The Talents I Got Didn’t Come With Fine-Motor Skills

I was always the kid with the limp.

I loved sports. I knew I’d never play them. What I would have given in my true youth for one day in an athlete’s body. To move like that. To run like that. To leave all challengers in the dust.

In high school, I was jealous–though never publicly–of the kids who could dunk, or pitch, or hit. Sure, those talents would fade with time and age, but they were so free, those kids. Not only that, they took their abilities so for granted. And they had cars. I’d never have a car. I didn’t  want to dunk as much as I wanted to drive down the road and buy a burger and a shake with a cute girl on my arm and then drive home, after a drive-in movie, late for  a curfew I knew I’d missed.

The talents I got didn’t come with fine-motor skills or hand-eye coordination. In fact, my talents’ Lyft left those things far behind. (I think it forgot to pick them up on the way to the airport or something.) My talent–singular, in a way, but amazing–was words. I could write and I could talk.

Talking gave me the ability to ask for help when I needed it. I often needed it (I often need it), though I never liked asking for it. Asking for help is weakness, I thought. Talking gave me the ability to show people who weren’t like me that I was like them enough to matter. That I should matter.

It was writing that showed me I did matter.

When a teacher would single out one of my stories and say, “Do you see, ladies and gentlemen? Do you see what Derek did there? Can you see why that’s good writing?” I beamed. Sure, the praise brought forth more than a few groans from my fellow students who couldn’t do what I did. Ironically, though, usually the groans came from the ones who could dunk or pitch or hit. But such praise also made some people re-evaluate how they saw me, and it was these people with whom I would want to communicate, anyway.

Writing, as a job, is more than difficult. I still want the praise from a teacher who’s no longer there to give it. The praise my brain is trained to expect, the praise for which it hungers. There’s no way to get it outside of reviews, and I may not get a review, or if I do it might not be the kindest thing ever written about me.

I am coming to terms with something tonight.

I write. There is a manuscript floating around out there that is the embodiment of my heart. Though fictional, it’s truer than anything that’s happened in my non-fiction life. I know people who, when one book doesn’t sell, they’ll simply write another. Have as many books ready as you can. Stuff them in drawers all around your house. When an agent finally comes calling, show them all. They will realize they’ve hit upon a treasure trove in you. I know people who can do that. I admire those people in much the same way as I used to admire the kids who could dunk and pitch and hit. But it needs to be okay–with me and for me–that I’m not one of them. My relationship with writing is analogous to my relationship with God. I have mine. You have yours (or not). And however we muddle through this existence, whatever we use our skill for, however we communicate with a higher power, or find our writer’s voices, that’s okay. No one way is better than another. They simply are, and they work for who they work for.

It’s interesting that I finally came to a point tonight where I could put that down for others to read. I’ve been trying to say it–if I’m honest with myself–for years.

 

 

 

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The Blank Page…

“I love to read thrillers,” many readers say.

“Or maybe I’ll dip into a horror story on this dreary, rain-soaked day.”

For writers, horror does not need to be written to be experienced. A writer experiences a heart-stopping horror story every time they sit down to compose a new piece.

The blank page. The menacing blank page.

It strikes fear into the hearts of even the most experienced authors.

“What if I can’t come up with anything new?”

“What if what I’ve written so far is all I’ll ever write?”

Writing is fear. If you haven’t experienced fear as a writer, you’ve clearly never edited anything.

Writing is bearing your soul with the hope that someone will gaze upon it with compassion, understanding, care. And then putting all your hope in a business that wants to sell your soul in amongst the sci-fi or the mysteries.

Every day, I wake up hopeful of two things.

Maybe I’ll write something good today.

Maybe I’ll read something good today.

I love what I do. Sure, I love to write, though it is quite a lonely pursuit. And it requires other people to do for me what I love doing for anyone I can. When I read a truly good new story in my position as an intern for the wonderful agent I work with, I immediately think, This needs to be on shelves everywhere. In the hands of readers. Being read and enjoyed. And, to whatever extent I can make that happen, I then champion the book. I’ll work with the author to smooth the rough edges. I’ll suggest fixes here, deletions there. I am personally on the lookout to remove every that or just or had which does not serve a story. “Tighten the prose, people!” When I say this, I imagine I’m the captain of a ship in a storm, securing its hatches as we get pummeled in the waves.

In that sense, if not any others, I end each day closer to publication. Be it for me or someone I know. So while I wake up each day–as do any authors who are being honest–afraid of the blank page, at the conclusion of a day I’m always thinking, Publication is possible. It’s one day closer. And, though I can’t write without this trusty computer, I imagine writing myself a note and keeping it permanently on my nightstand to glance at when I need the idea reinforced.

“Dear Derek,

You are a writer. This means you must write. You must be involved with the written word. somehow It also means you wake each day with an old fear burgeoning anew. A fear of the blank page. A fear that you can’t do what you were put on earth to do. Try to think of the blank page as that friend you envy; even though you’re trapped in a palsied body, Blank Page can be anyone he wants to be, can go anywhere he wants to go. You just have to tell him who and where.”

 

 

The Book I Love Most

Why Artists Are Artists

or

Why I Continue Searching For A Publisher For The Book I Love Most

The book I love most is homeless.

Searching for its shelf-home.

The book I love most is written,

But, like a vagabond,

It wanders and roams.

The streets of my mind are dead ends to it now.

For it is fully formed.

Nothing on these roads can aid it anymore;

Not even the bonfire of creativity that is

My newest story,

Unfinished,

Off to the side,

Can keep it warm.

It needs a place where it can be

Fulfilled,

Given autonomy

To achieve its highest and best.

Where it can parade into a reading of itself full of confidence of zest.

Its new lease on life will be courtesy  of

An agent who sees the merit,

An editor who agrees,

A publisher who puts it out

Without calling for any author-paid fees.

It will dance into the hands of readers

Who haven’t lived the story

But who have lived their stories and so,

Through lives that have seen similar fates

Can nonetheless relate.

Story, in all its forms,

Is connection.

It is: You are not alone.

Story invites you

To roam the streets of another’s mind

In search of a new thought,

A retrofitted, better home.

Internships And Spring Training Trips

Life has a way of changing, switching things up, and putting you right where you’re supposed to be.

The thing is, it does so with such a measured pace–sometimes that pace can still seem something akin to slow even when we’re living in a world that demands everything happen fast–that we might not even notice some of the changes it brings. Yet others are obvious, maybe even painful.

I’ve always been a writer. Truthfully, when I first begin dating a woman, my writing plus my humor are my secret weapons. I think they admire my forging on through life despite my cerebral palsy and eyesight that might not make Mr. Magoo jealous. But I have yet to find the one person out there who says, “I choose you. Above all others, and in spite of–or maybe partially because of–your struggles and the way in which you handle them, I choose you.”

Have you ever found yourself at a crossroads that you can only define as a crossroads looking back, after the fact?

I found myself at one of these crossroads recently. (It made me think of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, until I read a little deeper and realized that poem is not about what most of us think it’s about.) When my recent relationship of two years ended, I spent a while after the initial shock wondering what it had all been for. (Then I wondered, just now, why I felt the need to end a sentence with a preposition? My third-grade teacher is probably turning in her grave.) We had shared so much, this woman and me, yet I had not been enough. My writing, my humor, my sarcasm, the last of these a quality that feels built-in to me but was honed by my loving grandfather (a quality I would not trade for a chance to write a best-selling novel, or a poetry collection that gleams with something critics call brilliance, because doing so would mean having to forfeit the best things in my life; the joy of laughing even when laughing seems impossible and the love of a man who taught me the sentimentality that, certainly in part, anyway, defines me.). Those things, as much as I appreciate them, they had not been enough to keep a relationship I treasured afloat.

My relationship was a sinking ship taking on water before I ever realized I should be unhappy in it.

The contentedness I so rarely feel in matters of the heart that was my companion then was also the thing that blinded me to what was really happening, the way life was changing, switching things up without my knowledge or, more importantly, my approval.

A writer has control. His universe is what he makes it. What he writes it.

A man with cerebral palsy must give up control before he ever knows he lost it. “I’m a go-with-the-flow kinda guy,” I often say. Because that is who I am, but also because I don’t really have a choice.

I love words, and what they can do to people who read them, but I also love the control they give me. “Shape this world,” they say. “Make it what you will. Make it a world with great castles, or one with peasants living in tiny hovels.”

I know how to write. What I didn’t really know–until life let me know it–was how my ability to write could actually teach me about the business of writing.

The business of writing. To a writer, for whom telling stories is the ultimate escape and/or communication tool (Sometimes, a writer’s not saying, “Come with me into a magical land.” Sometimes they’re saying, “If you take the time to learn a little something about my life, it just might teach you about yours.”), thinking of writing as a business is not easy. But a business it is.

For me, loving the business of writing all began with TV. That’s right, that box that used to be square and then flattened out and lost its boxineess. Every May, the networks (whose relevance we can debate, if you’d like, though not today) hold what they call the “Up-fronts.”. They have new shows coming next September, and they want to get their friends the advertisers excited. They couldn’t be higher on their shows then. The network presidents will say things like, “This is the greatest show since Breaking bad.” (If you hear that, by the way, run the other way. Nothing will ever compare to Breaking Bad, and if a network tells you they have “the next Breaking Bad” they are severely over-reaching and should be punished with low ratings.)

Low ratings, of course, lead to cancellations. Shows that networks crowed about–that viewers knew to be crap–removed from eyeshot forever.

Books–and the business of books and writing–work a bit differently, yet there are similarities. An agent loves a story or a project. The agent is essentially a producer, whose job it is to then bring their new love and its author to an editor at a publishing house. (The publisher is the network.) If the publisher can be convinced, the book will see th light of day and the eyes of readers.

But before this can happen, an agent must read many stories to find those that they feel comfortable sharing with their publishing colleagues. And they might use a second reader to help in this endeavor.

That’s part of what I’m now doing as an internship, an opportunity that came to me through my father, an opportunity I never thought I’d have. I love forecasting which new network shows are doomed to fail, and I love even more reading stories and helping to determine their viability. Doing so makes me a better writer, because I can spot the “what-not-to-dos” in writing, and sometimes in my own writing.

This position is new, but I hit the ground running, and I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done so far. There isn’t anything better than feeling productive and appreciated. The agent I’m interning for (for whom I’m interning, my inner-editor is screaming) went on vacation recently, and she asked me if I wanted to take a vacation of my own while she was out. I don’t usually take vacations, but March is a big month, and my dad, my uncle, my second cousin, and I have been planning a trip to Seattle Mariner spring training for months, so while I didn’t take my vacation when she took hers–I kept reading, and I actually read something I love–I would take my vacation a week or so later. Our crew would drive to Arizona to watch baseball, do some casinoing, and revel in In N Out burgerness.

And–Dad and I are both writers, remember?–we’d tell stories on the road, too.

Stories of Papa, the man who gave me my sarcasm. Who showed me that my cerebral palsy only limited me if that’s what I wanted it to do. Who loved my writing–and showed me where I could make it better–before I ever knew people did that for a living. He certainly didn’t. He simply liked to read stories, and he loved and encouraged his grandson.

I was twenty when he passed. A week shy of my twenty-first birthday, actually.

My second cousin knew Papa in the abstract way that really young people know really old people. (My brother once wrote on the white-board in his hospital room, “Papa smells old.” He got a kick outa that.) The wonderful thing about that is that I got to tell my cousin just how much Papa loved him, how overjoyed he was that this new person would share his name, how Papa delighted when he would come over in the morning asking for “Hot Chocate milk”.

And, while on this trip, we made our own new stories. Some of which almost defy explanation unless you were there in the car with us, driving the twenty hours from Arizona all the way to the Oregon border. (Just an observation. Between Vegas and Reno, there is nothing, and I mean NOTHING.)

On this trip–this shared experience–I found in my cousin one of the best friends I kinda never knew I had. I had watched him when he was very young, but now he’s about to graduate high school, he’s a smart guy, and we make each other laugh. And it’s nice to meet someone whose first question isn’t, “Why do you walk like that?” I actually really liked answering his questions. One of them was something along the lines of, What was Papa like? I’ll answer that question any day, any time, because he was the person I wish I could be.

So, in the space of four months, I’ve found something I love to do–that’s reawakened my enjoyment of words and writing–and in the space of a week, I was re-acquainted with family and found a pretty great friend. And it all happened because life has a way of changing, switching things up, and putting you right where you’re supposed to be.

 

 

 

MY Novel–Even God Makes Mistakes: Chapter 1

With apologies to my longtime readers, I have decided to repost the first chapter of my as yet unpublished novel, for the benefit of my new twitter and Facebook friends! I hope you enjoy what you read here and find inspiration in it!

Each chapter begins with a poem.

I could tell you life is fleeting.

But that’s a truth everyone knows.

It doesn’t bear repeating,

Isn’t worthy of a refrain

Read while a tired body lies in repose.

As it’s a fact that too often shows

How little control we mortals maintain.

-An excerpt from the poem Nothing Is Forever by Madeline Mailer

Chapter 1.

Death, Part 1

            

              Terrence McDonald is 55. The year is 2045.

      

       The TV is on, and I’m on the couch, leaning as far back as I can. My heavy, indecisive brown eyes—their lenses blurred ever since my tumultuous entrance–flutter between open and shut. I am half-watching half-listening to a football game on a Sunday afternoon. Was that the doorbell?

“Who is it?” I call out, expecting to hear my daughter Megan’s voice. These days she is the one person who visits me. The only person who knows I’m making my home in this little oasis fashioned from wood felled by my own hand.

“Terry, it’s Mom. I’m here to help you move.”

       My mom? That’s not possible. She’s…

       Wait, to help me move? Oh, God.

I rise from the couch and glance back at my lifeless body. Five-foot-eight standing up, but now it’s slumped over, grayish-blue. A few stray locks of the black hair my father gave me spill over into my unseeing eyes.

       Shit. I still had more I wanted to do, damn it! Was it my cerebral palsy? We’ve co-existed forever. Has it somehow—in its slow, indirect way—finally done me in?

I turn back around toward the TV, and I see my mom materialize in front of me, a concerned look on her face.

“Are you okay?”

“No, of course not!” I scream. “So is that it? I’m dead. Just like that?”

She doesn’t say anything, but her silence says everything.

“How? How did I die?”

Mom puts her hand on my shoulder like she always did when I was a kid and I was upset and needed some time to calm down. “You don’t remember?”

“No, Mom. If I remembered, why would I ask?”

She is silent for another beat. “If you don’t remember… then it’s probably best if I stay quiet for now. My job is to take you Home.”

“I am home,” I shoot back.

“You don’t understand. Where I’m taking you… this is a different kind of Home. This is the place where you’ll find out what happens next.”

“Is there any way around this? Any way at all?”

These words are as close as I’ve ever come to arguing with my mom. That’s because arguing with her does not come naturally to me. And, considering the life I have, I never thought I’d hear myself plead for it.

“No, Terry. I’m sorry, but there’s not. You know that, if there were a way, I’d tell you what it was. But this has been decided.”

I pull away from her. Am I frightened? No, not exactly. But I am… disheartened.

Before I can get too far away, she takes my hand. “Come with me, Terry. I love you.”

It’ s been so long since my mother said those words to me—I love you—that I’d forgotten how true and convincing they sound in her voice, and how much I missed them—and her.

Without warning, we’re not in the cabin anymore, and I find myself in a house so familiar I am comfortable in seconds. The smells are familiar. The floor plan. The art on the walls. This is a replica of the home I shared with my wife, before she got sick and I moved into the cabin.

“See, it’s not so bad,” Mom is saying. “I picked it out and furnished it myself. Just for you.”

It is a nice place. Much nicer than I’m used to these days, that’s for sure. Not that I have anything but a vague idea where we are.

Now that I’ve calmed down some, it isn’t just this new house I’m appraising. I’m also getting my first real good look at Mom in twenty years. Hers is a face looking as youthful today as it appeared in the photograph announcing her entrance into womanhood—taken in her eighteenth year. I remember seeing this picture in a family album decades ago.

“You’ve got all the comforts you’re used to,” Mom explains. “Along with a couple you might have forgotten about.”

“So this is where I’ll be living now?”

The frown on her face hints at the fact that things aren’t that simple. “Well, that depends on your appointment, but I sure hope you will. Your father and I are just down the street.”

“Dad’s here?”

“Yes, he made it.” She smiles.

“My appointment?”

“Everyone has an appointment when they first get here.”

“What happens? Who is the appointment with?”

“I can’t tell you, Terr.” Mom takes a seat in the first of three chairs arranged in front of my large television screen. This is the only liberty she’s taken in the design. The original home had two chairs in front of this television, because two was enough for Mattie and me, but I sense Mom gave me the extra seat in case I should have company over. “Those who have been through their own appointments, like me, are expressly forbidden from sharing any details with newcomers, like you. Each one is different based on the soul and the life it concerns.”

“Ah.” Now I’m nervous. And not just because I get the feeling at this moment that Mom is spouting some section of a well-rehearsed monologue. I wonder if, at this appointment, everything in a person’s life is considered.

“Yes, everything is considered,” Mom says.

I shoot her a confused glance. Did she just read my mind?

“Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t often use spoken words or languages here. I mean, we can. And we will, especially in cases when explanations or announcements need to be delivered to a large number of people. God prefers spoken language Himself. But it’s more common, for those who have been Home a while, to communicate telepathically. I thought that was what you were doing.”

I shake my head.

“Well, in a few days, once you’re feeling acclimated, let me know. You can call me on this.” Mom produces what looks like a cell phone. “That’s a direct line to me and me alone. When you’re ready, I’ll come and pick you up and take you to your appointment.”

“Okay.”

But first, she thinks, get some rest. You look terrible.

I am a little tired, but what do you expect? I’m dead.

“You’re getting the hang of our telepathy already.” She laughs, gives me a hug. “I’ve gotta get back to cook your father’s pot roast, or he might go a little nuts.”

Sounds like Dad. A hungry Carl McDonald means an irritable, hard-to-deal-with Carl McDonald (I was going to say hard-to-live with, but the word doesn’t fit).

Mom pats my shoulder and disappears. This new Home is going to mean some big adjustments for me.

                                   

                      ***

 

       I’m going to guess it’s taken me the better part of three days—spent resting and recuperating from life–to convince myself that I’m really dead and, secondly, that I’m ready to face whatever might be in store for me. I have to guess at how much time has passed because, as it turns out, this new home of mine–furnished by my mom–does not include a clock. Not one. I only discovered this flaw after she departed, so there was no way to readily remedy it. Stores specializing in electronics aren’t plentiful in The Afterlife.

Wait, that’s not true. Maybe they are. I don’t know what lies beyond these four walls yet. I’ve barely moved since I got here. But I am as prepared as I’ll ever be for my personal appointment, so I pull out the cell phone Mom gave me for just this situation. It doesn’t require dialing. My connection to her is immediate.

“Terry?” she says.

“Hi, Mom.”

“You’re ready for your appointment?”

“I guess.”

“Okay.” She pauses, a bit too long for your run-of-the-mill pause. Something’s bothering her. “Okay, I’m glad to hear it.”

“What’s wrong? You’re gonna pick me up, right?”

“I was planning on it, but it looks like your Grandpa Jack needs to be picked up today.”

“Oh, you mean he’s-”

“Yep.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. Boy, he lived forever, didn’t he?”

She laughs. “Pretty darn close. I’m just glad he got to go out the way he wanted; peacefully, in his sleep. Anyway, your dad and I have to be there for him, but I’m sending your old friend Charlie out to you. He’ll get you where you need to go, no problem.”

Charlie. How nice it will be to see him again. It’s been a long time. This isn’t the only thought I have upon hearing Charlie will be here soon, but it’s the only thought I feel comfortable sharing, in case Mom can read my thoughts through the phone as easily as she could standing in the same room.

“Okay, thanks. Tell Grandpa Jack I say hi.”

“I will. And you call me when you and Charlie get to your appointment. Otherwise, you’ll have me worried.”

“Sure thing.”

We hang up, and I wait. There’s the sound of tires churning gravel and then a knock at the door twenty minutes later… I think. I answer it.

“Charlie Ewell’s limousine service.” He smiles and nods his head toward a jet-black vehicle closely related to a town car that’s parked nearby.

I step back. Blink. Once. Twice. He’s still there. My mind doesn’t know how to make sense of this.

It really is Charlie. Well, of course it is. Mom told you he was on the way. Yet despite my mom’s assurance, there is this part of me that snickers at most religions, labels them NOT FOR ME, and I never warmed all the way up to the idea of Heaven. Therefor, even after seeing her again, I doubted that my old friend Charlie would show up. You’re telling me Charlie will be here! Charlie? Yeah, right.

Just like I couldn’t bring myself to argue with her—Charlie can’t possibly be on his way, Mom!–I can’t deny it now.

       “It’s you,” I say.

“Sure it’s me,” Charlie says, as though he’s just shown up to my most recent—and last?–birthday party, cheer on his face, a gift in his hand.

“Like, really you.”

“Yeah. It’s really me.”

       “How?”

“I know it’s a lot to take in when you’re new,” he says, “or when you’ve just come back. I was so glad when your mom called and asked me if I would pick you up. I’ve missed you so much.”

“Same here,” I admit. The initial shock of seeing Charlie is ebbing slowly, like adrenaline leeching out of my bloodstream after an earthquake.

“It’s so good to see you, Charlie.” We enfold each other in a backslapping, how-have-you-been hug.

When we’re apart again, he says, “And you, Terry. It’s just now dawning on me how odd this circumstance is.”

“True. But under what other circumstances would we see each other?”

“Good point. In one of your dreams, maybe. You ready to get going?”

“Sure. Is there a set time we have to be there? My mom always said it’s better to be early than late, no matter what the occasion.”

He throws his car keys in the air, catches them, as we make our way down my temporary home’s front steps.

“Don’t worry about time anymore,” he reveals. “Time is a human invention. It is seldom kept here.”

“That would explain the lack of clocks.”

“Which always throws newcomers off. And don’t be nervous. Sure, no one who’s been through an appointment can tell you what your appointment will be like. That’s because appointments are unique to each soul, but they aren’t to be feared. Your appointment is a place where you will get the chance to ask questions and learn.” Charlie flashes a quick grin. He opens one of the back doors for me, and I see that in the car rides an elegant woman. “Terrence McDonald, this is my wife, Patty Ewell.”

Patty turns in her seat, puts out her hand. “It truly is a pleasure to meet you, Terrence. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

I give her my hand, as is customary, but can find no words. I’ve never met Patty before. She passed away the night I made Charlie’s acquaintance.

A Year Of Blogging…. And A Glimpse Into My Work….

Hi, all:

I apologize in advance for the length of this one. There’s a good reason, and I hope you’ll give it a read, because your opinion(s) matter(s) greatly to this guy.

In the past year I:

Started this blog,

Lost my dog,

Wondered if I could publish without the prolonged finding-an-agent prologue.

I saw great shows (be they movies or plays or football and baseball games)

Knew awful lows,

And wondered at the words I chose,

A writer’s near-constant self-query.

I love writing. It is the single best thing I know how to do, besides making my friends and family smile, and when I feel like I have something to say (which isn’t always but does happen often) I like knowing they’re curious where my thoughts are.

Like, right now, I’m hoping and wishing for the self-driving car. For the freedom of, “I can go anywhere I want.”

I’m crossing my fingers that there are readers eager for the words in my head,

That they exist, and delight as much in reading new sentences

As I do in seeing my fresh words read.

In knowing that my characters more than a few reader’s dreams shall haunt.

I am scared, if I’m being genuinely honest. I’m scared that my stories, which many a friend tells me are worthy and worthwhile are instead nothing but the erstwhile dreams of a kid with cerebral palsy looking for acceptance and kindness, and searching for his own truth, finding it to varying degrees only.

I have completed a novel. For me, the truest distillation of my “stories” yet. I believe it is what it needs to be; it is what it was always meant to be. However, there is that nagging voice, that over-the-shoulder editor, that doubter extraordinaire, who says, Really? Wasn’t your story also always meant to be read by the most people you could possibly entice to read it? You don’t write just to pat yourself on the back, do you? And so far who’s read it besides a few selected among that friends and family group you want so much to make smile?

With this thought heavy on my mind, I offer to you a glimpse, the first tiny sliver, of a story that came together over seven and a half years touched with and by self-discovery, faith–in myself and others–and an all-too-uncommon willingness to fail in order to succeed.

I would love to hear your thoughts on my novel’s first chapter, printed here. It begins with a poem.

I could tell you life is fleeting.

But that’s a truth everyone knows.

It doesn’t bear repeating,

Isn’t worthy of a refrain

Read while a tired body lies in repose.

As it’s a fact that too often shows

How little control we mortals maintain.

-An excerpt from the poem Nothing Is Forever by Madeline Mailer

Chapter 1.

Death, Part 1

                

                  Terrence McDonald is 55. The year is 2045.

        

         The TV is on, and I’m on the couch, leaning as far back as I can. My heavy, indecisive brown eyes—their lenses blurred ever since my tumultuous entrance–flutter between open and shut. I am half-watching half-listening to a football game on a Sunday afternoon. Was that the doorbell?

“Who is it?” I call out, expecting to hear my daughter Megan’s voice. These days she is the one person who visits me. The only person who knows I’m making my home in this little oasis fashioned from wood felled by my own hand.

“Terry, it’s Mom. I’m here to help you move.”

         My mom? That’s not possible. She’s…

         Wait, to help me move? Oh, God.

I rise from the couch and glance back at my lifeless body. Five-foot-eight standing up, but now it’s slumped over, grayish-blue. A few stray locks of the black hair my father gave me spill over into my unseeing eyes.

         Shit. I still had more I wanted to do, damn it! Was it my cerebral palsy? We’ve co-existed forever. Has it somehow—in its slow, indirect way—finally done me in?

I turn back around toward the TV, and I see my mom materialize in front of me, a concerned look on her face.

“Are you okay?”

“No, of course not!” I scream. “So is that it? I’m dead. Just like that?”

She doesn’t say anything, but her silence says everything.

“How? How did I die?”

Mom puts her hand on my shoulder like she always did when I was a kid and I was upset and needed some time to calm down. “You don’t remember?”

“No, Mom. If I remembered, why would I ask?”

She is silent for another beat. “If you don’t remember… then it’s probably best if I stay quiet for now. My job is to take you Home.”

“I am home,” I shoot back.

“You don’t understand. Where I’m taking you… this is a different kind of Home. This is the place where you’ll find out what happens next.”

“Is there any way around this? Any way at all?”

These words are as close as I’ve ever come to arguing with my mom. That’s because arguing with her does not come naturally to me. And, considering the life I have, I never thought I’d hear myself plead for it.

“No, Terry. I’m sorry, but there’s not. You know that, if there were a way, I’d tell you what it was. But this has been decided.”

I pull away from her. Am I frightened? No, not exactly. But I am… disheartened.

Before I can get too far away, she takes my hand. “Come with me, Terry. I love you.”

It’ s been so long since my mother said those words to me—I love you—that I’d forgotten how true and convincing they sound in her voice, and how much I missed them—and her.

Without warning, we’re not in the cabin anymore, and I find myself in a house so familiar I am comfortable in seconds. The smells are familiar. The floor plan. The art on the walls. This is a replica of the home I shared with my wife, before she got sick and I moved into the cabin.

“See, it’s not so bad,” Mom is saying. “I picked it out and furnished it myself. Just for you.”

It is a nice place. Much nicer than I’m used to these days, that’s for sure. Not that I have anything but a vague idea where we are.

Now that I’ve calmed down some, it isn’t just this new house I’m appraising. I’m also getting my first real good look at Mom in twenty years. Hers is a face looking as youthful today as it appeared in the photograph announcing her entrance into womanhood—taken in her eighteenth year. I remember seeing this picture in a family album decades ago.

“You’ve got all the comforts you’re used to,” Mom explains. “Along with a couple you might have forgotten about.”

“So this is where I’ll be living now?”

The frown on her face hints at the fact that things aren’t that simple. “Well, that depends on your appointment, but I sure hope you will. Your father and I are just down the street.”

“Dad’s here?”

“Yes, he made it.” She smiles.

“My appointment?”

“Everyone has an appointment when they first get here.”

“What happens? Who is the appointment with?”

“I can’t tell you, Terr.” Mom takes a seat in the first of three chairs arranged in front of my large television screen. This is the only liberty she’s taken in the design. The original home had two chairs in front of this television, because two was enough for Mattie and me, but I sense Mom gave me the extra seat in case I should have company over. “Those who have been through their own appointments, like me, are expressly forbidden from sharing any details with newcomers, like you. Each one is different based on the soul and the life it concerns.”

“Ah.” Now I’m nervous. And not just because I get the feeling at this moment that Mom is spouting some section of a well-rehearsed monologue. I wonder if, at this appointment, everything in a person’s life is considered.

“Yes, everything is considered,” Mom says.

I shoot her a confused glance. Did she just read my mind?

“Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t often use spoken words or languages here. I mean, we can. And we will, especially in cases when explanations or announcements need to be delivered to a large number of people. God prefers spoken language Himself. But it’s more common, for those who have been Home a while, to communicate telepathically. I thought that was what you were doing.”

I shake my head.

“Well, in a few days, once you’re feeling acclimated, let me know. You can call me on this.” Mom produces what looks like a cell phone. “That’s a direct line to me and me alone. When you’re ready, I’ll come and pick you up and take you to your appointment.”

“Okay.”

         But first, she thinks, get some rest. You look terrible.

I am a little tired, but what do you expect? I’m dead.

“You’re getting the hang of our telepathy already.” She laughs, gives me a hug. “I’ve gotta get back to cook your father’s pot roast, or he might go a little nuts.”

Sounds like Dad. A hungry Carl McDonald means an irritable, hard-to-deal-with Carl McDonald (I was going to say hard-to-live with, but the word doesn’t fit).

Mom pats my shoulder and disappears. This new Home is going to mean some big adjustments for me.

                                    ***

 

I’m going to guess it’s taken me the better part of three days—spent resting and recuperating from life–to convince myself I’m really dead and, secondly, I’m ready to face whatever might be in store for me. I have to guess at how much time has passed because, as it turns out, this new home of mine–furnished by my mom–does not include a clock. Not one. I only discovered this flaw after she departed, so there was no way to readily remedy it. Stores specializing in electronics aren’t plentiful in The Afterlife.

Wait, that’s not true. Maybe they are. I don’t know what lies beyond these four walls yet. I’ve barely moved since I got here. But I am as prepared as I’ll ever be for my personal appointment, so I pull out the cell phone Mom gave me for just this situation. It doesn’t require dialing. My connection to her is immediate.

“Terry?” she says.

“Hi, Mom.”

“You’re ready for your appointment?”

“I guess.”

“Okay.” She pauses, a bit too long for your run-of-the-mill pause. Something’s bothering her. “Okay, I’m glad to hear it.”

“What’s wrong? You’re gonna pick me up, right?”

“I was planning on it, but it looks like your Grandpa Jack needs to be picked up today.”

“Oh, you mean he’s-”

“Yep.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. Boy, he lived forever, didn’t he?”

She laughs. “Pretty darn close. I’m just glad he got to go out the way he wanted; peacefully, in his sleep. Anyway, your dad and I have to be there for him, but I’m sending your old friend Charlie out to you. He’ll get you where you need to go, no problem.”

Charlie. How nice it will be to see him again. It’s been a long time. This isn’t the only thought I have upon hearing Charlie will be here soon, but it’s the only thought I feel comfortable sharing, in case Mom can read my thoughts through the phone as easily as she could standing in the same room.

“Okay, thanks. Tell Grandpa Jack I say hi.”

“I will. And you call me when you and Charlie get to your appointment. Otherwise, you’ll have me worried.”

“Sure thing.”

We hang up, and I wait. There’s the sound of tires churning gravel and a knock at the door twenty minutes later… I think. I answer it.

“Charlie Ewell’s limousine service.” He smiles and nods his head toward a jet-black vehicle closely related to a town car that’s parked nearby.

I step back. Blink my eyes. Once. Twice. He’s still there. My mind doesn’t know how to make sense of this.

It really is Charlie. Well, of course it is. Mom told you he was on the way. Yet despite my mom’s assurance, there is this part of me that snickers at most religions, labels them NOT FOR ME, and I never warmed all the way up to the idea of Heaven. Therefor, even after seeing her again, I doubted that my old friend Charlie would show up. You’re telling me Charlie will be here! Charlie? Yeah, right.

Just like I couldn’t bring myself to argue with her—Charlie can’t possibly be on his way, Mom!–I can’t deny it now.

“It’s you,” I say.

“Sure it’s me,” Charlie says, as though he’s just shown up to my most recent—and last?– birthday party, cheer on his face, a gift in his hand.

“Like, really you.”

“Yeah. It’s really me.”

         “How?”

“I know it’s a lot to take in when you’re new,” he says, “or when you’ve just come back. I was so glad when your mom called and asked me if I would pick you up. I’ve missed you so much.”

“Same here,” I admit. The initial shock of seeing Charlie is ebbing slowly, like adrenaline leeching out of my bloodstream after an earthquake.

“It’s so good to see you, Charlie.” We enfold each other in a backslapping, how-have-you-been hug.

When we’re apart again, he says, “And you, Terry. It’s just now dawning on me how odd this circumstance is.”

“True. But under what other circumstances would we see each other?”

“Good point. In one of your dreams, maybe. You ready to get going?”

“Sure. Is there a set time we have to be there? My mom always said it’s better to be early than late, no matter what the occasion.”

He throws his car keys in the air, catches them, as we make our way down my temporary home’s front steps.

“Don’t worry about time anymore,” he reveals. “Time is a human invention. It is seldom kept here.”

“That would explain the lack of clocks.”

“Which always throws newcomers off. And don’t be nervous. Sure, no one who’s been through an appointment can tell you what your appointment will be like. That’s because appointments are unique to each soul, but they aren’t to be feared. Your appointment is a place where you will get the chance to ask questions and learn.” Charlie flashes a quick grin. He opens one of the back doors for me, and I see that in the car rides an elegant woman. “Terrence McDonald, this is my wife, Patty Ewell.”

Patty turns in her seat, puts out her hand. “It truly is a pleasure to meet you, Terrence. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

I give her my hand, as is customary, but can find no words. I’ve never met Patty before. She passed away the night I made Charlie’s acquaintance.

A Life Lived Without Complaint…

…is not a life truly lived.

I am exceedingly lucky in this life, and I know it. I am handicapped, but it could be much worse.

It is true that I may never drive a car, and in never doing so I’ll lose officially–without ever having gained it–a certain measure of freedom afforded most everyone else. My eyes fail me regularly. Come to me in the mornings–when they’re blurry at best, and struggling to focus, and I’ll tell you all about it. My back is aching right now, as I write, and will continue aching, for a good time to come, because in this weekend of goodness just past I overdid it physically. Too much walking. Too much climbing of stairs. Too much trying to prove to myself I could handle the collective it without admitting to myself that sometimes I need–and must accept–help. Too much… being alive and using my body the way most people use their bodies, while taking such use for granted. These things are also true.

Tonight, I allow myself to complain for just a second. So often–too often in films and literature–the handicapped person is made to seem like the portrait of the non-complainer, willing to take on all the crap he must deal with, as a result of his station, never raising his voice in protest..

That is not me.

And, whether or not you’re handicapped yourself or not, if you’re human, it’s not you, either.

But, in amongst the complaints and the crap, and the junk we must wade through as people breathing air on this planet, a planet which is not quite green enough anymore, and a bit more too carbonated every day, if you get my meaning, there are fleeting moments of goodness (mentioned briefly above) that show us why life is still the best thing going.

There is, for example, this.

I met my dad’s agent tonight. Living with him under a roof where creativity and love are celebrated, I know how hard he worked to find her. And now that he did, I can say she is a  real person, who is kind and smart, and we talked books. And family. And our dogs. And T.V. And pop culture. And the world.

And she showed me a way into my query letter–and out of a corner I’ve long felt I boxed myself into–for which I am extremely grateful.

So even though I’m in pain right now–having dragged my laundry basket up the stairs to begin the wash, an act that took longer and hurt my tender back more than I would have liked–I am able to drag my laundry basket up the stairs, and I began the wash when some among us can not. (It has now finished above me).

Also this weekend I watched, live and in-person with one of my favorite people in the world, while my Seattle Seahawks punched their ticket to the NFC Championship Game. (Remember when I mentioned climbing lots of stairs? Worth it!) In a city where sports mediocrity is the accepted norm, it feels great to delight in a winner.

I understand how lucky I am to live in this country, to be who I am, to have the talents I have, to know the wonderful people I know, even with my deficits.

But just… every now and then… if I complain, hear me out and honor the complaint. Can you do that? I would appreciate it.

Because a life lived without complaint is not a life truly lived.

The Lost Art Of Loyalty

This is a story. It is fictional. Any resemblance to actual people, while intended as an honor, is not intended as a re-telling of any event that has actually taken place, or ever will. It is a piece speculating on how a writer might find a second novel in among his musings, and a reminder to remember why a writer writes, in the first place.

We must find that agent and that publisher, in our writing journey, who will be as loyal to us–and to our first book, be it a mega-seller or a modest performer–as to our last.

The book was a big hit. It was after it hit, the sound reverberating through the “book world”, that several media outlets clambered to know what he’d do next. A sequal? A new novel whose characters have only minimal ties to the characters people grew to so love? they speculated.

He was scared. Sure, readers had loved his book–his baby, had treated it with the kind of reverence he could only have dreamed of previously, before anyone knew his name–but what if they detested his next effort? What would his next effort be? Despite the speculation, he had no idea. He didn’t like any of the ideas occupying his mind right now. No wonder Harper Lee never wrote another book, he thought. I don’t blame her.

He called his best friend for advice. Since childhood, Luke had always been that guy, the guy he trusted to tell it to him straight, even if straight wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. Often, it was the one he needed. Am I freaking out for no good reason? he wondered, to pass the time as the phone rang.

“Hey, dude, what’s up?” A second-ring answer.

Yep, that’s Luke. Glad I called. And happy to help, if I need a hand. Which, in a figurative sense, I do right now more than ever.

“I’ve finally got everything I’ve ever wanted,” he explained, despensing with any preamble. “Readers. A real publisher. So why aren’t I…?” He searched for the word, couldn’t find it.

“Happy?” Luke ventured.

“No, that’s not it. I’m happy. I’m just not…”

“Content?”

“Yeah. When I was a kid, I knew I was going to be a writer. We both did. I struggled like hell to get there. But I finally did. So, now that I’ve got what I wanted all those years ago, why aren’t I content?”

“How long has it been since we hung out? You and I?” Luke asked, after a pause.

“I don’t know,” the author said, not liking the taste of that truth on his tongue.

“Six months. It’s been six months, dude. Now, you know me. I’m never gonna begrudge you your dream, and I know you wouldn’t begrudge me mine. But what was it you said to me when we were kids? You said, and I quote, ‘If I ever lose sight of why I write, you be sure to let me know, okay?’ Today, I’m letting you know.”

“I’m sorry that we haven’t hung out in a while. But we both got busy. You have to admit that.”

Luke gave an mm-hmmm in acknowlesgement.

“And then my book hit. And, just like that, the roller-coaster started. I finally had the chance to prove all those people who ever doubted me were dead-wrong.”

“I’m your best friend, man,” Luke said. “So you can go half a year and not talk to me if you want–I hope you won’t, from now on; I hope you’re back to stay–and our friendship won’t change. But there are two things you need to remember.

“Your book may be big right now, bud,  but in the end it’s just a book. It’s just a story printed on pages bound between covers. A humble piece of art. It may have struck a chord wit the public, but that chime, as so many others before it, will fade.”

“What’s the second thing I need to remember?” The author wanted to change the subject, in any way he could.

“That the people who believed in you from the start, before the agent, the publisher, the readers, the book signings, the whatever-else–I’m talking about your brothers and your sister, your parents, your girlfriend, me–we didn’t need your book to sell to have your talent confirmed to us. We knew it was there and it was real all along. You used to be someone who believed in loyalty and humility…”

“I think I still am that person…” I hope, anyway.

“Someone who had a fire in his belly to be great. And now… sure, your book’s big, but are you the great man you always wanted to be? I’d be willing to bet you’re not there yet. Because, somewhere deep inside, you’re worried that you were just a flash in the pan. That that one book might be all you’ll ever do. And that worry is frightening your talent, so that it doesn’t want to show itself. It doesn’t want to give you anything more. And you waited so long to call me… because you didn’t want me to confirm what you already feared you knew.

“Now, it’s time for your talent to stop being afraid of what it might accomplish, and it’s time for you to stop being afraid of your talent.  It’s there to help you, if you’ll let it. You’re a writer, no matter how many books that publisher of yours asks you for. Who cares if they don’t like your next book, as long as you like it? You’re a writer because you want to be a writer, and no one can take that designation away from you  but you.

“But, more than that, you’ve always tried your best to be humble and loyal. That effort isn’t lost on the people who appreciate you most. Don’t let that guy get lost in all that you’re doing now. And, just because loyalty is a lost art in business,  that  doesn’t mean it should be a lost art in life.”

“Now, how about we meet up for lunch?” Luke finishes. “Giving my friends advice makes me hungry.”

“Let me do that for you. It’ll be easier.”

We have one goal today. Let us analyze the above emboldened title, and maybe through this analysis we can discover why getting published means so much to me.

I woke up out of a sound sleep to write this piece. It was calling to me, and if I hadn’t answered the call it would have kept badgering me until I did. So here I am… doing what I was born to do. Writing.

And now to delve deeper into the meaning of: “Let me do that for you. It’ll be easier.”

My close kinship with cerebral palsy means nothing is easy for me. Not walking up stairs at a football game. (Who doesn’t love the sensation that, with one wrong step, you could fall a long way?). Not tying my shoes (This was such a frustrating enterprise that I didn’t wear a shoe that needed to be tied after age six; that’ll show ’em. I thought). Or frying an egg, or cutting my food. Nothing is easy for me, but to complain is sort of pointless. I am who I am, with the specific set of obstacles granted to me. The same is true for you. We all have our obstacles, and I’ve just determined that, in my case, complaint gets me nowhere.

When I was a kid and wanted to learn how to do something. say tying my shoe or cutting my food, for example, I would go to an adult and ask to be shown the secret that would unlock these abilities.

The response was always the same. The adult would say, “Oh, let me do that for you. It’ll be easier.”

Kid me thought, Sounds good to me. Less work on my part.

Current me thinks, Easier? Easier for whom?

There’s so many things I want to learn how to do. Slowly, I am learning and becoming acclimated to them. They are all simple, routine things everyone knows how to do by the time they are where I am.

But one of the things I want to learn how to do goes deeper than a simple chore. The laundry. Giving my part of the house a proper vacuuming. This is deeper than that.

I want to learn how to stop hearing: “Let me do that for you. It’ll be easier.”

Because what that phrase really means is no.

“Hey, can you show me how to….?” I’d ask an adult.

“Let me do that for you. It’ll be easier.” Essentially, what I’ve always heard when someone says that is equivalent to: No, I don’t have the time to show you all the tricks. But if I do it for you, it’ll get done, and then you’ll stop bugging me.

And it would be easier…. for them. Leaving future me to deal with the reality that there are many things, to this day, that I don’t know how to do.

One of the things that does not fall into that category is writing. I know how to write. And yet, whenever I receive a rejection note from an agent or a publisher, I don’t see the form rejection into which almost no care or thought was placed. In my head, I get that the job of an agent is to find work they can sell. But my heart wins out in times like those, and I see a vision–as clear as if it were happening right in front of me. It’s a vision of someone saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t have the time, the patience, or the resources to help you learn.” The we’ve-all-grown-up version of: “Let me do that for you. It’ll be easier” has transformed into: “Here’s a quick, sharp, awful rejection of the thing you love most in the world. Now get out of my face, and let me get back to doing real work.”

You might say, “Maybe he should look at the business differently. It isn’t like that.”

To that, my dear friend, I would say, “It may not be like that for you. That may not be how you see agenting or publishing. But I have always lived my life with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. If someone tells me no, I want to prove them wrong. If someone shuts me out, I want to prove that I belong… and I will.

Eventually.”

All I’ve Ever Wanted…

…is to be a published writer. An author. (Sometimes, that word can sound so exotic.) To behold my words in print. To know–and, in some cases, to get to see first-hand how my articulated thoughts on a page affect readers in a real and tangible way.

A couple weekends ago, with this goal very much in mind, my dad and I attended our very first writers’ conference. Seattle is a great town, with a fantastic literacy rate, but we are not the hub of literature, despite Amazon starting in a nearby garage. Since I can’t drive–and, if I’m being honest, I’d fear flying on my own, so I can’t just go to New York and pound the pavement looking for an agent–and I know enough not to cold-call them, this conference would be the best chance I’ve ever had to get in the room with an agent and demonstrate the passion I possess for a seven-year project that has bled the words from my writing veins, made me a better writer, and a stronger person.

The night before my agent-interview, I could barely sleep. I assume this is how an athlete must feel the night before The Big Game.

Five minutes. That’s all the time I had to showcase the most meaningful thing I’ve ever scribed (Really, I had ten minutes, because my dad, already agented, gave up his time with the agent, which followed mine, but everyone else only had five minutes, and that’s all I needed, anyway; not the point of the story). That morning, I awoke early and practiced my pitch. Imagine being in an elevator with an editor at Penguin or Random House (Yes, imagine it. It sounds amazing.). You’ve got thirty seconds to make them care about this thing you care about more than you’re willing to admit. That’s the pitch. I decided my book would be best described, genre-wise, as “secular spiritualism”. What is that?  Think about the novels of Mitch Albom. His stories often mention God or Heaven, but his characters are never overtly one religion or another, meaning that he–the author–is never trying to convince you one religion is the right religion. Secular spiritualism. It should be a thing, yes?

I sat down in front of the agent. I think I was shaking, but she might have thought that was just the palsy. Fine with me. I launched into my pitch. It went off without a hitch. (A poet just stole my keyboard for a second; sorry about that.) Then she said, “Is your book complete?”

Is your book complete? Such a simple question, whose answer is so complex that only the simplest reply can accurately convey it.

“Yes,” I said.

After seven years, countless words written, deleted, re-written, and re-deleted, after receiving several rejections whose gist boiled down to: Obviously, you wrote this book for people with cerebral palsy (My book’s main character has cerebral palsy, because I’d always wanted to read a book about someone like ME, and I never had) when my book is for anyone and everyone who likes to read, wishes to read something a little different, a little quirky, that holds some meaning; after all of the struggles and doubts, and hours spent fussing over one passage or another, it was liberating to make that announcement, even if it was to an agent who’d never seen me before in her life. Yes, ma’am, my novel is done. Complete at eighty-four thousand words, the longest piece I’ve ever written.

No, this agent didn’t take me on as a client. In fact, she took only a few days before passing on the project. But, unlike the overwhelming majority of rejections I’ve received, this was not a form letter. An I have decided to pass or I didn’t connect with the story.

She told me she liked my writing, and that my story was merely outside of her expertise.

So this post is a thank-you of sorts. To that agent–and to agents everywhere–who take the time (I realize not every agent can do it, but if you can it really does assist us writers) to offer constructive advice. One or two sentences might be all it takes to send that future best-selling author off in the right direction.

And, okay, I’ll grant you that not all of us can be best-selling authors. There are 100 best-sellers per year, and there are so many books published annually that to read them all would be the height of insanity. But every author who has something to say should be able to say it to the widest audience possible. Agents serve as gate-keepers to this audience. But who says the key needs to be made of gold? Sometimes, it’s as simple as a few fleeting moments.