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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

August 9th has been something special to me for quite a long time. When I was 24, August 9th was the day I arrived in Japan to start my adventure teaching English in a Japanese high school. I spent my first day participating in the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

I was a long way from home, and I spoke to my grandfather that night to try to calm my nerves. He had always been reticent to talk about his experiences in World War 2, but that night, separated by thousands of miles, he talked about his own time in Japan. He arrived there in early September 1945, with orders to help rebuild Yokohama, which like much of Tokyo had been destroyed by US bombing raids. (We think of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as extraordinarily destructive, but the firebombing of Tokyo destroyed half the city and killed 100,000 people. The firebombing of Yokohama killed 35,000 and left every major building in the city destroyed or damaged.)

Until the war, my grandfather had been a farmer, and for much of the war, he was a radio repairman for Navajo codetalkers in the Pacific Theater. Following Japan’s surrender, he was repurposed again as an engineer and construction supervisor. While I was in Japan, I went to Yokohama, where I was able to visit a grade school and a hospital that dated to 1946, and almost certainly would have been reconstruction projects that he oversaw. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet one of the Japanese people he worked closely with, as he had passed away a few years before.

In Japan, I taught at Nagaoka High School, which was the alma mater of Admiral Yamamoto. While I wasn’t teaching, I wandered the countryside and wrote. I wrote so many things, including first drafts of two different novels. Japan is the place where I swore that if it was possible to write books, sell them, and get paid for the work, I would do whatever I could to get there.

It doesn’t hurt that when you’re snowed in somewhere between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range with only 3 television channels, you have plenty of time for writing. The first winter I was in Niigata Prefecture, it snowed over 40 feet. No, that’s not a typo. Snow fall was really in excess of 480″. It snowed every day for four months, anywhere from a couple inches to dozens of inches.

When I learned that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things would be released on August 9, 2016, I was happy, even though it was too late to share that joy with my grandfather, who was the most bookish adult in my life as a child. That day will always carry the ghosts of those who died in Nagasaki, but it also holds a lot of powerful memories for me, including the bond with my grandfather, and now the day my publishing career was well and truly launched.

On this day I often think of the resiliency of humans, and our capacity to rise above obstacles and limitations. I think of my grandfather, far from his wife and newborn son, charged with a task that he was wholly untrained for. Handed a set of blue prints and assigned a Japanese translator and a crew of men, he helped build schools and hospitals. I think of those men, too, and their families, living in the aftermath of a devastating war. My grandfather was part of an occupying army, and yet those men treated him with respect and invited him into their homes, where he shared the modest wealth of his rations and their hope for a better future.

So many things in life are not easy. There is pain, suffering, disappointment, but there is also joy, success, and the bond we share with other people. I hope we can all remember that today.

Bryn and 3 students standing under a cherry tree

Celebrating the end of winter

(If you’re curious a what good old fashioned Nagaoka snow storm looks like, here‘s some footage from 1963 that’s even worse than what I experienced.)

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I’ve had a not-so-secret dread of family gatherings ever since I was a child, and the holidays are a special kind of hell. For most of my life, Thanksgiving and Christmas involved herds of people who had some blood claim on me, crowded into a too-small house for hours on end. As a child, I can remember hiding out in a variety of places to avoid being forcibly squeezed in between a burly cousin who liked to tickle me, and an aunt who liked to pick scabs. It’s been my experience that it’s your family who most often feel totally okay about violating your consent with forcible contact.

all-the-cousinsFamily gatherings have always seemed like a recipe for an introvert’s nervous breakdown. Being forced to socialize, make pleasantries, endure hugs and kisses, be quizzed about your life, your love life, your profession, your very existence.

Over the years, my family herd has thinned, as the elderly members died, and my generation failed to reproduce in the numbers necessary to pack a room. As those blood relations died, we replaced them in smaller numbers with friends, until this Thanksgiving, there were more non-relatives than relatives. Someone remarked on this, and on the importance of being able to form your own family from people you’re not related to.

This struck me as wildly funny, since that is the very nature of marriage: forming a family with someone you’re not related to. It’s what we do, so why does it so often strike us as strange or modern to bring outsiders to our family table? After all, we’re building families around strangers, when we marry them. To me, the joy of holidays with non-relatives is that I’m allowed to set boundaries with people who aren’t my family.

I think about this today, sandwiched as it is between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because of the deleted scene from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things that I’m sending out in my December newsletter. It’s about what happens after that awkward Christmas dinner at which Wavy’s ragtag family is reunited. It’s about making truces, setting boundaries, and agreeing on ground rules for all the future gatherings you have to face with people you don’t particularly like, but who are your family.

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Fairly early on in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Kellen gets arrested while he’s out drag racing with Wavy. The deputy who picks them up tries to make an overture of friendship toward Wavy. It’s clear that he thinks something is wrong with the situation and that she is in need of protection.

deputy sheriff… before we could walk out, the deputy reached across the desk and handed me a piece of paper.

“If you ever need anything, Wavy Quinn, you call me,” he said. That’s what was written on the paper, his name—Deputy Leon Vogel—and his phone number. I stuck it in my pocket and followed Kellen outside to the car.

Later, when Wavy’s parents are doing drugs and fighting, some of my early readers asked me to explain why Wavy wouldn’t call the police. I was startled, because it hadn’t occurred to me that for many people, calling the police would seem like the solution to a problem, rather than a whole other problem. The same people who have sometimes wondered how I could have kept my mouth shut as a kid, knowing my father was manufacturing and selling meth. I realized I needed to include an explanation in Wavy’s narrative, to help people understand.

Deputy Vogel told me to call him if I ever needed something. It’s what they taught in school, too. They said the police were there to help you, but I don’t think they knew what happened when the police came to your house. Cops ruin everything. They kick in the front door, throw people on the floor and handcuff them. They break things and steal things. They lock you in a patrol car, make you spend all night in the police station wearing your nightgown, and then send you home with strangers. That’s why I would never call Deputy Vogel, no matter how much Mama and Liam fought. I’d thrown away the paper with his number as soon as he gave it to me, because I remembered what happened the last time the police came to our house.

There are kids who call the police on their parents. I knew a few when I was younger, and you sometimes read about it in the news, like this 10-year-old boy in Pennsylvania. I hate to see those stories, because I can imagine how bad things must be at home when calling the police seems like the only escape. When taking a chance on strangers seems less dangerous than continuing to trust your parents. I can’t help but think of Victoria Martens from my post last week, and wondering if there was ever a point where she considered calling the police. If she ever had a chance.

Wavy chooses the devil she knows over the uncertainties of going into foster care, and the likely risk of being separated from her brother and from Kellen. As the story progresses, she begins looking for other ways to escape her parents, and so do real kids in these situations. It’s worth remembering that their solutions don’t always make sense to those of us on the outside. That doesn’t mean their solutions are inherently wrong. They’re just outside our understanding.

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Sometimes when I’m talking about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I have a hard time trying to get across the point that there are worse things that can happen to a girl raised around drug addicts. For a lot of readers, Wavy’s life seems utterly horrific, as is her relationship with what one person described as a “drug-dealing bike thug with a violent, hair-trigger temper.” Even as I wrote Wavy’s story, though, I was carrying in the back of my mind the knowledge that things could have been so much worse for her. As bad as Wavy’s parents are, there are far worse monsters out there.

Victoria-MartensToday, the morning news contained a visceral reminder of that. Here is the story of Victoria Martens. Drugged, raped, and murdered by her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s cousin. This is real life, not fiction, and it illustrates the absolute most horrific thing that can happen to a child when the adults in her life are drug addicts who have lost touch with reality, decency, and respect for human life.

And while the news doesn’t mention it, these people are drug addicts. Casual users of drugs pop pills or snort coke, like they’ve seen in the movies. Casual drug users don’t keep the necessary equipment to inject a 10-year-old girl with meth so that their boyfriends can rape her on her birthday. (I have no interest in parsing the details of who did the injecting, raping, murdering. If her mother was there for it and could have intervened, she as good as did it all herself.)

So while I will be the first person to acknowledge that Wavy’s relationship with Kellen is neither ideal nor desirable for a young girl, I also tend to look at it from the slant of other little girls’ tragedies. I wish every girl in this situation could simply get out of it and go to a safe home to live with responsible, loving adults. Failing that–and as a society, we are failing that–I wish all the girls in this situation had at least one person to provide them with unconditional love and protection. I wish the Wavies of the world could always have a Kellen in some form or another, but so often they don’t.

Love and peace to you, Victoria.

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NYT_secretaryThis week is particularly exciting for me, because an essay I wrote about my grandmother, and following in her secretarial shoes, was published in The New York Times. The venue alone is an incredible bit of luck, but there are few things as wonderful as getting to talk about one of the great loves of my life.

Additionally, my publisher is running another giveaway for my novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. It won’t be released until August, so this is your chance to get an advance copy.

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51e0vTQYw1LAs a child, I loved Christmas. It was three days of absolute magic and excitement. We were out of school, and there was a steady supply of cookies to eat as we played with our new toys. My grandma had a magpie instinct and decorated her house with twinkling lights and anything that glittered: cut glass figurines, mirrors, tinsel, crystal chandeliers. Her living room had that 1960s shag carpet so deep you could only rake it, not vacuum it. It dampened the sound from her massive console record player that was on a constant loop of the Rita Ford collection A Music Box Christmas.

Note: it was three magical days. Just three. Not ten. Not thirty. Not sixty. Not an endless barrage of commercials, cheap music, bellringers, and forced cheer. As a young adult, it lost its charm about the same time my grandma began her descent into Alzheimer’s. I developed a severe gift phobia that haunts me to this day. If you want to see a look of sheer panic in my eyes, hand me a wrapped present.

It only got worse as time went on: awkward family get togethers with in-laws, the crush of commercialism, the way tragedies pile up around this holiday. At one point in my marriage, we declared a moratorium. We stayed home alone and watched movies, christening our new holiday Cinemas. No more mediocre ham dinners. No more shopping for gifts nobody really wanted. No more faking a smile as I unwrapped a denim shirt embroidered with bird houses.

Then my pop got sick and I got sucked back into family Christmas events. But I am drawing the line. I’m only keeping what I love about this holiday from my childhood. I’m not agreeing to gift exchanges among adults who can afford to buy whatever they need and want. I’m not going to church. I’m not sitting through nieces and nephew’s musical performances. Seriously, you’ll find me in the garage drinking beer during those agonizing moments. I’m not even allowing anyone to ruin my Cinemas with depressing and serious movies.

The thing I’m embracing this year is butter spritz cookies. They were a staple of my childhood Christmases, and I inherited my grandmother’s cookie press in all its retro-future aluminum and copper glory. I pressed out a batch of traditional trees and poinsettias for my friend Robert, who felt he’d not received enough Christmas treats at work. Later in the week, when I go to my sister’s house, I’m taking the cookie press with me. I might even crank up the old Music Box Christmas album.

This year, be nice to yourself. Don’t gag down the whole monstrosity of Christmas, if you don’t want to. Keep what you love and leave the rest of it behind.

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