Sunday, September 21, 2014

Happy Anniversary to Us!

"This book is dedicated to John, who makes me possible."--from my first novel, Hearts Unfold.

Twenty-three years ago today I walked down the aisle of a beautiful little chapel to meet the man I'd been waiting my entire circuitous life to marry. I'd never felt so confident, or been filled with such peace, as on that cloudy September morning. At last, I was on the right road with the right person beside me. Finally, I'd found the one person in the world who "got" me.

We weren't young, or naive about marriage. We'd been there, done that, thrown out the t-shirt. But we were filled with hope at the possibilities of this journey we were beginning, no matter its length. He teased me that I'd have to live to be at least 80 in order to get the second half of my life "right." I just wanted the chance to share as much time as possible with him, never taking a single day for granted. I can say today that we still seem to be making a go of this partnership, one loving day at a time.

In the years since that brief ceremony united us as husband and wife, life has been filled with, well, living. We've moved into five different homes, changed jobs numerous times between us, married off a daughter and a grandson in that same church where we were married, welcomed grandchildren and great-grandchildren, bid sad farewells to friends and family. We've traveled together, worked together, and struggled together against most of life's typical challenges. Amazingly, we've had very few arguments and rarely gone to bed unhappy with one another.

I attribute our ongoing success to several things, the foremost being that this is a Christian marriage. By that I mean not only that we've leaned on our faith in the tough times, but we've mindfully incorporated our beliefs into the everyday humdrum of shared living. We respect as well as love each other while acknowledging that we each have strengths and weaknesses, not to mention very different personalities and histories. If marriage is the toughest job anyone can take on, (and it is) it's a lot easier going if both parties bring the same beliefs and values to the workplace each day.

I was right to feel confident that morning twenty-three years ago. What I only suspected at the time was that the gentle, gifted man waiting for me at the altar would not only enrich my life, but allow me to become a far better woman than I'd ever dreamed I could be. He allows me to be me, which can't always be easy. He unfailingly supports my dreams without questioning my sanity. If I need space, he gives it, and if I need a shoulder to cry on, or an ear to rant into, he gives that too.

If today, I've finally realized my dream of being a writer--a writer of books people buy and read and even enjoy--it's in large part thanks to him. Not only does he provide professional support--I was lucky enough to find a man who loves me and has 25 years' experience as a proofreader/editor--but he puts up with the hours I spend away from him, lost in the worlds unfolding on my computer screen. He celebrates every sale and positive review, and shamelessly plugs my books to anyone he meets. Most of all, he makes it possible for me to be me. He accepts me, big hairy warts and all, encourages whatever crazy scheme I'm plotting, and reminds me every day that it's never too late to begin the journey we were destined for, no matter how many misguided detours we may have stumbled over before the moment we found our way.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

In a Perfect World--Rambles on Writing

 We all indulge in fantasies. Some of us occasionally have trouble separating them from reality. Whether they're about money (more, never less) or a bigger, better house (or maybe a smaller, easier-to-keep house) we dream about that greener grass just beyond our reach. For some, fantasies become goals, lead to career choices and even the selection of a life-partner. For some, they lead to disappointment, frustration, and a belief that since our dreams never came true, we got the short end of the stick. In a perfect world, our fantasies would entertain and inspire us, but never stand in the way of realistic contentment.

Or, in a perfect writer's world, they would become stories. Short or long, rhyming or prose, set in the present, past or future, a writer's fantasies spin into characters and settings, mystery and romance, capturing the imagination of perfect strangers through the skillful assembly of word and phrase. Everyone has an imagination, whether writer or reader. When the fantasy of the writer meets that of the reader through the simple, everyday act of opening a book, the magic transcends both.

I was a reader from the time I can remember. Run, Jane, run. See Jane run. I felt the wind in my face and heard the cheers at the finish line. I lived with the Boxcar Children, solved mysteries with my heart racing alongside Nancy Drew, went into mourning with Jo March at the death of her beloved Beth. As an only child, the characters in my books were my closest friends. We spent countless quiet hours curled in a chair or huddled under the covers. Without ever leaving my remote little village, I traveled back and forward in time, met kings and beggars, and learned my way around the capitals of the world as well as other remote villages thousands of miles and centuries away. I learned about romance and sex, food and music, fashion and finance as much from reading as from any class or textbook. I got so involved with whatever I was reading at the moment, I was often only half-aware of what was going on around me.

Then came the time when the words began to leave the page and spin themselves into my own stories. I must have been around ten years old, a year when my real-life world changed radically, when the first of the spiral notebooks started to fill with disjointed bits of writing. It was awful stuff, but it was mine. One clever turn of phrase, one clearly drawn image, and I was thrilled with my accomplishment. No one saw what I was doing. I wasn't bold enough to tell anyone. For several years my stories were just mine, until I discovered that my cousin, a few months younger and the closest thing I have to a sister, was also scribbling in spiral notebooks.

That was the beginning of the best critique partnership I can imagine. When we were apart, we mailed stories back and forth--"snail mail," envelopes bulging with folded sheets of lined paper. During the times we spent together, often weeks at a time, we sat in the same room, pencils flying, periodically breaking the heavy silence to share something particularly brilliant, and finally handing off our work for the other to read. Our styles and genres (not sure we knew that word at the time) were very distinctive. Our subjects were much the same, girlish interpretations of our budding romantic fantasies, but her plot twists tended to toward the dramatic and sometimes violent, heroes in fist fights, or heroines run down by city buses. Mine, indicative of things to come I suppose, were gentler, more idyllic, a bit sappy some would say. It was heavenly sharing that experience, giggling at two in the morning over an unintentional innuendo, or oohing at a truly fine turn of phrase.

When, forty plus years later, I actually finished my first novel, my cousin agreed to read it. I was scared to death to send the file to her. I knew how brutally honest her critiques could be. Plus, she knows me as well as any other living soul. A few catchy phrases weren't going to convince her I was finally a writer. What she had to say after she read the book I won't share here. It's frankly too precious, a gift I treasure. Let it suffice to say her "getting" my story, the light she shed on my work, opening my eyes to things I didn't realize I'd done, led me to believe in myself enough to publish.

When a reader reveals in a message or a review that they really "got" it, I feel as though I've found that perfect world, that magical place where storyteller and reader live the story together. When I started writing, I promised I'd write the kind of stories I wanted to read. It's close to impossible for a writer to follow the "trends," to intentionally write what sells, and maintain any sort of integrity in their work. For me, as much as I enjoy many of the edgy, contemporary voices at the top of the bestseller lists, I know I don't have that kind of voice. And I don't want to. I've lived with the voice in my head for fifty years, if you count those awful scribblings in the spiral notebooks. I can recognize when a story begins to spin, or when I'm trying too hard to force one to take off. I know the honest from the contrived well enough to walk away from a story that will never feel like mine.

In a perfect world, there's room for every kind of voice, a readership ready to "get" every author. None of us should feel more or less successful as long as we're true to ourselves and our stories. This isn't a competition to see who dies with the most five-star reviews or the most sales. In a perfect world, those who die with the satisfaction of living their dreams win hands down.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why I Stayed

I'm going to say something right up front. If you had any idea how difficult it is for me to post this entry, you'd tell me not to. You'd tell me you understand that I'd feel safer not speaking out. You'd say let someone else tell their story, someone braver who doesn't prefer feeling invisible, just in case. But something tells me the time is now, so here goes.

I am a survivor of domestic violence. I lived it, denied it, defended it, and eventually I woke up to the reality of it and knew I had to leave it. To this day, I remain cautious, aware that somewhere out there someone I once loved, shared the most intimate aspects of my life with and sincerely tried to understand hates me for leaving. I live with the knowledge that his rage can be triggered by the mention of my name and despite the hundreds of miles that separate me from him, that still frightens me.

Leaving, and staying away, was the hardest thing I've ever done, but I was one of the fortunate ones. I was supported by a tight circle of friends who made it possible for me to stay away, to avoid the all too powerful temptation to go back when faced with the daunting reality of no money, no job and no place to live. That isn't true for a lot of women. Without those friends, who's to say I might not have gone back. Familiar horrors begin to seem bearable when confronted with a faceless unknown. That's what he tells you, when he senses you're thinking of leaving. You won't be able to take care of yourself because he's doing such a good job of taking care of you. You can't make the kind of money, live in the kind of neighborhood, wear the kind of clothes, provide for the kids the way he can. The truth of that is louder than your fear. It drowns out your awareness of the exorbitant price you're already paying for all those things.

Each woman stays for different reasons, but those reasons add up to staying because leaving doesn't seem to be a viable reality. At the heart of staying is the fact that at times, if not at that moment, you love him. What drew you to him is still there in the good times. And there are good times along with the bad ones. I found it difficult to even recall the horrors when things were going well. Maybe I overreacted, maybe I misunderstood, maybe I was in some way to blame. When you love someone, even in the best of relationships, there's a lot of forgiveness involved. If you believe, as I do, in the sanctity of marriage, in keeping your promises, in loving unselfishly, you'll forgive a lot in the name of keeping the peace and sharing those good times. While the reasons for staying differ, I believe every woman will agree that love, as battered and tested as it may become, is at the heart of staying.

Money may seem like a poor reason, but imagine putting your checkbook, your credit cards, the keys to your house on the kitchen table and walking out with what you can carry, with no job, no permanent address and no idea what tomorrow might bring. While some women have the time and foresight to plan, many reach the day of departure with very little to take with them but their lives. That was my case, and in truth I felt safer leaving it all. But I won't say I felt confident of anything. It was one day at a time, one hurdle at a time, one disappointment at a time. Without the help and protection of my little circle, I might have been forced to go back. I know how blessed I was and that many women lack that kind of support.

Fear is the most powerful motivator of all, in both directions. Fearing what he'll do if you try to leave, fearing what he'll do if you stay on. Fearing what he might do to the people you love, your parents, your children, your friends, and fear of what he might do to himself. That fear kept me in place for all of our marriage. I told myself I could handle what he did to me, the verbal abuse, the control, the threats of violence, better than I could seeing anyone else suffer, including him. The consequences of leaving, the destruction of our family, and living with the guilt of wondering if I'd done something differently it might all have been avoided, stopped me in my tracks any time I dared consider taking such a step.

Shame plays a part too, the shame of admitting that you lived with someone who treated you that way, the shame of being the one to break the wall of silence and tell the world your life wasn't what you'd worked so hard to make it appear. The shame of taking back all those lies you told about how wonderful he was and how happy you were, the lies you convinced even yourself were true. I'm a good actress and I write fiction. I did an exceptional job of creating the illusion of happy home, loving husband, treasured wife. And then in one day, I had to tear down the illusion and admit the truth to a lot of people who couldn't believe it and others who never did.

What I accepted in the moment I knew I would leave was that it couldn't matter, not the love, the security, the fear or the shame, as much as regaining my life. I had surrendered everything to someone who would never be satisfied with what I had to give. I had trusted someone who time and again broke faith. I had taken the blame for pushing him to his limits when in fact there was no rhyme or reason to his limits, they were merely unpredictable whims. Staying no longer made sense. Staying could serve no purpose other than to further surrender, live without trust, and accept the blame for my own destruction.

Arriving at that moment required me to drop the veil of denial, look hard at the sad truth and let go of all hope for a miraculous change. I remember thinking how ironic it was that I had watched all those discussions of domestic violence on Oprah, I had been the girl who said if a guy ever hit me, I'd be out of there. I had deluded myself into believing we were different because I was looking at the reality of domestic abuse from inside, where the discussion translated into the language of our shared history.

I said before that leaving was the hardest thing I've ever done. Sometimes I'm still amazed that I did it. Each step away was a conscious choice, taken with the awareness that I was becoming a different woman, one who faced a new reality with eyes wide open, who could never look back without regret or forward without remembering. After over twenty years, my heart still races when the topic is discussed and all the memories, the worst and the best, cross my mind in an emotional kaleidoscope.

Currently, the discussion has much to do with a culture that exempts certain men from responsibility. But from where I live now, on the other side of leaving, every man is exempt until proven otherwise, and then our culture as a whole continues to find fault with the woman for having stayed. Without living in her body, we can't know why she stayed or how she perceived her unique situation. Without her background, personality and thought process, we can't know what it felt like when he yelled, or threatened, or hit. None of us, no matter our own experience with domestic violence or lack thereof, can judge her choices.

What we can do is everything in our power to raise awareness, to promote a rational, constructive discussion, to equip our sons and daughters with the necessary tools to build a society where domestic violence is taboo. We can reserve our unsolicited advice and offer unconditional support. Blame, no matter where directed, is unproductive. "Should have" and "why" are a waste of breath. Change is the only viable solution. It will not happen over night, or even in a generation. But it can happen. Don't let the conversation die until the next high-profile case hits the headlines. Look around you. Find a place to add your voice. Open your minds and give of your time. Every woman out there now, living on the inside of domestic abuse, needs you to become part of the change.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Free Getaway-Kindle Style

Katie Lost and Found
My new release is FREE for Kindle September 1-5! Please help yourself to a getaway to Walnut Lodge. Meet owner Tess Weldon and the wonderful group of friends who staff this historic bed and breakfast in Middle of Nowhere, Kansas. Trust me, there's a lot more than history happening there.  

 Peter Kosten is starting over. Leaving behind a successful career and a failed marriage, his vision for the future is colored by disappointment. During his time at Walnut Lodge, he hopes to reinvent himself, to recover the ideals and dreams he shared with the one real love of his life, the girl who vanished without a trace sixteen years earlier.
Walnut Lodge is Tess Weldon’s life. The grand old house is her business, her home and her safe haven, its staff her friends and family. Her secrets are safe within its walls. Guided by the vision she shared with her late husband, her future finally seems secure, until her past checks in to the Lodge.
Fate may have brought Peter and Tess full circle, but lost love found doesn’t necessarily lead to a second chance.