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Yesterday morning I was at my university’s spring semester convocation assembly, fighting sleepy thoughts, and listening to the choir sing “Total Praise”, when towards the end of the piece a soloist’s voice broke in, and completely roused me from my personal zone/stupor. I was utterly floored when I looked up and saw that the voice belonged to one of my former students. What a voice! I couldn’t believe that it came out of him, because for the two semesters that I had him in classes, he was — honestly — kind of unremarkable: quiet, and seldom participating. If he did contribute to the discussions, he never spoke loudly, or with passion, and yet there was clearly that much power inside of him. I was so moved, not just by the choir and that young man’s voice, but also by the thought of how amazing it is to be surprised by someone in that way; that inside a person there can be something so remarkable, and beautiful, and just so shocking in the best of ways, and wasn’t I privileged to witness that?

It wasn’t the first time a student surprised me — in fact, I still think about P., who I had in class about ten years ago. He was kind of intimidating-looking (it didn’t help that he came to class the first day still recovering from a gunshot wound to his left arm), and had a personal history to back that up, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then, one day in class, he raised his hand and proceeded to contribute some incredibly insightful observations and interpretations about a piece we were reading and I was just blown away. Over the next two years that I knew him, he would drop by my office and chat and we’d talk about school, and life, and what he was reading. In the time that I knew him he never changed the way he outwardly looked: dreadlocks, sagging pants, gold chains — the works, and I often wondered how many people on the outside world would have the chance to see the P. that I knew was in there. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I hope that whatever it is, he is surprising people right and left and making them all walk away thinking: what a privilege it was to have spoken with that young man today.

I love being surprised by people — especially by the young people I work with. I love writing about that process. I hope I manage to capture that feeling of mouth-dropping amazement that happens when you are surprised to see what’s inside of someone and, in the process of discovery, you learn that much more about yourself, too. At any rate, I want to be able to do that in my writing — to take the reader on that  journey. Yes, what happens in a book is always important, but who it happens to, and how that person is changed as a result — that’s what a reader remembers, long after the book is closed. People are the catalysts for change; plot is the vehicle for it to happen. What I always want to experience in the books that I read is that process of spending time with a skillfully-developed character long enough to be surprised by him, to have that thrilling moment of discovery — to feel the way I did yesterday, when I heard my student’s voice fill the gymnasium with sound. Those are the books I remember — because in changing me, they became a part of me.

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Back when I was in college, I wrote a novel. I called it The Lotus Eaters, and it was an odd story about a brother and sister (adults) who lived with their frail, eccentric, stray-animal-collecting mother in the Lake District in England. Their father abandoned the family when the kids were young, moved to Italy, and remarried. The siblings and the mother plod along through their humdrum, dysfunctional, insular lives until one day their step-brother turns up on their doorstep. The step-brother is a manipulative, handsome, and pretty unlikable person but, despite her best efforts, the sister falls in love with him. This destroys the brother, who is already mentally fragile, and who has an almost incestuous obsession with his sister. Anyway, none of it ends very well for anyone.

I would peck away at writing The Lotus Eaters on my word processing typewriter in my dorm room. I spent two years working on it. When it was finished I was so proud of what I had done, despite the fact that the guy I was dating at that time casually commented that the title was “pretentious” (and maybe it was — I had named the book after Tennyson’s poem – good grief). But somehow, in the intervening years, the manuscript ended up in a box, shuttled between moves, across states, from apartments to houses to homes. Eventually, it came to rest in a rubbermaid bin in our crawl space. I was never happy about that fact.

I pushed the book out of my mind until one day almost five years ago. I was sitting in the library, waiting for my daughter to finish leafing through a book, when I looked up at the “New Releases” shelf and saw my book on the shelf. I gasped. I felt like someone had slapped me. I snatched it off the shelf. Of course, it wasn’t MY book, but Tatjana Soli’s beautiful debut novel, by the exact same name. I almost cried. All the while I had been raising my babies, putting my writing on the back burner, dreaming my dreams about someday sitting down to write another novel, and someone had soundly, brilliantly, beaten me to it — taken my title and, along with it, my book. That’s exactly what it felt like. I fought back tears as we left the library. I felt defeated, and cheated. How could I possibly have time in my busy day to carve out even one hour to write? And, even if I did, what was the point of it, anyway? Other people got published — not busy working moms like me who needed every spare moment they had to hold it all together.

Of course, Soli did not take the title, nor did she take my book! But that moment in the library changed my writing life in big ways. I could sit around and wait for others to write their stories and send them out into the world, or I could pull myself together, stop making excuses, and make amends to my first novel by sitting down to write another. And then another. And one more, until I could get my words out there, and share a story with the world. That’s the way it is with dreams: you can do nothing but sit and dream them until they make you crazy with longing, or you can roll up your sleeves and do what you have to do to make them happen.

I’m so glad I was sitting on that library bench that day, staring idly at the spines of all the books in front of me. I have been thinking about that day a lot lately, now that my wonderful and very own literary agent has sent my book out into the world on submission. I don’t know what will happen, but I like to close my eyes and imagine my book sitting on a library shelf some day, spine facing proudly out.

Yesterday we took the Christmas tree down. This year, my daughter helped me, which somewhat softened the blow of dismantling Christmas. Some years I’ve done it alone, just me and some moody music, putting away all the bright things, and trying to block out the images of how exciting it was to put them up only a few weeks before. I did feel melancholy taking them down again. Not just because Christmas was over — in some ways I am okay with the holiday itself being over and done with (that sounds Grinch-like, but it’s not what I mean), but I always feel weighted down by thoughts of what the next holiday might bring. If we were all together this year, healthy and here, surrounded by the people we love (not to mention the furry family members, two of whom are elderly), what will it be like next year? What unexpected turns lie ahead? Did I cherish the here and now enough? Savor the moments? Commit enough images to memory?

We were away for nearly seven days this year, and I couldn’t accomplish much of anything work-wise in that time, which is par for the course this time of the year. I can’t find good space to write at my parents’ house, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. I spent the days soaking up my niece and two nephews, and spending time with my sister, who was in Rome for a few months this fall, and time with my brother, who I always feel I never get enough time with as it is, also running errands with my dad (and catching up with him in the process), and helping my mom in the kitchen. I did get some good runs in, past old haunts of my childhood and college years – including a rain-soaked run along a path where I used to walk our family dog. The highlight run of the trip was a short three-mile run (round trip) to my sister’s new house, where I got to stop and hug my nephew, still in his Christmas jammies.

Christmas day my husband and I took a walk together, up to the campus of the University of Maryland, and to the chapel where we got married nearly 19 years ago. We walked up the steps, and I looked out at the same view I had looked out on all those years ago, when the ceremony was over, and we stepped through the chapel doors together, and down the front steps and into our future. This time, instead of a white dress, I was wearing ridiculously awesome green knee socks with the word “VEGAN” printed down the sides. Standing at the top of the chapel’s steps, that crazy sprawl of college-town in front of us, I was acutely aware of how far we’ve come on this journey, yet how the same I really am, and my husband still is, deep down inside. A lot has changed; quite a bit has stayed the same. There’s nothing quite like the perspective you get when you retrace steps back to some starting point, and assess the roads that took you there.

Then, we walked back down the steps again, hand in hand, and into the spread of years that lie ahead, filled as they will be, I am sure, with successes, and joys and glorious experiences; bittersweet partings, heartbreaks, losses, and all that goes into the unbearable lightness (to borrow from Milan Kundera) of living and loving. That walk — I think that was the best gift I got this year.

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Plus: New kitten cuteness! The kids and I have been badgering my husband for months now to add a kitten into the mix. His name is Benjamin (Benny for short). He’s estimated to be about 5 months old, and he’s a sweet charmer — easygoing and social as can be. We followed strict rules mined from the internet on how to introduce a new kitty to the resident cat and I must say we’ve met with success! While they are not BFFs yet, they are co-habiting nicely together — we even caught them touching noses a couple of times.

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Tuckered out from playing

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Helping me whip up a bunch of vegan pancakes