had to make business calls. Of course, she would decide that was when she needed me most and came up with quite a clever way to get my attention. Perhaps you have heard of this method-she would call ‘Mommy!’ over and over and over again.

When I ended my call, sat down with her, and listened to her ‘story of the day’; her face lit up! Then she went about her business and didn’t really need me again –until I made my next call.

There are times now when I am in the middle of writing or checking my email that I am half listening to what she is telling me. She resorts to what still works to get my attention. Yup, an oldie but a goody- “Mom, Mom, M-O-O-O-O-M!” That is usually enough to make me stop and really be present with her. I can also watch her reactions to my responses and gauge if she really understands what I am saying. Or if she is just telling me what she thinks I want to hear. The one exception to this rule is that I can always tell when she is rolling her eyes at me whether she is facing me or not. She really hates that.

When I am writing I know that the reader will have no idea what the character is feeling unless I show them. My main character, Yuriko, in my manuscript The Last Cherry Blossom, balled her hands into fists and tapped the sides of her legs whenever she was anxious. Her best friend would place a lock of hair behind her ear when feeling the same emotion. As I work on my characters I make a spreadsheet (with the ancient tools of pen and paper). I have columns in which I list( I love my lists) assorted facial expressions or body language I have observed real people using in various circumstances. I then decide which one would work best for whom I am writing about. That way I can keep track of each character’s emotional cues so that I am consistent throughout the story. (While working on my many, many revisions, my agent recommended the book The Emotion Thesaurus, A Writer’s Guide To Character Expressions by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It is a great resource!)

If I do not put the effort into creating a character that is realistic then the reader will not want to put the effort into reading the next page. Just as when I am with someone, I need to invest my attention to what they are saying or reacting to at the moment. I would want them to do the same for me. Most of the time I think I do okay, at least I hope I am. I find that happens in my prayer life as well.  Sometimes I feel like I am just going through the motions and not getting as much out of it as I should.  I am so grateful that God can always make time to notice me and what is going on in my life. Even if I still need a reminder every now and again.

This weekend I will be attending the SCBWI Carolinas, To Tell A Tale conference. I am definitely looking forward to soaking up as much as my  ol’ brain can handle. I am big into taking notes (but you know that already). However, I also need to stop myself so that I look at the presenter and really listen to their great advice so I may truly enjoy and participate.

Have you ever received a message that had you asking, “Huh?”

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Sage Advice

words_wisdom

Pain wouldn’t be so bad, if it didn’t hurt so much. My Godfather said these words of comical wisdom (he had many) at the end of a particularly grueling physical therapy session after my initial diagnosis of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD).

He made me laugh when the best I could do was a grimace. Once I started laughing I could not stop until my body doubled over my walker and I had tears in my eyes. I am sure people around me thought I was losing it! But I think that the irony of laughing amidst all that pain just set something off in my head.

I am very competitive and since I was lousy at sports (yup, I was the one always picked last for gym class—but I’m not bitter…maybe a little), I focused on academics. That competitive part of me kept climbing higher on the corporate ladder and just when I was about to reach the top, RSD cut the rungs out beneath me.

I am a type-A person, and a planner(shocking, I know). Despite those qualities, I still had no idea that the blood clot and RSD were headed my way. RSD reminded me that I, alone can not control what happens in my life. But being the control freak that I am, RSD wreaked havoc in my head. I feared RSD because I had nothing in my arsenal to fight it.

But I did have people in my life that could help me, (in addition to my husband and daughter, of course). My Godfather was one of those people. He had his first heart attack resulting in a quadruple bypass at 40 years old. He had two more heart attacks, a bypass, and a defibrillator implanted before he turned 60. However, he would find a way to make a joke and to make others smile, even while lying in a hospital bed with oxygen and a myriad of tubes sticking out of his body. It made him happy to make us laugh. He knew pain and he hated seeing others in pain.

Whenever I asked how he felt, his standard reply was, “Well, I woke up this morning and I am still cute-so pretty good.” (Makes a pretty good first item to check off on a to-do list don’t ya think?)

I planned to continue smiling even on bad pain days.  I learned some jokes. And, much to my family’s chagrin, I am a terrible joke teller. I end up either forgetting the middle or saying the punchline wrong (and I found that even my 4-year-old could only put up with so many knock-knock jokes at one time).

knockknock

I discovered that a smile could mask my difficulty with accepting RSD as part of my life. I did not want to talk about it initially. I worried that people would think I lacked faith because I could not deal with this 180 degree turn in my life. I thought up alternate stories to tell people when they asked what happened, like I was skiing in the Alps and hit a tree on a black diamond slope.  There were so many things wrong with that story – least of all that the closest I’ve been to Switzerland is drinking a brand of cocoa!  No one I knew would believe that I went skiing-but strangers might.

When I shared this with my Godfather, he chuckled at first. But then his demeanor turned serious and he told me not to hide what I had. “Ignoring this part of you would be like saying you didn’t really exist anymore because of RSD. You can’t let RSD become you; instead it should be a part of you.”  He told me that after his first heart attack, he pictured himself as a ticking time bomb. One day it dawned on him that he was not living his life. He decided to enjoy whatever time he would be blessed with.

It is 13 years after that conversation. I do try to smile through the pain because it is always there, just in varying degrees. I truly feel like smiling when I am with my friends and family, and a side bonus is that I can forget my pain for a little while. I still can’t tell a joke for beans and now just slightly over 40–remembering the punchline is even more difficult.

I love writing.  It takes me to a different place and my characters can do things I cannot physically do. I become caught up in the story or caught up in how the characters are evolving. Even when I am trying to work through holes in my plot and it seems like it will never come together, I am still focusing on something other than my pain.

Please know that some days, like today, the pain flare ups still get to me. I still have my pity parties (you know-they are like a tea party but with tissues, instead of teacups and rice crispy marshmallow treats, instead of cucumber sandwiches). But my Godfather’s advice has helped to minimize the length of my partying.-

As for what I tell people when they ask about my cane-I still struggle with discussing it(everybody has to have some hang up, right?), so I try to refocus their eyes by wearing cute shoes. It usually does the trick.

The man who helped me through all this with his sage advice and comical wisdom passed away in January leaving a large hole in my heart.

And yes, Roger, pain wouldn’t be so bad if my heart didn’t hurt so much.

Please share who gave you sage advice or comical wisdom?

 

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What’s in your storage?

 

storage

Recently I traveled back up north to sort through and collect personal belongings of a loved one who passed away earlier this year. On the plane ride home, I attempted busying my thoughts with something other than, please, please no turbulence and why are we packed in so close, that I can see the drool of the person sleeping next to me? So, I began to ponder the unsettling notion that someday, someone, would look through the belongings in my home or storage place after I am gone. That person may look at it and realize no matter how much you know someone you can’t possibly know everything about him/her.

We have all bought that exercise equipment that is now a clothing rack or the work out videos/DVDs(you know the ones- like Belly Dancing Your Way to Zumba) that are now in a crate along with your hospital bill for that one time you tried Belly Dancing Your Way to Zumba, but ended up in the ER. Those are items we all can relate to. However, there are some items such as books on how to master a particular craft that you never saw that person do(nor ever heard him mention), or CDs on how to learn a language you had no idea he wanted to learn that may surprise you. Attached to each of these personal items, he stored away ideas, dreams, and a  hope that someday his dreams would come to fruition when the timing was right.

Why is that we keep certain objects? What is it that makes us value one item over another? I am still fleshing out my characters  in my current rough draft.  So I am trying to pinpoint his/her favorite belongings. While trying to figure out what they cannot live without, I need to develop some reasons why they can’t live without it. Is it a treasured item because it is sentimental or is it an item that is practical like a flashlight? I may never use this information directly in the story, but it gives me one way to get inside the characters’ head and heart. This process will come in handy when I want to create some turmoil for the character– what happens when this item is lost, stolen, or destroyed? Are they able to develop coping mechanisms, do they give up, or seek revenge?

Of course there are some items you can never get back. When my mom’s home in Hiroshima was destroyed by the bomb, all current pictures of her and her family were burned. However, she still had her memories of the people in her life. Also, thankfully some pictures of when she was younger were in a different location.

Then there are the items that are one of a kind. When we were young we most likely latched on to a particular doll or stuffed animal. Mine was Raggedy Ann and believe me by the time I was 5 she was definitely very ragged indeed. My mom had just sewed pantyhose around the face for the third time to keep the cloth from falling off and protect what was left of her hair(I yanked most of it out-not sure what that says about me), so, my parents bought me another Raggedy Ann doll. I did not play with that new doll. I wanted the original doll –with its balding head and nylon covered tattered face.

I did not learn from my experience, because when I found out what stuffed animal my daughter loved I went out and bought an identical one in case she lost it. When I would wash her bear, I would attempt to switch it out and she would have none of that-she knew it was not her original “stuffie”. I then did what every logical parent would do in that situation. I waited till she was sound asleep, washed it immediately, and hoped to return it before she would realize it was missing. That worked most of the time.

We were attached to these items for the feeling of security they brought us. As I looked through my loved one’s storage unit, I found items that linked him to his birth mother which he never got to really know because she died when he was a toddler. That gave him a sense of security. Also, I found all the letters/cards that I had ever sent him. Some back to when I was only 8 years old. He also had all the cards my daughter had made for him in the past 18 years. It made me smile because he found them important to keep because we mattered to him.

So even though I had no idea he wanted to master Chinese, or why he had all these cook books when he did not cook, I did know he loved us. Well, I knew that already because he had told me many times, but it reminded me that I did not need to know every aspect of his life to be important in his life. So I hope someday when people look at my stuff in storage, they find among the “what was she thinking?” stuff, some mementos that remind them of their importance in my life.

So, tell me, what’s in your storage?

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