Friday, October 28, 2011

Words, Words, Words

I've had language on the brain this week.

First and rather unpleasantly, there is the language of the law. Despite a house-wide lack of sleep, the major disruption in our family right now relates to one poorly-written phrase in an outdated will of my father's. It's a long story I can't tell in detail, but there's an outside chance that a few unfortunate words may mean that a substantial portion of the modest inheritance Dad intended for me, my brother and my children could be siphoned off to someone else.

So instead of being free to grieve his loss and undertake the management of his estate, I am gearing up for a potential legal battle that can only end in tears and wounded family relationships. While frustrating and heartbreaking, it's a survivable event. Whatever happens, life will go on.

It's well-known that the legal world does not always share language with the average person, or even common sense. I was talking about this the other day with a friend whose husband is an attorney, and she recalled a time when he ripped up a will they had recently written in case of emergency while they were traveling. Upon re-reading the document, he realized that one particular word in the will would actually negate their overall intentions and cause major problems for their friends and family. One word. Sheesh.

I can read something and think it means one thing, while my lawyer sees something entirely different. We both speak English, as did the author, but it's like the difference between me staring up at the starry night sky and Stephen Hawking regarding the same scene. One sloppy turn of phrase written 37 years ago could impact many lives today, and undermine the whole purpose of a document. A painful reminder to the writer about the power of words.

On the other, more fun end of life and the language spectrum is my two-year-old. He is learning to talk in the messy way with which two-year-olds do everything. He picks up words and phrases immediately after hearing them and uses them -- right or wrong -- over and over and over again. He does this with wild abandon, until eventually he narrows down their meanings on his own. (And on his own terms).

My son is absolutely reckless with language and does not worry a bit about being wrong. One of his favorite new word games is to hold up his index finger dramatically and say, "Mommy, I have ONE question." Of course I oblige and say, "What's that, babe?" and then he grins broadly and picks a nearby object as inspiration to give me a one-word response: "Car!" "Box!" "Window!" "Candle!"

When I gently try to explain that those things aren't questions, they're, well, things -- it seems to fall on deaf ears. I try giving examples of questions as demonstration: "How are you?" "Where are we going?" etc. But rather than picking up on the definition of the word 'question' by illustration, he just answers all the example questions. Hilarious. And then we go back to what he really wants to do anyway, which is play the "I have a question" game his way.

I don't press the point. I'm almost positive that by the time it matters, he'll have worked out what the word 'question' really means, whether I try to teach it to him or not. And honestly, I love watching him explore the world this way -- shoving the square peg relentlessly into the round hole, not caring whether it fits at all. He's absolutely confident in his worldview, even though it may change from moment to moment. It's wonderful.

In the meantime, I find myself singing to both of my boys more than ever. Not just the traditional lullabies and kids' songs, but the music my Dad loved. He used to have classic and folk rock stockpiled in the car for long road trips: Crosby, Stills and Nash; Neil Diamond; Elton John; Simon & Garfunkel; Joni Mitchell; Janis Joplin; Roger Miller; Peter, Paul & Mary.... and lots of others. At 16, I thought these artists were mostly lame and outdated (or at least, that's what I claimed when I wanted to listen to Guns 'N' Roses or Nirvana instead). But now, those songs are the legacy through which I fondly remember both my parents, and that I try to share with my children.

The other night, I sang "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" to my two-month old while I rocked him to sleep. I thought about Dad and our road trips, and how the lyrics of that song used be so full of mystery to me -- before I had an adult's perspective. Now I see so many things differently, and I turn to wonder how my boys will come to love and explore the mysteries of their world.

As a mother, I can't promise what the future will hold for my kids. But I hope I can pass on some of the wonderful characteristics of my parents to them, even if only through snippets of melodies and old song lyrics.

As a writer, I realize I have to tie all of this together to create anything worthwhile. The reckless abandon and unadulterated joy of a two-year old trying things out -- unafraid of results. The surgical precision of the lawyer who must have every word at its best and most meaningful. The love of a daughter/mother trying to capture a legacy for her children.

Writing is a journey that mirrors life. Somewhere along the road, I have to embody all those things to tell the stories of my heart. I'm not always sure how to do that, but I'm lucky to have some wonderful souls in the minivan with me. And great traveling music, naturally.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing the Good Fight

I posted my last blog entry seven weeks ago today. Two days later, my son was born. A beautiful 8-pound baby boy who looks like his father and loves to be held by his mommy. He is my treasure. Big brother is so proud -- already trying to show him the ropes.

The birth was difficult, though, and ended with an unplanned Cesarean. This meant a challenging recovery for everyone in our family, especially since I couldn't lift our older son for 4 weeks after my surgery. We had lots of help from our amazing friends and family, though, and somehow made it to the four-week mark.

Then, just after midnight the next day, my Dad died. He had known about his lung cancer since May and was undergoing treatment, but we thought he was responding well and at least had a few more months left. So his death was both expected and shocking at the same time. I don't think I'm ready to write much about Dad just yet, but I know I'll get there. He has always been a voice in my head whenever I had a decision to make, and I'm pretty sure I will always be trying to make him proud.

In the meantime, I am trying to unravel the mysteries of the probate system, work through the normal sleep deprivation that comes with a newborn, and figure out what normal is like from here. Several people have asked me when my next book is coming out, and I'm flattered by what is a really good question.

A blank page is a challenge at any time. But when you're feeling beat down and overwhelmed by real life, it is especially hard to face. Don't even get me started on trying to conjure up readable fiction while bouncing a baby seat with your foot, trying to get a little one to sleep.

That doesn't mean I shouldn't take on the blank page. After several weeks away from writing, and away from my work-in-progress, I am realizing that writing is part of what makes me feel human and normal. When I can't get to my computer, I write in my head. I do this constantly, sometimes without even realizing I'm doing it. In the shower. In the car. In the wee hours of the morning while I'm nursing the baby.

It's not always fiction, and it's rarely the latest chapter of my current project. More often I write snippets of prose, stream of consciousness narration, random connections between real life and the million stories I create in my head. Some of these snippets make it out of the shower or the car and onto a page. They might get woven in with a current story, or simply jotted down for future reference. Others just float away with the steam. I've done this since I was a little girl, and it's part of who I am, even when it's hard to distill anything out onto the page (or the screen).

So, the answer to the question of when the next book is coming is, I don't know. Given everything that has happened, and the fact that it's taken me three hours just to write this blog while caring for a fussy baby, the pace won't be a speedy one. But it's coming. I've never been one to stay down for long, and writing is one of the ways I find the strength to get off the floor.