You Never Know Where Learning Can Lead You

There is little more that I love than learning new things. I haven’t always enjoyed sitting in a classroom learning, but after about four years out of grad school, I found I did miss that, too. So in 2012, I began taking classes to earn a couple of graduate certificates over at Northern IL University. The courses were unlike anything I had taken in quite some time, including a theory course – which was a struggle for this concrete individual.

This theory class, though, took me down a path of learning I never could have anticipated – all the way to Kenya. During the course, our professor brought in folks to speak about projects they were involved with (this was a feminist theory course, so the projects were all feminist in nature). One night, the two people who joined our class were Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno. Originally from Kenya, they had moved to the States in an effort to give their boys a better life.

The project they were in class to share with us was the Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls (JAMS) – a school they had founded in Kenya. Girls in Kenya face many hurdles to education (not having school fees; needing to work to help pay for needs at home; if something happens at home, the girls are the ones held back; not having access to clean water or feminine hygiene products during menstruation; in the case of one primary school nearby, the girls were sent during school to fetch water for the teachers to drink; and many more obstacles). Teresa had a dream to open up a boarding school for girls where at least half of the students would be there on scholarship – a school good enough for the richest and open to the poorest – where these girls could get an education that would quite literally change the trajectory of their lives.

[This is taken up the hill from the school – the visible red roofs are the school’s buildings.]

The project caught my attention and settled right smack dab in the middle of my heart – I wanted to get involved. I’m pretty sure I talked about nothing else for weeks after. When the course ended, the class met at a local restaurant for dinner and to celebrate finishing the semester. One of the other women in the course was telling me about a fundraising idea she had to raise money for scholarships for the school in Kenya. I confided in her an idea that I had – to teach memoir, create a collection, and use the proceeds for scholarships. I hadn’t shared the idea with the professor because I assumed she would think it was a silly idea – so when this woman turned to our prof and said, “You have to hear this,” I’m fairly sure my cheeks burned bright red.

But she loved the idea. So much so that I was in her office that next Monday speaking with the school’s founders about it – who also loved it. We even figured out an internship for the next semester where I would create this curriculum. A year later, I spent three weeks at the school teaching that curriculum, collecting the memoirs with the girls’ permission (they all wrote a short memoir, but only those that wanted to participate would end up in the book – all but one student granted us permission), and learning so much.

I will have to write another time about my experience at the school because that deserves its own attention. I will say this, though – I have never witnessed such hard working students in my entire life. To say these girls were inspirational is incredibly inadequate.

This last Monday, I met with Teresa. I was able to return to her the handwritten memoirs (which have been typed and edited). We spent a couple hours double checking the spelling of every name – it took a couple hours because as we went through them, Teresa filled me in on where the girls were now (the young woman, I should say by now) and gave me even more background on just how far many of them have come. These women are living proof of the difference an education can make.

We are now at the point of typesetting and creating a cover, which means we are getting so much closer to being able to hold this published collection in our hands. I can’t wait to see it.

A Long Overdue Love Letter to Coffee

For the first three decades of my life, I couldn’t stand coffee. I didn’t like the taste. Couldn’t stand the smell. I have memories of my sister and me tagging along to the bowling alley where our mother participated in league. (She once bowled a perfect game. They gave her a mug and all related bragging rights.) It was the ’80s, so we were mostly left to our devices – we played with the other bowlers’ kids, pushed our quarters through the slots of arcade games (which back then still only cost a quarter to play), and hid from our parents as we drank cups of coffee thickened with way too much sugar and powdered creamer. (My goal was always to mask the flavor of the coffee – I would have been better just sucking on a sugar cube.)

My sister and mother both loved coffee, whereas I sided with my father, who preferred to roll out of bed and crack open a Diet Pepsi. Of course, I wasn’t allowed soda in the morning as a kid. (Also like my father, I liked the taste of pickled herring and preferred salsa so spicy that it would make me sweat.)

I’d tried coffee several times throughout my adult life. Every now and then, I’d ask my sister for a sip (I always remembered too late that she put fake sweetener in hers, and every time it tasted…awful). A previous partner loved coffee, and I tried to grow accustomed to the smell as it brewed. Nothing clicked, though. I couldn’t understand what people saw in this bitter drink. If you have to dump sugar and cream (or any number of liquid flavors) into it just to make it possible to choke down, then what was the point? I’d rather just drink something that tasted good from the start. (This would have been either chai or Diet Coke.)

I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time in Kenya and Colombia in 2014, two places known for many things – including their coffee. In Kenya, access to their coffee was not easily come by, though – more money can be made in exporting their beans, so locals drank cheap stuff, if they could even afford that. (I was not able to even find coffee to bring back as souvenirs.) In Colombia, my friend I was visiting offered to take me to a coffee tour, but I declined because I figured I’d not get anything out of it. (Here, too, it was difficult to find bags of beans – I ended up buying the souvenir bags at the airport on my way home.)

Cut to Costa Rica where I was assistant directing a study abroad trip with thirty-seven students and two other directors. We would be there for an entire month, and I made a deal with myself. I would take this month and really try to understand why people like coffee – but if I left after that month and didn’t like, then I would stop trying. Some things just aren’t meant to be, after all.

I shared this bit of info with my co-director, Ken. Or as the students called him, the silent ninja. Like me, Ken is an introvert – and he is the main reason I was able to survive this month. (But that’s for another post.) I told him – this is it. If it doesn’t happen in Costa Rica, it’s not happening ever. Ken got a twinkle in his eye and said – I’ve got something for you to try.

The next day, Ken showed up with a coffee in a box from Cafe Britt. This, Ken told me, is a mocha.

Coffee and chocolate?? All these years, and no one thought to mention to me that they’d added chocolate to coffee?? Chocolate is a gateway for me, friends. So, of course, I loved the mocha. I loved the way the chocolate played with (and mellowed out) the flavors of the coffee. And I may have sought out more of these little boxes the next time I returned to the grocery store.

Later in the trip, we actually took the students to Café Britt for a tour, and we all got a huge education about the plant, about the bean, about roasting, and even the proper way to taste. Their shop had a station where you could try each of their coffees – and this was the spot where I officially realized I do like coffee, and more specifically, that I liked the dark roast best. I’m not sure what happened – if it was just the first cup of GOOD coffee that I’ve ever had, if my taste buds had changed with age (later this same summer, I would also learn that I don’t actually hate beer – just crappy beer), or if it was because I was in Costa Rica. Whatever the reason, I don’t even care. The love affair between me and coffee that I had pined for had finally begun.

It’s been six years since that trip, and now I can’t remember how I ever made it through a rough day without that little bean. (Well, I do remember – it was Diet Coke. I just can’t believe how much of that stuff I used to drink…) While my taste for coffee has expanded (where have you been all my life, mocha frappe? Or dirty chai? Or cold brew?), I find I still can’t get down with the cheap stuff. (My tongue is apparently a fancy b$%&h when it comes to coffee. And beer. And chocolate…) Get me a good bean, well-roasted, and I will dream about curling up in a warm mug full of it. (Unlike eight-year-old me, you can keep that sugar and cream to yourself – good coffee doesn’t need anything added to make it taste good. For me, at least – you flood your coffee with whatever you need to!)

Even after six years of loving coffee, I’m so used to passing over coffee flavored things that it’s often a shock to realize I can try things flavored this way. Coffee gelato? Yes, please. Coffee in chocolate? Duh. And just the other day, I tried coffee flavored Greek yogurt. *drool* (Me from seven years ago wouldn’t even recognize herself today!)

I now have a coffee pot in my office and a press at home. I know all the local coffee shops along the route between my home and work (and when they open). I have even been known to stop at a gas station. (Well, specific gas stations – not all gas station coffee is created equal.) And I finally understand what Ellis meant in her love song to coffee – a song I had sung along to for almost a decade without truly understanding it. I understand it now.

#10Queries and #DVPit Updates

Alas, no bites for #DVPit – which might just be the universe reminding me that I don’t need to be adding anything to my already packed to do list. I shall focus on surviving the semester and perhaps starting to query one of the manuscripts over winter break.

As for #10Queries – I had heard of the event before, and I have certainly seen the hashtag on my twitter feed. This was the first time I entered, though, and I was thrilled to be selected to participate. On the day of the event, I read over each and every #10Queries thread that the editors tweeted – and I had no idea which one was mine. (They put up feedback without too many specific details in an effort to help all writers see the common errors that we make on our queries and first five pages, along with the feedback from the editors.)

A few days later, I received an email from the editor who was given my submission, and along with letting me know which tweets were about my submission, she also gave some additional feedback (more specified than one can get in 280 characters).

Every Revise Resub event I’ve participated in has been such a wonderful learning experience – and I can’t believe these editors are giving all this feedback to writers out of the goodness of their hearts. If I had editing needs at this moment, I’d be throwing my money at them for sure.

It’s also such a lovely feeling when someone you don’t know has good things to say about your writing/story. Here’s hoping Bethany is right, and Netflix comes calling some day. 🙂 Until then, I’ll sit with these warm fuzzies she gave me for a bit – then get to work addressing her feedback.

When it Rains…

I often joke – give me a flat surface devoid of even a spec of dust, and I will find something to trip over. Sadly, it’s not so much a joke as it is the truth. I’m the sort of klutz who catches her elbows on doorknobs and who discovers bruises of unknown origins just to repeat the action, cringe in pain, and go – Oh! That’s where that came from! I’ve burned myself on my rice cooker. I’ve fallen down my basement steps, from the very top step. I sliced open my thumb (and needed four stitches) on my first day working at a deli. I’ve pulled a full on Bambi on ice more times than I care to count.

I’m a special kind of klutz. But I’m also a really talented kind of klutz who somehow has never broken a bone – but does have a rather large collection of ace bandages and icy-hot patches of every imaginable shape and size.

I’m the kind of klutz that comes from a long line of klutzes, too. My own mother fell off a six inch step and managed to severely sprain one ankle (like, full-on-tore-ligaments severely sprained) and broke the other ankle. Off a six inch step. Six. The doctor gave her crutches, and we all thought he was joking. Don’t you need at least one good foot to use crutches?

Cut to me last Thursday. Perfectly smooth parking lot. Not a pothole in site. I found something to trip on. It was, unfortunately, rainy – and rain makes paint slick. So there I was, splayed in a crosswalk, stifling the string of curse words that were forming in my throat as the pain sunk into my right knee, which had slammed into the asphalt, and my left ankle, which had turned an unnatural angle. I managed to get to my feet, still holding the small bag of groceries I had just purchased, and limped the few feet out of the crosswalk – where I then had to take a moment and a few deep breaths. A very kind man getting out of his car offered to help me to mine, but I’m also the kind of klutz with too much pride. At home, I discovered my knee was bloody and already bruising, and my ankle looked like it had swallowed a baseball.

You know what’s fun? Stairs. When you don’t have one good leg to lean your weight on, stairs become really fun. But I’m also a stubborn klutz, and nothing was going to keep me from sleeping in my bed that night.

My sister came down for a visit on Saturday, bringing with her my two favorite tiny humans. Thankfully, she had a pair of crutches that she brought with her to help me get around while we ran errands, and I learned the answer to that question – you DO need at least one good leg for crutches to work. You’d think being the kind of klutz I am that I would be a pro at using these contraptions, but this was my first time. Turns out, I’m also the kind of klutz that is not very good on crutches. Nobody was surprised by this discovery.

I often joke that my kitty, Shevy, takes after me. Literally – she is me in cat form. Emotional. Wants to spend any rainy day curled up with a warm blanket. And the type of klutz who rolls over to show the belly…and rolls right off the bed. So this morning, when she was limping around the living room, I was fairly certain there was a really bland story for how she did it. But she’s not talkin’.

#10Queries and #DVPit

Life has been chaos. I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot the last year and a half – and I feel like it’s often met with nods of exhausted agreement.

Within that chaos, I’ve not really had the time or the bandwidth to write much of anything new, or even to spend a whole lot of time on editing. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not still taking any opportunity that comes around.

Thanks to a friend in my online writing group (shout out to Rebekah Simmers!) bringing to my attention that the #10Queries was coming up, I was able to submit – and was chosen! #10Queries is a part of Revise and Resub, which I’ve talked about on here previously. Revise and Resub is a group of editors who are offering the writing world some really incredible opportunities to learn (and in the case of #RevPit, to possibly win a full edit of a completed manuscript). And they do it all with no charge to the writers. Even just following their social media can offer quite an education to a writer.

#10Queries is a randomized contest – you get a number of entries, and then if chosen, you will receive an email with a request for your query letter and the first five pages of your novel. Your work is assigned to one of the editors, who will then, on the day of #10Queries (this round is Oct 29, 2021), tweet about each of the ten queries they received. Even if you haven’t submitted, reading through the feedback and advice given to these other writers can help in writing your own query. Follow the editors and the event’s official twitter for more. I will be anxiously waiting to see who my assigned editor turns out to be and what they have to give as feedback on my query.

In addition to this, I’m also looking to participate in #DVpit again this year. This is the contest where I was initially contacted by my publisher that landed me a contract for my first book. This year’s #DVpit is coming up next week:

October 25, 2021 will be for Children’s & YA Fiction/Nonfiction (picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult).

October 26, 2021 will be for Adult Fiction/Nonfiction (all genres, commercial and literary) using #DVpit; and for Artists & Illustrators using #DVart.

I can’t wait to see what everyone is pitching!

What Do You Call Those Insects That Glow?

I recently presented at a conference for an online global writing group of which I’m a member. We spent the entire day with presentations and sharing knowledge. One of the presentations I gave was about building characters – a discussion I’ve had… who even knows how many times at this point? It was an abbreviated version as I only had about twenty minutes to talk since I was sharing time.

One of the things I love when having this discussion in class, though, is asking – what do you call xyz? Because I’ve got a classroom of folks from Northern IL and Chicago (with an occasional student who moved from elsewhere), the answers are all usually expected. Lightning bug or firefly as it pertains to the video above.

But this group is global – which is just so freakin’ cool to me. We had members in attendance from places like Greece and Italy and Austria and Germany and Australia… So when I asked this question, the answers were a lot more fun. 🙂

I Swear I’m a Writer!

Me: [sitting at a table and editing; needs a moment to sit back]

Person one at nearby table: Murder also works.

Person two at same table: I mean, it can solve a lot of things.

Me: [quickly averts eyes and goes back to editing]

Clearly, these two were joking joking, but still – this was odd moment to start overhearing such a conversation. It’s also odd to have such conversations. Or make such inquiries via [enter search engine of choice].

There is a meme that makes the social media rounds from time to time – a search history is red flagged because of inquiries into blood splatters and how best to hide a body – but after seeing “coffee shops near me” and “what’s the word for that whatchamacallit?”, they realize they are looking at a writer’s search history and take them off the watch list.

It may seem silly, but I’ve had these thoughts – like when I was looking up how much damage (square mileage) a pipe bomb could cause. Or how to build a ray gun. Of it’s possible to freeze someone from the inside out. I’ve definitely landed myself onto some watch lists for sure. But I also search for nearby coffee houses in every town or city I land in. I find myself in rabbit holes of words trying to find that specific one that provides the exact feeling I’m searching for. I also repeatedly search for word count ranges for various genres because no matter how many times I search and review them, I never retain them.

So… maybe I’m safe? [strained smile]

Indigenous Peoples Day

I live on land that was at various times occupied by the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Hoocąk, Menominee, and the Niúachi (all names provided are their own – they are not anglicized here). There are records of the Menominee from 1831, a ratified treaty, granting the land noted in Cession 159 to the Menominee. In this document, it is noted that the Menominee had not “sold” any of their land to the U.S. gov’t, though there is passive aggressive language within the treaty noting that the Potawatomi and Winnebago (part of Hoocąk) tribes had done so and received “large annuities” for what they had sold. It should be noted that the land Cession was necessary because the Menominee land was being encroached on by those surrounding tribes because they had “sold” their own land. The Menominee land was shrunk down to a reservation 234,000 acres in Keshena, WI (from the former 9.5 million acres that is now central/mid-eastern WI and a part of the UP). They are known for their sustained yield forest management.

The only federally recognized reservation currently in Brown County (in which GB is located) is the Oneida nation. They arrived in WI in the 1820s and 1830s after being forced to cede land in New York.

The Theater

My family first encountered Bob Thompson when we were camping (at what was then our family run Camp-Tel Family Campground). Part of the grounds includes five acres of apple trees, and we were wandering around amongst them when we stumbled upon a man… talking to the trees. What we didn’t know at the time was that Bob was an actor at the nearby Peninsula Players – an outdoor theater located just south of Fish Creek, WI – and he was practicing his lines.

Bob took a liking to my sister and I, and he hooked us up with opportunities to usher and help park cars (guide – not drive 😝) – and then we’d get to see the plays for free. (He also held up his fellow actors after the show until they had signed our playbills.) Every single time I set foot on the Players’ ground, I’d get butterflies in my stomach. This was, and is, a place of magic to me – and I fell hard for the theatre.

When I left home for college, I was beyond thrilled to learn that the city’s performing arts center was located right on the university grounds (I didn’t have a car) – and better yet, they offered student rush tickets. If a student arrived an hour before the show, and they still had seats open, they would sell the tickets at extreme discounts. I saw everything I could.

Theater has, of course, gotten much more expensive in adulthood – but it’s still so very worth it to me. Last night, I got to sit in a theater for the first time since before the pandemic – surely the longest I’ve gone without seeing a show since that first Player’s show so many years ago. I’m super thankful to Bonnie and PA club for letting me crash their Kinky Boots party! (And to Paramount in Aurora for being strict on safety measures – for checking vax cards at the door and requiring masks – and to all the ushers who spent the duration of the show reminding patrons to keep their masks on.)

It’s been almost thirty years since my very first show – and last night, I still got those same butterflies as the lights dimmed and the music began.

What Even is Time?

I find myself once again going – where did the time go? Surely it hasn’t been two months since I last posted here. But alas – it almost has been.

Some days are just more dramatic than others.

The last time I wrote, though, I wasn’t expecting everything that was to follow: oven fire (everything is fine, though I went a month without the ability to cook anything that couldn’t be made on the stove top), losing my cat Ellis (everything is not fine – her death was unexpected, and I still miss her every single day), getting sick (cold not COVID), my editor choosing this time to send my manuscript back for edits. [strained smile] The things I did expect – the end of summer session grading and then the chaos of fall semester starting.

I just had major plans to use that week and a half to relax

But here I am, in the fourth week of the semester. I feel like I’m on a roller coaster without the safety harness – time is flying, and I’m just holding on for dear life.