The first time it happened, I figure it was a great coincidence. I took a break from my writing and while walking my dogs through the park an injured crow showed up on our path. The coincidence, of course, was that I’d been working on my novel Black Crow White Lie and there was a scene where I needed to describe a crow. The one I came upon that day was very calm and slow with his movements. He was either injured or very old, or a bit of both. He let me watch him and didn’t show the usual agitated crow behavior at someone being nearby. This seemed like amazing luck and so I took my dogs home and went back up to the park to observe him alone.
By the time I got back to the park, I found that the crow had crossed the street to a neighbor’s house. He was in the planter. I carefully approached him and sat on the walkway just a few feet away. It was a strange experience. He watched me and I watched him for about a half hour. Not much happened, but it was enlightening. Having never been this close to a crow, I discovered that when he blinked his eyes, the lids moved from the sides inward instead of top to bottom. It was curious and cool and in our half-hour relationship, I felt like I’d learned enough to properly describe a crow in my book.
A couple months later, I had just dropped off my kids at school when I noticed something black in the middle of the street. As I got closer I found it was another black crow. This one’s wing was so injured, it couldn’t move. There were two men outside their houses talking and I asked if one had a shoebox I could use. I wanted to take the crow home and call animal control to see if they could help it. One of the men brought me a box, and I was able to transport the crow home. While waiting for animal control to come, I had yet another half hour relationship with a crow. This one was more vulnerable than the first. Instead of learning about the crow and analyzing him up close, I felt for him. It was more of an emotional connection, as animal control had explained they might have to euthanize him. Spending his possible last moments with me, I hoped I could comfort him with calm energy.
That should have been enough coincidences while writing a novel about a crow, but it wasn’t. The next time, I was specifically writing about a dead crow when I took a break from my computer and walked my dogs around the block. On a grass area near the park, one of my dogs approached something black and stopped to examine it. I froze in disbelief when I saw what it was—a dead black crow. Now it was just getting strange. I actually looked around to see if anyone was there, setting up the scene for me. And yet how could someone have done that? No one knew what I was writing about. So instead I looked upward. And I nodded.
I was familiar with the law of attraction but I thought that it simply meant ‘think positive and positive things will happen, think negative and negative things will come your way.’ What I began to learn through my writing experiences—with the crows and then with other strange synchronistic occurrences—was that thoughts are far more powerful than just floating ideas in our heads. Motivational author Louise Hay says, "The law of attraction is that our thinking creates and brings to us whatever we think about. It's as though every time we think a thought, every time we speak a word, the universe is listening and responding to us."
I understood this in a brand new way. It inspired me to write about things I wouldn’t mind showing up in my life since it seemed that there was a good likelihood they would. It also made me more careful about what I allowed into my mind. My thoughts did more than just float. They opened doors to the outside world and let into my life the things that I attracted.
As I went on writing Black Crow White Lie, the crows continued showing up. Though later experiences weren’t as intimate as the three I described, there were still unusual chance encounters relevant to the novel. I came to like their visits. They were a reminder that the universe was listening and responding to me. When I began my next novel, I fit crows into the story again, knowing that if I kept my doors open, I could keep the black birds coming around.
(This post first appeared on the Long and Short Reviews website)
"I was a stay-at-home mom of two little ones when I started writing novels..."
I did a guest blog post for "Janine's Confessions of a Mommyholic" about being a writer and a mom. Check it out here:
Janine's Confessions of a Mommyholic
When I was a kid, if a black cat ran out in front of our car, my mom would pull over to the side of the road. She would wait for someone else to drive by and cross the black cat’s path before we could go. If no one else drove by, we would turn around and go another way. Why? Because black cats had the power to send bad luck our way if we dared to be the first to cross their paths. There was no logic to this theory. There was just a story. And the story was enough for my mom.
I remember keeping my eye out the back window of our station wagon, waiting for the car that would allow us clearance to move on. Those moments were kind of exciting as a kid, when I witnessed my mom taking steps to keep our family’s luck safe. And it wasn’t just with black cats. When we spilled salt, the potential for bad luck arose, but my mom taught my sisters and me to throw a little salt over our left shoulders to neutralize the situation. We learned to never open an umbrella in the house, never walk under a ladder, never shake out a tablecloth or a rug after dark, and be careful not to crack mirrors. My mom taught us well, and because of her solid grasp on keeping our luck safe, we ended up being a lucky family. Our home was filled with happiness and we didn’t have to go through any terrible misfortune. (Just to keep my mom from cringing, I knocked on wood after writing that.)
When I left home and went away to college, I spent a lot of time re-thinking the things I’d learned in my childhood. I took a discerning look at the superstitions my mom had taught me, and I came to the conclusion that they were not only untrue, but quite silly. How could throwing salt over my shoulder or knocking on a piece of wood alter my life? I decided to rid myself of those wacky beliefs and take life rationally. As a college student, I sometimes went as far as opening my umbrella inside the house just to get it ready for when I stepped out into the rain.
Fast forward several years… I was pregnant with my second child and my due date was just days away. In the mail, I received a chain letter that said at the end: “Send this to 20 people or something bad will happen in a week.”
There I was, no longer superstitious—and yet this letter just ate at me! The timing was eerie. I knew in my rational brain that there was no truth to it, but any mom knows rationality gets thrown out the door those last days of pregnancy. I couldn’t take the chance that something bad could happen in a week—one of the most important weeks in my entire life. I knew I had to get those chain letters out to 20 people. The only problem was I didn’t want to risk mailing the letters. My baby could come any day, and what if the letters didn’t arrive in time?
My patient, understanding husband helped me do what I thought I had to do. Keeping his mouth shut, and wearing the slightest smile that said, “My wife is crazy but I still love her,” my husband drove me to the spot I requested. There, in an underground parking lot, with 20 copies of the chain letter, my husband and I went from car to car, tucking the letters under windshield wipers. My stomach was huge, but I managed to be quick and even discreet as I weaved through parked cars, getting the chain letters off my hands. Once the twentieth letter was on a windshield, I jumped back in our car, and took a huge breath. I held my hand over my tummy, feeling my baby kicking, knowing I’d successfully taken charge. Just like my mom had done when I was young, I was keeping my family’s luck safe. And it worked! My daughter’s birth went smoothly.
Since that incident, I was never again faced with such an extreme test of my superstitions. I am much more laidback about them now. I even have two black cats and I let them run in front of my car when I drive up to the house. I don’t follow all the rituals my mom once taught me, but I do have some of my own. I’ve been known to change seats at a volleyball game, hoping to change our team’s luck. I drink my tea from a lucky mug when I have an important day ahead. My husband claims it’s superstitious the way I never pass up a dandelion when we walk our dogs. I see them almost daily as I pick them and blow away their seeds to make a wish. I just consider that being hopeful, but maybe he’s right.
While random and nonsensical, superstitions do have one powerful thing going for them—they give the perception of control in this otherwise uncontrollable world. The illusion that putting chain letters on cars in an underground parking lot could keep my daughter safe at birth is ridiculous. I know that. Maybe my mom even knows how absurd it is to pull over to the side of the road because of a black cat. But sometimes a little, manageable, made-up story with invisible forces helping us out is comforting as we stand up against the immense, unmanageable realities of life. It’s like a small act of hope playing along with these fictions that promise good fortune. Since real life makes no such promises, it’s hard not to be wooed by superstitions at least now and then. I will admit that scientifically, dandelions have no power to make my wishes come true, but when I see them sprouting up from the earth, tempting me to make a wish, I always give in.
I'm pretty good at taking a tough situation and looking for the life lesson in it. I try my best to keep the perspective that every quandary I find myself in is like school for the soul. And so when a stray dog held me hostage in a tree one morning while I was on a run, I challenged myself—from my lofty and leafy classroom—to figure out the possible lesson.
It was a brisk, sunny morning in my Southern Californian suburban neighborhood. I was running and my iPod was too loud to hear the dog coming at me. Something in my periphery made me turn my head. That's when I saw him. He was big, and running right toward me. All I could think about was how I would handle the pain when he bit me, and what my chances were of fighting him off before he ripped me apart. My fight or flight instinct kicked in. When I noticed the tree nearby, flight looked like the better option. The tree was tall—really tall, but climbing it would definitely be easier than trying to overpower this dog. I'd had at least five seconds of adrenaline rushing through me, and that ended up being enough to help me scale the big tree like a kid instead of the forty-something woman I am.
Perched in the heart of its thick branches, I had to catch my breath. Looking down and realizing how high up I was, I couldn't believe I'd actually climbed it. Fear had brought out strength I didn't even know I had in me. I almost wished my teenage kids could see what I'd managed to do, but the dog, who was now jumping at the base of the tree, reminded me that all things considered, this wasn't really a proud moment.
After a very long minute, the big dog finally gave up jumping. He sat down on the grass with his nose in the air, and just stared up at me, waiting. "Go," I yelled, pointing away. "Go, go, go!" His head tilted a little each time I shouted, but then went right back into place as he continued staring.
The tree stood in a quiet residential area, on the corner of a four-way stop. I'm tall, and I was wearing a bright turquoise top. There was little chance of me blending in with the tree. I was certain that someone would notice me and would stop to help. I was right on one account--I was noticed.
The first guy drove by, slightly slowing down, lowering his head to see me through the passenger side window. As his car eased on, he kept twisting his neck, as far as it would reach, to watch me. It was like he hadn't seen the dog and thought I'd climbed the tree for the fun of it. One misunderstanding was expected. I let it go and waited for someone else to show up.
It was a few minutes before another car drove by. The driver did a similar slow down and strain of the neck, but this one had a passenger who saw the dog. Still, they didn't stop to help. Blown away that they both passed me by, I gave a laugh. Where was the sense of neighborly support in my community? The astonished expression I wore must have been mistaken for a smile as the next car drove by and the guy seemed to smile back.
Apparently the dog was finally getting bored with me. He started roaming the grass area beneath the tree, smelling its history. When I heard the next car approach, I turned back to the street. The driver glanced up, and did a double take before quickly looking away, as if to mind her own business. Now it was getting kind of funny and I was wearing a legitimate smile. I was still annoyed that no one would help me, but it was hard not to see the humor in this awkward moment. A few more cars drove by, and keeping consistent with those before, none of them stopped either.
It took about fifteen minutes for the dog to finally venture far enough away so that I felt comfortable jumping down and running home. I'll admit I was still a little too anxious after the experience to ponder the life lesson right away. I just needed to talk about it. I told family and friends the story, and spoke of my disappointment over no one stopping to help. Most were too stuck on the humor of the situation to address my disappointment--until one friend posed the question: "But did you ask for help?" Ask? Why would I have to ask? Wasn't it obvious? That question stayed with me a while until something clicked. And the lesson began to unfold.
I never waved at any of the drivers or called out for help. I assumed they knew I needed help—I was up in a tree and a big dog was watching me from below—but what was obvious to me from my view apparently ended up looking like something else to outsiders. Who's going to stop for a lady in a tree, who seems to be smiling, while her dog waits for her below? People don' t like to interfere--especially if the person in the tree appears to be happy. Those drivers were probably more open to helping me than I give them credit for. I might have found out if I just asked.
This is not a story with a tragic ending. In fact, it's been a source of entertainment for my family and friends, but in its own creative way, it speaks to a more serious concept for those of us who don't like to ask for help. There are much more critical situations we could find ourselves in than my tree predicament, and yet others might not see that we need help. From deep within our own heads, our difficulties seem obvious. But the truth is, most other people are somewhere deep in their own heads too, with their own situations and distractions. They're not necessarily paying attention to the signs of our troubles, and so we can't expect them to just know we're in need. We have to make ourselves clear. If we want help, we should ask.
Once this lesson came to light, I tried practicing it with small requests. I was pleasantly surprised at how willingly people helped out when I made my needs clear. Asking didn't guarantee the response I wanted, but the odds ended up being significantly better than hoping someone could read my mind. Sometimes you just have to go out on a limb and ask for what you want. This revelation has given me a new take on the day the stray dog held me hostage in a tree. Had I waved my hands and mouthed the word "help" that morning, I have a feeling a car would have pulled over, and I might instead be writing an article about how kind and neighborly people are when you just ask them for a little help.
Every day I walk my three small dogs around the block. It never fails that my youngest, a Shih Tzu named Littles, becomes Mr. Fearless when we get to one particular fence. Just as we round the second corner of our walk, Littles lowers his head, sticks his tail straight out behind him, and runs as fast as he can to a fence where a big dog lives. I have to drag my other two dogs to keep up with him. It's a tall backyard fence and near the bottom, there is a small peephole about the size of a silver dollar. By the time we reach it, the big dog is usually already barking and even howling as he shoves his nose into the hole. Littles comes along and shoves his own nose right back at the big dog's, barking into the peephole while jumping at the fence and wagging his tail. This same little dog, who freezes up and drops his tail between his legs at the park when a big dog approaches, becomes the aggressor when he's behind a fence. The peephole is his safe view into the big dog's world and he loves to use it for a brief ego boost.
When I got home from our walk the other day, I was reading an online article about a local man who was murdered. In the comments below the article, some woman made an inappropriate, heartless joke about his murder. She didn't know the man. The joke was more about his occupation and she tried to cleverly relate it to why he was killed. I can't imagine she would have said this in the physical presence of the readers, as most people would attack her heartlessness, but behind the safety of the computer, she had no threat. It made me think of my earlier walk with little Mr. Fearless and the protective fence. The internet was this woman's fence, and her peephole was the small box on the website that said: "Post your comment here."
Bullying and serious internet aggression are something altogether different. This incident was more on the level of your average person getting a whim to post something she wouldn't be held accountable for. The woman struck me as someone who just got a quick dose of courage to throw out an outrageous comment. It's like my dog Littles. He's not a bully, but a really nice dog most of the time. He just likes to take that brief opportunity every morning to feel big and strong. I'm not sure what the woman online was trying to feel. Funny? Cool? Or maybe she just wanted to be noticed. I don't know her, so I can't know her heart. Judging her is useless, but using her as an example can be worthwhile. Have I ever been tempted to write something online that I wouldn't say in person? Of course. While her particular joke wouldn't have been my choice, I am certainly capable of voicing opinions that don't need to go out there. If I'm willing to stand behind my comments, and my intentions are pure, then I can speak my mind in good conscience. But if ever my thoughts and motives resemble Littles barking into the peephole, pretending he is something he's not, I will try to recall how pathetic false courage looks, and keep those comments to myself.
There are plenty of positives having this computer peephole to the world. Everyone now has a voice, and the safety behind the computer gives people courage to speak out. That in itself can be a good thing. It starts getting negative when the little Shih Tzus out there lose all sense of their usual decorum for the sake of a quick ego boost, or a laugh, or even just an opportunity to be heard. I think it's a good idea while online to pretend that at any moment, the peephole could open wide up. Face to face with my readers, it would be best to choose words that feel right while looking into their eyes.
I was asked to write a guest post for Literary Agent Andrea Hurst's blog on my path to publication. I thought I'd share the story on my blog as well. Here is the link:
I just re-read one of my favorite novels, The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch. One passage stuck with me and I haven't been able to get it off my mind. There is a scene where a woman asks the main character, Miles, how we know when we’re moving forward. Not understanding the way people always use the word "forward," Miles responds to the woman saying, “Crabs move sideways. They don’t worry about going forward or backward.”
Something about reading that simple passage really hit me. I don't remember it from the first time I read the book, but this time it stood out. So I've been thinking about what it means to me right now in my life.
As the kids have left for college, sideways movement sounds appealing. All those years raising them required a lot of forward movement-- sometimes even fast forward. There was always something to get done. And it wasn't only my own agenda moving me ahead. While teaching the kids about accomplishing and achieving I often held their hands to guide them forward. Whether it was homework, getting them to practices and appointments, or just helping them with life lessons, I was often caught up in their movement. Sometimes all that going forward generated such momentum that it just took over, and it was easy to miss some of the beauty around me- the plumerias blooming in the backyard, the full moon looking down on me, and even that great guy I married over twenty years ago.
Now that the kids are off to college and I'm not holding their hands anymore, I'm adjusting and finding my own movement and pace. I still have goals set ahead of me, but they're not as constant or consuming. There's no denying I miss the kids like crazy and I even miss some of the hectic schedules that kept them close to me, but I am finding a new sense of peace in this next phase. I get to go sideways more often these days. Instead of always working in the garden to clean things up, some days I can be found just sitting in it and enjoying it. I've noticed how tall the palm trees have grown since we planted them when the kids were little. Instead of constantly moving forward to some destination on my busy schedule, I've been seen these last few weeks moving sideways to the neighbor's house, just to chat. And yesterday when my husband and I were walking along the beach, there was yet another sideways movement I notice I've been making more lately. As we walked, I moved sideways, leaning in closer to him, so that my arm was touching his arm. Now that it's just the two of us again, there's less urgency to always get somewhere, and more time and space to get closer.
The warm sun on my skin, the sand beneath my feet, the soothing sound of waves, and the comfort of my husband by my side, I couldn't help but notice all the beauty around me.
Todd Dillard made a great suggestion when I asked for help with blogging. He said, "... take photos of interesting things you're doing, see, etc." And then Stephen Woodfin suggested, "Find something you can offer that is different." Well, here is a photo of something interesting and different. I see this everyday when I pass the window to my backyard. What is it, you ask? It's "creativity off the page." As a writer, I put so much of my imagination on the page, and yet this visual reminds me that life is full of opportunities to use imagination off the page. It's a lesson my outside-the-box thinking husband has been teaching me over the years. And so here's the story:
Our backyard is just a modest size. That never stopped my husband from making it awesome. When our kids were young, he built a planter where our Guinea pigs could roam around and the kids could play with them. After a few years when the pigs were gone, our kids got into a new phase--remote control race cars. The planter came out and our backyard was transformed into a dirt race track. Kids would come over with their cars and the races would go on for hours. When that phase passed and both of our kids got into volleyball, turf was put in and a net was put up. Most days after school, from junior high to high school, kids came over to play mini tournaments on the small 2-man court. Our little backyard always had a lot of action-- until this summer.
Both of our kids have just moved off to college. My husband and I are empty-nesters for the first time and adjusting to the quiet around here. I'm spending more time writing, and my husband has taken up golfing. As I should have expected, he has changed our modest backyard to fit this new phase in our lives. It's not a drastic change, but it does the job. He took an old shower curtain and hung it over the volleyball net, then set a small golf mat to practice hitting balls. A shower curtain in the backyard is an odd look as you can see, but it reflects the creative approach my husband has always taken as our family has gone through changes. It's actually kind of nice hearing the whack of the golf ball in the late afternoon--complete quiet there in our backyard makes me miss the kids too much. So while I'm continuing to use my creativity on the page to make the best of my fictitious stories, my husband continues using his creativity off the page to make the best of our real story.
I'm giving blogging a try. I planned on waiting until I had something important to say, but instead I'm starting now. I thought I'd get some practice so that I'll be better prepared when something important to say finally comes to me. I'm going to keep this first post simple, a simple request.... Teach me how to blog. My blogger friends on Twitter and WAE Network, I'd love if you would take the time to offer me just one piece of advice. I am a fiction writer, so this kind of writing is new to me. Share some wisdom with me and I will be sure to take a look at your blog, and even Tweet links to your posts. I'm excited to hear from you!