This radio interview with my friend Denise Brennan-Nelson came up in my Facebook feed as a memory from four years ago. In case you missed it the first time, it’s a great reflection of my journey as a bereaved mom, founder of Claire’s Day and children’s book author. We talk about wishes and what gets in the way. Enjoy! https://soundcloud.com/podcastdetroit/the-nooner-show-episode-2?fbclid=IwAR1t8JxlapTBbcEwdzk67hLJoKMQ64TQIG0MvugWARx_pYw3KZvHl7-wnTw
One of my favorite movies, Sleepless in Seattle, features the Gene Autry tune, Back in the Saddle Again, as the widower Tom Hanks decides it’s time to start dating.
The phrase reflects one’s desire to get back into doing something you had before, whether from injury or self-imposed time-out.
In my case, both apply.
My last post reflected my overwhelmed state of mind. I wrote it on the heels of our 18th annual Claire’s Day and several months filled with various writerly and literacy advocate commitments.
I was burnt out and felt a need to recharge.
Well, it’s interesting how life just kind of helps you figure things out.
In my case, it all began over the Fourth of July weekend. My right foot began to bother me. It started to nag at me, a dull, continuous pain. Then it began screaming after walking the golf course in bad shoes.
The timing couldn’t have been worse.
My husband, Brad, had presented me with the gift of playing in the Marathon Classic pro-am the Wednesday following the holiday weekend.
Understand that for me, playing in a pro-am was one of ten things I wrote down that I wanted to accomplish years ago during a team-building exercise during my sales management days. It was on my bucket list before there ever was such a thing. It represented my desire to get my golf game to the point that I could hold my own on the course.
The LPGA Marathon Classic supports charities that benefit children. Last year a portion of the proceeds from the tournament were given to Claire’s Day. As our way of showing our gratitude, Brad purchased two slots in the pro-am at the tournament host course, Highland Meadows.
But I had this throbbing foot. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to play, to fulfill this dream I’ve had for years. I called a friend of mine, a retired podiatrist. We both kind of figured that it was a stress fracture, brought on by bad shoes and over-exercising. His advice? “Get a golf cart if you can, wear the most supportive golf shoes you have, and have fun.”
I didn’t sleep well the night before the tournament. I felt like a kid going to Cedar Point amusement park the next day. I finally got up around 4:30 a.m., made myself some coffee, and sat out on the deck with my confused four-year-old Labrador, Luna. As I sipped my coffee and iced my foot, a sense of calm came over me. I knew that it was all going to be okay. I knew I was going to play well. And I felt so grateful to have the opportunity.
The experience was surreal, from the moment I met our pro, Mirim Lee, from South Korea, and our playing partners. When I got up to the first tee, I took a deep breath, settled into my stance, and struck the ball perfectly. The team used my drive, as they did often that day. And, as I was lead putter, I sank a number of putts, saving the team from having to do so. We ended up at a respectful 13 under.
Later that afternoon I got the official diagnosis, a boot, and the prognosis of 6-8 weeks of heeling from my new podiatrist.
So, I’ve spent the last 7 weeks icing, elevating, and hobbling along in my boot. I’ve been humbled by being pushed around in a wheelchair at our zoo and museum during a family visit. I’ve not been able to golf, walk my dog or bike.
Brad calls me his “Energizer Bunny.”
My batteries didn’t die. They were cruelly pulled from me.
For those of you who know me, it’s been hell.
But, for those of you who know me well, you know that I didn’t just sit.
I reflected. I meditated. I healed. And, I must admit, I binge-watched This is Us.
Through this process, I’ve discovered a subject that is so perfectly reflective of my experience that I can’t wait to share it with you.
But that will come in time.
For now, I’m celebrating being back in the saddle again.
In the Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh reflects on her life and her roles as a wife, bereaved mother, mother to five other children, and writer.
I’ve read this treasure numerous times, gleaning something applicable to my life at the moment each visit.
Mrs. Morrow Lindbergh shared her meditations from a little cabin by the sea in Captiva, as she temporarily stepped away from the responsibilities of her life.
Simply put, she retreated. She reflected. She wrote.
I’m doing the same, and I need to for my own health and well-being.
I told my daughter Kyle on a visit in March that I was feeling anxious about the numerous appearances, events, and presentations that filled my calendar early-April through May. I admitted that many of these activities are out of my natural comfort zone.
She responded, “You’d never know that.”
Revelation: at my core, I’m still that shy, not-so-confident girl from a small town.
Life has forced me out of my shell, just like the little hermit crab who resided in the channelled whelk shell Mrs. Morrow Lindbergh discovered.
As my girlfriend Gayle offered, “we’d never know that because you do all that you do so well. But I get it…and since it’s not within your innate nature, it takes all the more energy from you.”
There’s more to the story too. Let’s just say that sometimes being an author of nonfiction for young readers can be challenging.
I find myself questioning who I am, and who I should be as a writer.
As Mrs. Morrow Lindbergh offers, this is a time in life when I should be “shedding shells,” shells of pride, self-ambition, one’s mask, one’s armor. It is a time, particularly as a woman, to find our “true center.”
I ask for your support as I reflect, retreat in my inner shell, and continue to discover purpose as a writer.
My heart is filled with hope that as I pull back and within, as I escape to my own waterside haven, that the universe reveals where my “true center” is.
This weekend I had the opportunity to be surrounded by amazing creators of children’s books. Now, I know what you’re thinking. As the co-founder of Claire’s Day, a children’s book festival, this would not be unusual for me. In my role as an author, this isn’t necessarily a new experience either, as I’ve been fortunate to attend many Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators meetings and conferences.
But, this was different.
This was a writing workshop specifically for nonfiction children’s book authors, editors and agents.
Ahhh…finally. My peeps.
I felt like the nonfiction kid-lit shelves at my local bookstore literally came to life in front of my eyes as I met my fellow attendees. Writers I only knew through common on-line writing groups or social media were there, live and in person. I met scientists, educators, and biographers, all passionate about sharing their discoveries in creative and exciting works with children of all ages.
These writers have created works on everything from the history of dogs, to the significance of road kill. It was a thrill to meet peers who have written biographies I’ve read as mentor texts, admiring their style and structure.
I fan-girled over Candace Fleming, whose works range from stories about giant squids, to revealing, incredible biographies of Amelia Earhart and Buffalo Bill. I learned about the importance of “vital idea” of story and exciting page turns from Candace.
Jennifer Swanson, the creative genius behind the workshop, shared her excitement over establishing a nonprofit that provides author school visits to children who might not ever have the chance for this incredible experience otherwise. Jen participated in Claire’s Day last year, and it has been an honor offering her support and advice in this endeavor.
It was awesome meeting editors who are passionate about nonfiction, who are actively acquiring the manuscripts we are all creating.
Most of all, it was so refreshing to talk about research, back matter, interviewing subjects, challenges in getting experts to “vet” our manuscripts, agents who specialize in nonfiction, and all things related to the beauty and opportunities in this genre as an author.
I walked away from the experience feeling as though I have a whole new support group of writers who really “get” what I’m doing, because they are walking the same path. They speak my language.
My new peeps. Nice to meet you.
Have you ever found yourself in the presence of someone you admire so much that suddenly you find it difficult to speak intelligently? Or speak at all?
Such was the case for me when I first met Christine Brennan, USA Today sports columnist, commentator, author, speaker, mentor and voice for justice in the world of sports.
In other words, superwoman in the world of sports journalism.
Christine, or Chris, as she’s known to friends, graciously agreed to not only appear and sign copies of her memoir, Best Seat in the House, at one of our first Claire’s Days, but offered to help honor children who were being given our C.A.R.E. Awards. Claire’s Awards for Reading Excellence are given to children chosen as the most improved readers in their classes.
The children may not have realized who Christine is, but all the adults in the audience did.
I watched in awe as Christine, along with several of her nieces, graciously recognized the young readers. You would have thought that she was handing an Olympic gold to one of her favorite figure skaters. She made the children feel that special.
She made Brad and I feel pretty special too. It was a feeling that stuck with me for a long time.
As I was given the opportunity to propose subjects to write about for the Biographies for Young Readers published by Ohio University Press, the admiration I have for Christine encouraged me to approach her.
I happened to still have her cell phone number, and she apparently hadn’t disposed of mine either.
When I called, I was expecting to get her voicemail. I was certain she wouldn’t either recognize the number or would have “broomed me” to tend to any breaking news in the world of sports.
Instead, she answered right away.
“Hey Julie, how are you? What’s up?”
There was no time to hesitate. I managed to gather my wits and outline the book project in the brief time she had to chat.
Without hesitation, she replied, “Absolutely. Oh, my goodness, I’m so honored.”
That conversation started an amazing journey of research, writing, and revising, ultimately leading up to the release in early April of Eye to Eye: Sports Journalist Christine Brennan.
It was such a joy getting to know Christine better, to sneak a glimpse behind the curtain of the world of sports journalism, to come to understand how significant and important she is to so many.
I’m even more in awe of Christine Brennan now than I was before I started this journey.
But, thanks to Chris, I’m a little braver when approaching subjects to tell their stories.
I’m diving back into my memoir. Or more accurately, I’ve ditched the first draft and starting all over again. I so want to get this right. To share our journey of loss, but more so, our adventures through life, together as a family. Our daughter, their sister died, but we’ve lived.
In my quest to learn the art of stories involving loss, I read Mitch Albom’s the next person you meet in heaven.
In an exchange between Annie, the main character and her mother, Lorraine, they discuss forgiveness.
To offer background, when a defining moment in Annie’s life happened, Lorraine was off with her boyfriend on the beach of Ruby Pier, an amusement park they all went to. Eight-year-old Annie was left to her own devices and was about to get on a ride at the park when tragedy struck. A car came loose from the ride. It rocketed to the ground, toward Annie. Eddie, the maintenance man pushed Annie out of the way.
Annie lived. But her hand was severed in the process.
Lorraine asks Annie, “Can you break that last secret? Can you say the last reason for your resentment since Ruby Pier?”
Annie choked up. Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Because you weren’t there to save me.”
Lorraine closed her eyes. “That’s right. Can you forgive me for that?”
“You don’t need to hear me say it.”
“No, I don’t,” Lorraine said softly. “But you do.”
Mitch Albom’s words hit me, square in the chest.
Grief is a crazy thing. Sometimes it comes flying out of nowhere and smacks you in the head. Or, in this case, my heart.
The all-too-familiar pain seared through me. I set the book down, got up and mopped my floor. Yep, I literally dug in and cleaned my kitchen tile, perhaps trying to metaphorically wipe away the pain along with the dirt.
The words, “because you weren’t there to save me” kept running through my head.
My daughter Claire died of a misdiagnosed heart condition nearly nineteen years ago. While she was at camp.
I wasn’t there to save her.
The hardest part of the story is that others were, and they didn’t.
I’ve lived with this truth, this horrible, tragic reality for years.
I buried it in my soul, shoveling the last bits of earth over my nightmare, covering it up and then brushing it away to allow the light to seep through.
I chose to shut out the darkness and dance in her memory, share her love of reading and all the while hold on to the extended hands of my husband, two children, family and friends.
I learned to take heart, to look at the bright side of things and have faith that somehow everything would turn out alright.
But in little steps and big leaps. Raised voices, crushing pain, tears brushed away and smiles tucked in between. Anger so hot it seared my soul and laughter so deep it made me pee.
All the while experiencing indescribable love and unexpected gifts.
To say the last nineteen years has been a roller coaster ride is an understatement.
Once I determined my floor was clean enough and my head felt sufficiently rinsed out of bad thoughts, I went back to the book.
“Yes, yes, I forgive you Mom. Of course, I forgive you. I didn’t know. I love you,” Annie shares.
Lorraine placed her hands together.
“That,” Lorraine said, smiling, “is what I was here to teach you.”
Mitch Albom has taught me a thing or two through his writing.
It is my hope that I’ll be able to show what is in my heart and offer what I’ve learned through my experiences.
Maybe that’s why I’m here still…to teach.
I pray for grace as I move forward in sharing our journey through the darkness and into joy.
I ask for your hearts as I pour out mine…
As my feet slipped into the pinkish sand, I thought, “I’ve been here before.”
And I had.
In 1977 my family, including my Mom and Dad and four brothers, flew to Eleuthera, Bahamas to visit my older sister Karen. She was living there with her then-husband, who was serving in the Navy.
I was sixteen and experienced many firsts on the trip. First flight. First trip to foreign country. First walk on a beach on a body of water other than Lake Erie. And, thanks to Karen, my first Goombay Smash.
I remember my father encouraging the driver of our taxi to go faster on Queens Highway from the airport to my sister’s apartment. The driver told my father that we were now in the Bahamas, where everything goes a bit slower, mon.
We eased into the rhythm of the island, venturing to the Glass Window, where the dark waters of the Atlantic meet the calm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, and walking the beaches near Karen’s home. I found a glass bottle with a message in it on that trip. A couple on a cruise tossed it overboard, hoping to win a contest. I wrote back to them, and although they didn’t win, it provided a great story and memory.
My mother captured this image back then, with me, my dad and my brothers, walking the beach with a stray dog, our backs to the camera, facing the unknown.
Now, forty years later, I walked with two of my brothers and their families in the early mornings on the beaches on the Atlantic, basking in the beautiful sunrises.
As we talked and reconnected, I couldn’t help but think about who I was then, and who I’ve come to be.
At sixteen I couldn’t even imagine what life had in store.
Just as the hot sun cast shadows from our forms on the beach, so too has life. Darkness at the greatest depths, the inconceivable loss of my daughter, then almost as devastating, the death of my only sister.
I wondered what my sixteen-year-old self would have thought if you had told me what I would be forced to face. I wondered if she would have tried to turn her back on the sun, run the other way and literally bury her head in the sand.
I feel so blessed by those who wouldn’t allow that as an answer to the pain.
As I walked those unforgettable beaches once again with my brothers, Jeff and Gordie, I thought about the roles they, along with other family members, have played in moving through life’s challenges.
They’ve been my rocks to the waves of grief, the good-morning texts and the later night chats, pulling me back from the dangerous undertow.
As my husband, Brad, reached for my hand, forcing my thoughts into the present, I grabbed it, squeezed it, and held on tight. It was his idea to come to Eleuthera, as he had experiences in the outer islands as a child too. He used to tell our children of his adventures spearing fish and lobster back in the day. When he emerged from the water with a huge lobster on his spear while on a charter expedition on this trip, tears flowed, thinking back to three little ones mesmerized by his tales.
Nights on this visit were spent around a fire, giggling, enjoying Pina Coladas, (and Goombay Smashes!), sharing stories and learning more about each other’s lives. Recalling memories of the past and dreams for the future. Precious family time with our children, Kyle and Ian, and our nieces and their respective, amazing partners.
The days flew by as we set off on adventures, playing, laughing and discovering as a family.
On one of those last days all together, we took this shot.
All of us on the beach, feet sinking into the familiar sands, the sun shining down on us. Holding tight, facing the future together.
All the while wishing that time would go a bit slower, mon.
When asked what I do, I used to rip off a litany of roles I’ve served.
Wife, mom, founder of Claire’s Day, former council woman.
Now I simply respond; I write.
The next question is the obvious. What do you write?
And I say, children’s books.
Usually people are pretty stoked about that and assume I’ve written picture books of renown.
That is not the case, but most people are still impressed when I tell them about my books, all of which have been traditionally published.
Usually the conversation ends there, but every now and then someone asks me the same question I find so fascinating about other writers.
How do you write?
The simple answer is I write nearly every day, at my desk, in my home office.
But, to be very honest, a writer’s life, or at least this one, is so much more than that.
I’ll start by offering that I am blessed to have the emotional and financial support of my husband. I’m not yet at the stage that I could be self-supporting on my income. Many writers aren’t. I’m amazed by those who work full-time at another job, and just as much as a writer.
In my case, my goal is to get my derriere in chair by 10 a.m. every morning.
I take care of my non-writing responsibilities in the morning. I watch the sunrise while having a cup of coffee and hanging with my husband and 3-year-old Labrador Retriever, Luna.
Then I drink a magic potion consisting of kale, spinach, avocado, almond milk, and frozen fruit. It’s green, but it’s yummy, I promise.
Luna, known as Lunatic when she was a puppy, usually whines at the front door if I don’t have my tennis shoes on by 7:30. We high tail it around a golf course for 45 minutes, give or take a few if we visit with the golf professional or groundskeepers, then home.
Correspondence, social media, laundry, groceries, housecleaning all fall in the category of chores before 10 a.m. My local librarian and grocer are used to seeing me with a ball cap on.
Then, with the help of my magic potion and Pandora, I’m at my desk by the bewitching hour.
Then I stay there until 4:30, writing, creating, musing, meeting deadlines, both contracted and self-imposed.
But, and here’s the trick for me, I’m not glued to my chair.
Between my walks in the morning and breaks from my chair, I’m easily wracking up 10,000 steps daily.
If I get stuck, I get up.
I dance. (Although I can only listen to so much Michael Jackson, otherwise my response to the question as to what I do would be that. I dance.)
I get back in chair.
So, as simple as this all seems, it is.
And, I am so happy to be able to answer the question as to what I do, simply.
My daughter Kyle gave me an incredible gift this Christmas. It is a letter book, Treasured Passages, for mother and daughter. The concept is I fill out a card with a writing prompt, and send to her. She then fills out the card with her answers, and sends back to me to include within the book. I am so touched by her memories, loving responses and sharing of experiences both as a child and now as a young woman. One of the cards reads, “List of Happys” and is entirely too small to list all my reasons for being happy.
As she, her brother Ian and memories of her sister Claire are at the top of my list of Happys (along with my husband Brad, of course), I thought I would share with you, in honor of Mother’s Day.
Enjoy, and my your List of Happys be a long list too!
Any time with your dad. Seeing him first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Talking about our days, challenges and successes. Holding hands. Getting back rubs. Making him dinner. Cooking dinner together. Going out for dates. Both of us walking Luna. Playing any sport together, especially golf. Traveling and discovering the world as a team. Discovering fun things in our own back yard. Watching TV with him, even though I fall asleep a lot. Snuggling and reading. Snuggling some more.
Just being together.
Any time with you and Ian.
Visiting you and Ian, or having you visit us. I treasure every moment. When we can’t see each other, phone calls “just to chat” are the best. Sharing the world with you both!
Memories of our travels together. Memories of raising you, Ian and Claire. Precious moments spent discovering parks, zoo, museum. Memories of cuddling together with books when you were all three little. Playing board and card games. Kisses for boo-boos when you were little, a shoulder to cry on when you were older. Watching you both play sports. Offering guidance and support.
Just being your Mom.
Hanging with friends. Giggling over dinners and glasses of wine. Ladies annual golf trip, one of my most sacred times with close friends. Traveling with friends. Celebrating milestones.
Just being together.
Family. I feel so blessed with my relationships with my brothers and nieces and your dad’s family. My family. Our family.
Writing. Nothing gives me greater joy than creating story and then sharing it with the world. My words are little pieces of me that will live on forever. And, I am so honored for the recognition of my hard work and talent. May they both continue!
Reading. My favorite memories revolve around books. From being read to as a child by my mom, to reading to you, Ian and Claire every night. Discovering new authors of different genres. I love the feeling when you can’t put a book down, but all the same, don’t want it to ever end.
Claire’s Day. It warms my heart to see children enjoying and being impacted by our tribute! Her day provided me with something positive to focus on to move forward through my grief. The best part is, it helped me be a better mom to you and Ian, never taking either of you for granted.
Great music. It inspires me! Whether listening to my favorite artists while writing, (Fleetwood Mac, Idina Menzel, Beatles, etc.), dancing by myself at home or going to a concert, I love music.
Exercising. Walking. Riding bikes. Playing sports. Hot yoga. Dancing. Just moving!
Cooking and enjoying good food. I love being at home, making a great meal and enjoying with dad, family and friends. Favorite is pesto chicken, yummy salad, nice glass(es) of wine, something chocolate.
All the little things in life. Your dad’s smile. Seeing yours and Ian’s face anytime. Luna. The smell of stargazer lilies. Purple. Sunrises. Sunsets. Birds. Surprise phone calls. Giggling with my kindergarten readers. Kind words, both giving and receiving. Cards in the mail. Smell of coffee in the morning. Candles. My writing space. The sun on my face. Memories, sweet memories.
Every day is a gift.
Post Script noun
an additional statement or action that provides further information on or a sequel to something.
Seven years ago, I served as the adult leader in a church youth group mission. The teenagers assigned to work with me were from across the country. They were amazing as we were thrust into a situation that none of us were prepared for. Our task for the week was to paint both the interior and exterior of the home of a man who was an alcoholic. A nasty, mean man.
I figured God must have known what he was doing, because I’ve had my share of experiences with alcoholics. Maybe I was meant to learn something from the experience, to be enlightened, and to guide the teenagers through the challenge.
A young woman confined to a wheelchair lived next door, and my crew gravitated toward her. In just a few hours the kids befriended her and learned a lot about her. Including the fact that the man she was living with was beating her.
They were afraid. For her, and for us.
We discussed whether to stay, or to work at a different site. The vote was unanimous. We left.
But, I’d always wondered if we stayed. What difference would we have made in the life of either the alcoholic or the young woman next door?
So of course, I wrote the story, imagining what was never to be in real life.
And I set that first draft aside for five years.
I’m now actively rewriting that story, thanks to a tremendous jump start through the magic of the Highlights Foundation. I participated in an on-line course led by the incredible Sarah Aronson. Eighteen of us involved in the workshop came to know each other and our stories from afar.
We gathered together last week at the home site of the Foundation, featuring cabins, a farmhouse (which I had the pleasure staying in along with a new friend, Elisa) and the Barn, where we heard lectures and ate amazing meals that Amanda the chef whipped up. (I want the gluten-free meat loaf recipe!)
Our stories were shared, listened to and critiqued by Sarah, her co-leaders, and by each other.
What a blessing it was to hear positive affirmations of my writing, my believable 17-year-old Joey’s voice. To hear words such as “crisp, visceral, strong” in describing my prose.
And to have the opportunity to offer the same to my fellow writers.
I’ve made a promise that the final draft of Joey’s story will be available to my group members to read by August 1. Every one of them offered their support and willingness to read again.
What I’m discovering through Joey is the post script. His story is mine. Mine is his.
Maybe writing this story is the lesson intended so long ago.
God works in mysterious ways, they say.