It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, I don’t mean Christmas. Although, let’s be honest. I do enjoy some good Christmas spirit, ginger snap cookies, and pictures of dogs with Santa Claus.
Dodger with Santa Claus
What I’m talking about is my annual reflection on what I would do in 2019 if I knew it was my last year on Earth as Kelly Kandra Hughes. Yes, I know. At face value a death meditation is a morbid topic, particularly during a season that is known for its joy and wonder.
But that’s exactly the purpose of a death meditation – to make you mindful of your limited time on Earth so that you make better decisions in how you choose spend your time.
You don’t have to take my word for it. As I’ve written about before, thinking about death is essential for living in joy, as written about by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy, as well as happiness and productivity expert Dr. Christine Carter, PhD, in TheSweet Spot, and lay people such as Mark Manson in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
During my most recent death meditation as I thought about what if 2019 is my last year alive, two thoughts bubbled to the front of my mind:
I am so blessed;
I still haven’t sold any books.
These thoughts make my 2019 relatively easy. For thought #1, I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing. This includes:
Loving Heath as much as possible
At Athabsaca Falls, Jasper
Petting as many dogs as I can
Kelly and Phyllos
Wandering around in the woods, ideally with a dog
We never did learn who this yellow lab is!
Spending time with my family, especially my niece
Saying Goodbye at the Harrisburg Bus Station
Absent from my list is seeing bears in the wild and visiting as many national parks as I can. It’s not so much that I’m experiencing a been there and done that feeling, as these two goals came about from recent death meditations, and they majorly contributed to how I spent my time in 2018.
It’s more that in the past year I’ve learned that wonder is so much more wonderful when it’s not planned.
Instead, I will (ideally) remain open to the world around me, (try to) have zero expectations for what an experience should be like, and instead (hopefully) stay present in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.
Which brings me to thought #2: I still haven’t sold any books.
Being the optimist that I am, I am already generating BIG PLANS for all the writing I’m going to do in 2019. I’m not going to go into detail in this blog post because I’m still plotting (haha) and planning the stories that I want to write, finish, or revise next year. But I can assure you that 2019 is the year where I do my absolute best to sell one (or more) of my manuscripts to a publisher.
Let me be clear: I have made a lot of progress towards this goal. In 2018, I wrote three picture books (around 500 words each), one chapter book (16,000 words), one middle grade novel (48,000 words), one New Adult novel (57,000 words), and one adult novel that is hand-written on small yellow note pads and still needs to be typed so your guess is as good as mine for how many words it actually is. For the record, my guess is 50,000 words.
Also, for the record: I do not advise anyone to write a novel by hand. Having to type my story into Word is quickly becoming one of my least favorite writing activities of all time.
If you’re wondering why I don’t consider ALL THIS WRITING I’ve done in 2018 my absolute best is terms of getting published, it comes down to one reason.
I write books and then I don’t submit them to agents with any sort of tenacity typically required of an unpublished author. I like to tell myself it’s because God is figuring out the details and I don’t have to worry about that part of the process. That’s just a cop-out excuse.
It’s not my job to manage the universe; but it is my job to give the universe something to work with.
This time I spend on Earth is God and Kelly willing and because of my fear, Divine Providence can only do so much. If I don’t share my work with people who are in a position to publish it, then I am making it so much harder for that right-place-right-time moment to occur that God has so graciously granted me in the past.
As I thought about my death, what I realized is that I have been afraid of failing as a writer.
What if I write an amazing story and it still doesn’t get published?
What if I write a dozen amazing stories and none of them get published?
So instead I’ll watch one more YouTube video of a dog trying to sneak a tater tot or check out Instagram for pictures of polar bears or mindlessly scroll through Facebook seeing what friends/family are posting instead of researching agents or submitting my work or writing.
If I don’t do my absolute best, then I always have a reason for why I haven’t achieved my goal of being a traditionally published writer. It keeps me in my comfort zone. Giving up the fantasy that the book I’m writing is going to be my debut book and a best-seller and become beloved by millions throughout the world (all publishing goals of mine) terrifies me.
But now what terrifies me more is taking my last breath in 2019 and wishing I had done more to become a traditionally published author.
Thanks to my death meditation, I’ve now realized it’s necessary to give up my clung-to fantasies in order to make them actually come true. The only way for me to get traditionally published is to put my work out there. Agents and publishers may so no. And, if they say no, then that particular fantasy for that particular book is dead (for the time being).
That’s a scary thought and it’s one that has kept me from doing my absolute best with my writing. I have spent countless hours this past year allowing myself to procrastinate and waste time and generally do things which are counter-productive to my publishing goals.
I think I’m *finally* done with that, and I have my death meditation to thank. I am living out all my other goals and dreams and I don’t want to waste any more time on the one that I’ve wanted the longest.
So, what does my absolute best include? Not letting the fear of failure get in my way (i.e. NO MORE PROCRASTINATING), improving my writing craft, writing as many new stories as possible, submitting my work to agents, and then keep on celebrating the blessings in my life – Heath, family, and dogs.
Heath with Smudge
I look forward to the opportunity to share this journey with you in 2019. Thank you for your love and support.
Yes, I know we just got back a few weeks ago from our 11,500 mile road trip. But remember back in December, when I did my most recent death meditation? One of the goals on my what-if-this-is-my-last-year-alive list was to see polar bears in the wild, so I applied to be a polar bear season volunteer at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Manitoba.
That was back in July 2017. And guess what? My application finally came up!
I am on my way to Churchill, Manitoba as you read this post!
First flight from Hartford to Toronto.
Here are some of my goals while I’m in Churchill:
See polar bears!
Write. A lot. I’m working on a young adult novel, so I’d love to have a decent first draft by the time I head back to Norfolk on November 18th.
Marvel daily at how I am 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Send postcards. ***
Find a sled dog to be Faith’s long-distance Internet boyfriend.
Isn’t she just the cutest?
Of course, there’s always a downside at the commencement of any adventure in that one must leave family and friends behind.
I certainly felt a break in my heart when we drove away from Norfolk back in May. And now that break is much deeper because I’m leaving Heath for the next 50 days.
When I asked if he wanted to come with me to Churchill Heath said heck yeah! When he found out the volunteer position is to mainly wash dishes for six hours, six days a week, he said, “Have fun! I’ll miss you, but no thank you.”
So, Heath is caring for Smudge and Faith, and I’m off to Churchill. I cried quite a bit yesterday in preparing to leave.
First, there was saying goodbye to the pups. I tried not to cry because dogs can be so intuitive and I didn’t want to upset them. Smudge, especially, knew something was up when he saw me pack a duffel bag.
Then, saying goodbye to Heath had me crying all over again. There’s going to be Wi-Fi in the science center I’m staying at, so it’s not like we won’t be able to video and phone chat.
It’s just that when you say goodbye there’s no guarantee there will be another hello.
I know that’s true regardless of whether the time apart is 50 seconds, 50 minutes, 50 hours, or 50 days. But when it is 50 days that amount of time becomes a huge neon-sign reminder of how wonderful life really is. I can’t help but appreciate how much I stand to lose by leaving in that moment.
So I said the things that needed to be said and I gave one last hug and kiss and then maybe just one or two or twelve more. Then I told myself to be brave. And I left.
I walked through the airport doors not knowing for certain what this next great adventure will bring. As if I couldn’t quite leave yet, I found myself walking directly to the windows so I could see Heath one more time as he drove off.
Of course, he was looking for me, too, and then we waved to each other as he finally drove away.
This trip is a dream come true for me. And to have a partner who has been nothing but enthusiastic and supportive is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
Heath, I know you’re reading this post and I know we’ve probably already talked six times this morning, but I love you so much! Thank you for loving me in the very best ways possible. Thank you for being my best friend. And thank you for everything that you’re taking on in my absence.
You are an extraordinary man. I am so grateful to have you in my life.
***END NOTE: If you know of anyone who would love a surprise postcard from subarctic Canada, please reach out to me at genesis.potentia(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)gmail.com, and we’ll see what we can do 🙂
On August 15th, my husband and I hit 10,000 miles on our summer trip. Our car, which I’ve affectionately nicknamed The Great White Whale, is doing an outstanding job of keeping us going.
Credit also goes to my husband who understands car maintenance. He keeps impeccable service records, is capable of performing repairs, and has ears like a bat when it comes to car sounds.
Heath: Do you hear that?
Me: Hear what?
Heath: You can’t hear that?
The only time I did hear something on our road trip happened to be my fault. I put two Yeti water bottles on the passenger-side floorboard, which resulted in a scraping sound as if something was hanging down from the bottom of the car.
We didn’t know it was the water bottles until after we had pulled into a parking lot and Heath checked under the car, every tire, and even lifted the hood to investigate. Whoops. My mistake.
Regardless of this one instance, Heath is always taking care of The Great White Whale, whether it’s tightening hubcap rims, changing headlights, or insisting we vacuum every nook and cranny.
If it weren’t for Heath’s skills, knowledge, and attention to detail, I suspect our road trip wouldn’t have been quite so easy.
This past week our 10,000 miles had us driving east from Naperville, IL, to Harrisburg, PA.
During some of that driving, we’ve been listening to the audiobook of Moby Dick.
My husband has already read Moby Dick maybe 5 times. This fact amazes me because Moby Dick is 133 chapters, plus an epilogue. These aren’t short chapters, either. Depending on the edition and publisher, Moby Dick can be a whale of a book coming in at 585 pages.
We started listening back in May.
In 10,000 miles, we should have been able to listen to the whole book. The audiobook is only 23 hours long.
We’re still on chapter 34.
Did you know they talk about whales and sailing a lot in this book?
I’m not sure if it’s having narcolepsy or all the sea talk, but every time we listen to some chapters I doze off.
When we first started listening, I fell asleep for about twenty minutes. When I woke up, I asked my husband, “Is that guy STILL talking about sleeping next to that cannibal?”
Yes. Yes, he was.
And even after I woke up Ishmael still carried on for a bit about sharing a bed with Queegueg.
Moby Dick was published in 1851. Writing styles were different back then, as there was no television, movies, or Internet.
For that time, it made sense that Herman Melville would need to describe boarding houses, daily routines. whales, ships, knots, etc. in minute and excruciating detail. Not everyone would know this information or have seen pictures.
For my 21st century pre-existing knowledge and attention span, Melville carries on a bit much. Until he makes a point so profound and interesting all I can do is say, “Wait. Go back. I want to listen to it again.”
My favorite line so far is this little commentary Melville wrote during the aforementioned scene when Ishmael, a Presbyterian, is debating about having to share a room and bed with Queequeg, a cannibal. Ishmael comes to this conclusion:
Photo by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash
How (sadly) relevant for the times in which we currently live.
While Heath and I were in Naperville, we happened upon a Stand On Every Corner rally. Karen Peck, a Naperville woman, has been standing at the Dandelion Fountain in downtown Naperville from 6-7pm every night for the last 40 days.
Photo courtesy of Karen Peck
According to the founder of this movement, Bryce Tache, this protest, “isn’t all about politics, it’s certainly not about left versus right, but it is [about] how do we all stand up about policies we believe are harmful, regardless of our political affiliations.”
Karen had several signs with her, such as:
Love Your Neighbor Love, Kindness, Justice for All Every Child Returned
Across the street, however, a different story was playing out.
For the first time in the 40 days that Karen had been standing in protest, a counter-protest showed up.
Photo courtesy of Karen Peck
They had very different signs: Secure Our Borders Build the Wall Keep America Great
When Karen asked us to stand with her for an hour, of course we said yes.
Photo courtesy of Karen Peck
You know what’s also one of my favorite lines in Moby Dick (so far)? Remember, we’re only up to Chapter 34 and I suspect I’m going to be adding to my list of favorites.
Photo by John Peters on Unsplash
I think I’ve heard that somewhere before…
Well, what do you know? Moby Dick isn’t just about whales after all.
Today I turn 41 years old, and today my blog turns 2.
These last two years have been the best of my life! That’s not a coincidence. Nor is it luck, magic, or random chance.
Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis knows I value mindfulness. I’m a big believer in taking stock of my life on a regular basis and checking in to see how I’m doing.
I also believe in God. When I say God, I do NOT mean I believe there is a some man with a long white beard and a gold letter G on a white robe hanging out in heaven with a score card keeping track of my every move.
Because I was made in God’s image … and I don’t look like that! Neither do approximately 7.5 billion people on this planet.
Although, my good friend, Lem, does so maybe that what’s God looks like to him.
To me, God is the Divine Source of energy or Spirit, that connects us all to each other and to the universe. The holiest Holy Spirit that resides and dwells in each one of us. Both male and female.
I can’t take credit for that idea. I learned it from Father Don McLaughlin at St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. On Mother’s Day 2013, I sat in a church pew mesmerized as Father Don discussed God as loving Father AND Mother and how the feminine is nearly forgotten in the church today.
Now that was an idea I could get behind.
In fact, when I now pray to God I pray to my Loving Father/Mother God. So my Our Father prayer begins with Our Father, Mother, Spirit Who Art in Heaven.
This realization that God is Mother and Father to us all and we are all a part of God is why I care about girls receiving an education in Burkina Faso, children being separated from their parents at the US borders, and polar bears losing their habitat in the Arctic.
Because I am them and they are me. The only difference between us is that for the Grace of the God, I ended up being born to the parents I did.
So when I take stock of my life on a regular basis, it’s to make sure I’m on the right path. The one that God intended for me, and the one in which I am an active participant and creator.
Two years ago for my birthday, my best friend Arlene sent me a beautiful card in which she hand-wrote a prayer for me. It’s from Matthew Kelly, founder of the Dynamic Catholic movement.
Prayer by Matthew Kelly. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
I’ve been saying this prayer every day before I start my morning meditation for two years now.
Even when I added Rumi’s Prayer of the Chalice to the start of my meditation practice because I wanted to keep the practice fresh, I still found myself saying the one Arlene sent.
It’s not like you can go wrong with TWO prayers.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that these past two years have been the best of my life. My life is God AND Kelly willing, and I choose for it to be this way with love and guidance from God.
So on my 41st birthday, I say thank you to God for showing me where I need to be in my life and what I need to be doing, especially these last two years.
These last two years brought me to Norfolk and gave me more dogs to love than I could possibly imagine, friends that keep my spirit up when life gets me down, a community that makes me a better person, writing that makes me proud and takes me one step further towards my goal of published author, visits with family near and far, travels to new and wondrous places, and time with my husband to love and laugh and love and laugh some more.
There has also been loss; of course there has! This is life, after all, and that comes with being here. But through the love around me and which dwells in me through God, I am able to accept it and channel it into making me a better version of myself.
Thank you also to everyone who reads my blog and supports me on my journey. I couldn’t live this life without you either.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad, lately, and parents in general, as I see more and more news stories about immigrant children being taken from their parents while coming into the United States. These stories make me wonder how I was lucky enough to be born into my family.
My father is a retired physician; his specialty was internal medicine. When my father went to medical school, his textbooks cost more than his tuition each semester. His father, I believe, was an engineer, who traveled the world as part of his job, and his mother was a nurse.
When he was in high school, my Dad read the book Arrowhead by Sinclair Lewis. The story is about a man, Martin Arrowhead, who is from the Midwest and who becomes a doctor. This story was one of the motivating reasons my Dad wanted to go to medical school.
For many years, my Dad worked 14+ hours days, multiple days in a row. When he was on call at the hospital, our phone would ring all hours of the night. I’ve overhead phone conversations where he’s had to tell family members that a loved one has died.
Because of my Dad’s hard work, I had the privilege of attending private nursery school, private grade school, and private high school. Reading was the #1 activity of my childhood and almost any book I ever wanted at Waldenbooks was mine to be read. Stacks and stacks of books filled my bedroom and kept me company during childhood.
I spent summers going to horseback riding camp and Disney World. We traveled to Bar Harbor, Maine, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for vacations.
Every opportunity was afforded me as a child. I wanted for nothing. I’ve never had to know what it’s like to be hungry or wear second-hand clothing or have to worry about how a bill was going to be paid or what would happen if someone in my family became sick.
When I turned 18, I then attended college without having to take on any student debt. My summers were filled with working at a bank in downtown Harrisburg auditing mortgage loans for $6.25 an hour – this was $2.00 above minimum wage at the time.
I also got to experience international travel for the first time, as I spent not just one summer studying abroad at Oxford, but two. The programs lasted three weeks each and part of me didn’t want to come home because there was so much to see and do.
In 1999, I graduated from college with a 3.93 GPA (magna cum laude), named an outstanding senior psychology major, and earned honors in the psychology program. I had already been awarded a small research grant for my psychology honors thesis and this research had been presented at the American Psychological Association’s national conference in Boston that year.
After graduating from college, I landed a full-ride at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to pursue a doctorate in psychology. Again, I graduated with zero student debt, a university award, and the opportunity to present my research at conferences and through publication.
I immediately landed a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of psychology at a suburban Chicago University.
I continued achieving milestone after milestone in my career – professional development grants, publications in peer-reviewed journals, and presentations at national conferences. These achievements lead to promotions and raises. The university had a 7% matching program for my retirement account. I took full advantage of it. That money got added into my already growing retirement accounts that my father started for me after my first job working at Hersheypark when I was 15.
Let’s not forget my paid sabbatical for the fall 2014-spring 2015 academic year. I know full well how lucky I am to have been given nine months of time to consider my career and the changes I wanted to make. It was during my sabbatical that I realized I wanted more in my life, to pursue the other dreams I’d had, the ones that started in childhood that never got fulfilled.
And that’s exactly what I’m doing now.
Everything about my life has been an absolute privilege because of who my Dad was and how hard he worked.
Because of his hard work and sacrifices, I am now able to lead a life that is centered on creativity, imagination, kindness, compassion, and generosity. I do not have to worry about basic security needs and I never will.
So when I read stories about parents wanting a better life for their child and coming into the United States, I understand. I will not judge them for doing something “illegal” because some laws are arbitrarily created and not rooted in equality and justice but are more based on fear and lack and limitation. If you want an excellent example of this, look no further than Jesus Christ, whose own family had to seek refuge in Egypt when he was born because living in Judea was not safe at the time.
My Dad raised me to believe the messages of Jesus Christ and Jesus was quite clear in what he considered his greatest commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.
Every child deserves the same privileges and gifts I received from my Dad’s love. My Dad gave up years of his life working so I could be taken care of. And I was.
That doesn’t make me special, though, just because of who my Dad is and how hard he worked and how much he loved me. Some Dads work just hard and love their children just as much but will never be able to achieve the same kind of security that I grew up with.
Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone could share their gifts instead of having to worry about where their next meal is coming from. That’s the life my Dad created for me and it’s one I now want to create for others in the world.
So I’m now doing that the best way I know how, the one that brings me the most joy – taking care of animals, loving my husband, and writing stories. On face value, these choices may not seem like the most proactive in terms of working for peace and social justice. Yet, I think of Gandhi’s words of “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
I’ve written about Gandhi’s words before, but today, on Father’s Day, and on a day when some fathers and mothers are being separated from their children, these words seem much more alive to me than ever before.
Thank you, Dad, so much for everything you’ve done for me. I am trying to make the world a better place because of you and be that change I want to see. I love you!
My Mom doesn’t like having her picture taken, so I didn’t have that many photos from which to choose. I’m also pretty sure she’s only going to be okay with having a picture posted on my blog at all, so I chose one that also features several of my family members so she can blend in better.
The above picture is maybe 18 years old and a lot has changed in that time except for one thing: My Mom continues to be a generous person.
I think my favorite example is that she took in my dogs, Limit and Jack, not once, but twice in their lifetimes.
I adopted Limit and Jack in 2002. Limit came with an age guesstimate of 7-9 years old. From the story I was told, a woman out in the country in North Carolina took in whatever stray dog wandered up to her door. When that dog turned out be Limit, he was dog #8 and so the woman said, “Enough! This dog is the limit.”
But Limit wasn’t the limit because none of the dogs were spayed or neutered. So Limit begat Jack and a sister, who unfortunately got hit by a car at some indeterminate length of time before they came to live with me (allegedly).
The woman ended up being evicted from her rental home and she abandoned her dogs; Limit and Jack had been locked in the house and were found by a kind neighbor. It looked like they had survived by drinking out of the toilets. They were both brought to me because at that time I volunteered as a foster mom for Independent Animal Rescue.
Within a few weeks I fell in love with both Limit and Jack and officially adopted them. But then, in the fall of 2006, Limit began struggling to walk up the stairs to my second-floor apartment. One day he collapsed going up the stairs and fell the whole way down.
I didn’t know what to do, so I called my Mom. She checked with my father to make sure her plan was okay and then she drove from Harrisburg, PA, to Chapel Hill, NC, to pick them up and move them to Harrisburg. Limit could live quite comfortably in their house since they had two floors.
And he did. So did Jack. They stayed with my parents until August, 2007, when I graduated from my doctoral program at UNC. We all moved together to the Chicago suburbs so I could start my tenure-track position as an assistant professor of psychology.
In 2009, we lost Limit to a tumor on his spleen. It ruptured and through the grace of God I was able to lift Limit up and put him in the back seat of my car. I got him to the vet in time so he didn’t have to suffer too much.
Jack and I stayed together until January of 2013.
He had started showing signs of dementia a few months earlier. Because I lived alone and worked long hours, Jack had become a danger to himself with the things he started eating in the house. He also started to confuse night and day and would continually wake me up in the middle of the night for walks.
As someone who has narcolepsy, this was dangerous for me. I once fell asleep walking him and when I woke up I had no idea where we walked to. It was after 3:00am. I did not have a smart phone and honestly I didn’t know who to call with the regular old cell phone I had. What would I say? “I don’t know where I am. Come find me?”
I eventually found our way home.
Jack’s dementia got worse. Again, not knowing what to do, I called my Mom. The next day, she drove 10 hours from Harrisburg to Naperville, IL. She packed up Jack and his belongings and the next day drove back to Harrisburg. Of course, I missed him terribly; I still do, both of them. But with my Mom now taking care of Jack I knew he would be in good hands.
Jack managed to live another 14 months with my Mom, Dad, and brother in Harrisburg. He remained happy the entire time. In January, 2014, he developed Lymphoma. He lasted until March. On my spring break, I made it home just in time. We’re all pretty sure he waited for me.
Then my Mom gave me one of the greatest gifts of all. She paid to have a vet come to the house so Jack could die in my arms.
I will never be able to say thank you enough to my Mom for all she has done for me. Taking care of Limit and Jack when I couldn’t is just one example. There are hundreds more.
Thank you, Mom, for being so kind, selfless, and generous. I love you.
On February 23rd, 2018, my husband’s family lost a beloved son. Erick’s death was not surprising or unexpected; he had been born with a rare combination of two genetic illnesses – Addison’s Disease and Adrenoleukodystrophy. Doctors had been preparing my husband’s family for Erick’s death for the last 20 years. The fact that Erick made it to his 39th is astonishing. The fact that Erick’s suffering is now over is a blessing.
Erick had two memorial services: one on February 28th, in Smyrna, TN, and one on March 1st in Lawrenceburg, TN. I met my husband’s childhood friends and his extended family. I met dozens of friends and colleagues of my in-laws. Laughter was shared, and tears were shed.
I heard many stories about Erick. I didn’t get the chance to know Erick other than through his diseases. I could only imagine what he was like through the memories of his family and friends.
The Erick I met could not communicate in any way – he had no vocal capabilities, nor could he blink once for yes or twice for no. There was debate about what Erick could understand, if he could even understand anything at all, once the disease fully ensnared him. I know his mother and his primary nurse believed he was still in there somewhere.
Last summer, I got to know Erick as well as I could when my husband and I stayed at his parents’ house for a week so they could take a well-deserved vacation.
During that week, I cleaned Erick’s face in the morning and emptied his urine bag. I administered medicines through his feeding tube, which connected directly to his stomach. I put a breathing device on Erick to help him clear his lungs. Every 2.5 hours I turned him, at least until my husband woke up and took over or the nurse arrived and provided far better care than I ever could.
The state of Tennessee provided Erick with 32 hours of nursing care per week. For my husband and I, that meant we could still see each other during the day and go out and about in Nashville while we were taking care of Erick that week.
My in-laws were expected to work full-time jobs and then care for Erick full-time before and after work. As Erick needed 24-hour supervision, this provision made it impossible for my in-laws to have a typical American life. They devoted nearly every hour of their lives for the last 12 years to taking care of their son. For the last 20 years, they watched him suffer and there was nothing they could do medically do about it.
When I consider Annie Dillard’s profound saying, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” I think about the kind of love that my husband’s parents have for Erick to spend every day in service to their dying son.
They refused to put him in a home and they refused to give up on caring for him. They sacrificed themselves in ways I can’t even imagine. I suppose that is what you do for someone you love because what is the alternative?
I am not a caregiver. Yes, I care for people and animals and the beauty of creation that is God’s gift to all of us. But it is not my vocation.
My vocation is writing and playing with as many animals as I can. I say this because I’ve been thinking of how I can best memorialize Erick, a man I’ll only really know through the love of my husband and his family. I have no stories of my own about Erick while he was alive, yet his story means something to me.
While I was in Nashville with my husband’s family, the time came for my agent to submit one of my picture book manuscripts, Sundays with Pop-Pop, to publishing houses. The timing wasn’t ideal, but she had a fire inside her for getting the manuscript out and I am eager for my first book contract. In retrospect, I do feel regret for closeting myself in their office to perfect the draft while there was so much grieving around me. I will hopefully not make that mistake again.
But I now know how I will honor Erick and the love his family has for him. Sundays with Pop-Pop is a story of love and loss. It celebrates the special relationships we have in our lives, whether they are biological, a beloved family pet, or a concerned member of our community.
Erick is, and always will be loved. When Sundays with Pop-Pop is published – and I truly believe it is when, not if – I will dedicate the story to Erick. He deserves it.
Thank you for reading my blog. And if you are so inclined, please send thoughts and prayers of peace to my husband and his family.
Yes, I am a children’s book author admitting to never having read one of the greatest pieces of children’s literature of all time. Okay, yes, I’ve only been a children’s book author since June 2015, when I wrote my first picture book manuscript. Yet somehow that doesn’t make me feel less chagrined about the situation.
Since I’m coming clean, the truth is there are many kidlit classic books I have never reads. Some books and authors I have never even heard of when I’m perusing kidlit writing websites.
For example, I did not know who Ursula Le Guin was when she died on January 22, 2018. Her name popped up everywhere on the writing and entertainment websites I read. I ended up checking out this article in particular, Mapping the Pop Culture Influence of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Books, and I was shocked to learn that her stories had been a precursor to Harry Potter.
As a huge Harry Potter fan, how is it I had never heard of Le Guin before? Who else haven’t I heard of that I should?
At least I’m quite familiar with EB White and Charlotte’s Web. Growing up as a child in the 80s, I’d watched the cartoon version of the story dozens of times, but somehow I never managed to read the story.
When I think about it, I have no good reason why, other than I was reading other books: SweetValley Twins, Babysitters Club, Fabulous Five, and the Taffy Sinclair books just to name a few. All of these titles are series, so perhaps because I had multiple new books to read every month, I never needed to venture out to the classics.
I can still vividly recall the moment in class when my entire life changed because of a book. Mrs. Spore, my teacher, lead us in a discussion of the allegorical representation of Aslan the Lion in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Being a nearly-straight-A student, I raised my hand and proudly announced Aslan represented the struggle of good versus evil.
Mrs. Spore shook her head. “Too simple,” she said. “Aslan is much more than that.”
The guy next to me raised his hand. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
BOOM! There goes my head in an explosion of everything I thought I knew about the world. 13 years of Catholic education (K-12), and I had made zero connection to what C.S. Lewis was really telling us in his story.
Although that Intro to Children’s Lit class was my favorite class throughout all of college, anything in children’s literature/publishing did not seem a viable career option at that point. I allowed myself to get sucked down the rabbit hole of job security, earnings potential, and societal expectations, and ended up with a PhD in quantitative psychology instead.
So now, as a psychology professor turned kidlit writer, I find myself immersed in reading as much kidlit as possible. In January, on advice from an editor at Simon & Schuster, I checked out The Incredible Journey from my library. The editor recommended this book because I write about dogs. The writing was beautiful and the pacing a touch slow for modern reading standards (in my opinion). Still, I cried tears of joy during the last few pages.
Wanting to continue with reading kidlit classics, I then picked up Charlotte’s Web from the library. This is a book that should be required reading for all children and adults. The story is extraordinary in so many ways.
E.B. White is a master of word choice and description, with sensory details, rich visuals, and emotionally engaging characters that pull you immediately into the story. Just read the first sentence:
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” asked Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Tell me you don’t want to read more!
Charlotte’s Web is not just about the writing, either. The illustrations by Garth Williams are adorable. Look at this little pig:
Or “puppy pig,” as my 21-year-old niece called him when I sent her an illustration as an example of why I was loving this book so much.
If you’ve ever read my blog before, you know how much I LOVE dogs! Give me a puppy pig and write him into a story where he finds out he’s going to die and you have me hooked.
The way E.B. White connected me to Wilbur the pig is genius. Wilbur loves Fern and misses her when she’s at school. He wants a barnyard friend to play with, but the other animals shun him. He finds out he’s going to die and becomes hysterical because he loves sitting in his pile of mud and slopping around his pigpen so much. Then, Wilbur begins to believe he is someone special simply because Charlotte, his spider friend, believes in him.
There’s also this sentence in the last chapter about Fern, the little girl who initially saved Wilbur the pig from Papa’s ax:
She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.
These words of E.B. White will stay in my heart forever.
I couldn’t help but cry when I read that sentence. They were tears of both joy and sadness. Joy because the way I live my life now, embracing the things that truly matter to me, such as loving my husband and family, playing with dogs, walking in the forest, reading and writing stories, and sitting on a stool near a pigpen are things I do every single day.
Okay, well maybe not literally every day sitting on a stool near a pigpen, but thinks to one of my wonderful friends in Norfolk, I do occasionally get to sit in a barnyard and play with farm animals.
There was also sadness for the millions of children who grow up and may never again recapture the feelings of wonder they experienced during childhood. Just like I did in college, they go down the rabbit hole of adulthood, and I don’t know if they ever find their way out. I hope they do. I pray they do. And I write stories to show how I made my way out.
Thank you for reading my blog! Your support is always appreciated. If anyone is interested in more Charlotte’s Web writings and illustrations, I’ve been posting selections on Twitter as part of my #365DaysofKidLit Challenge. You can look for me on Twitter with the handle @KellyKandra. I also included selections from The Incredibly Journey and The Original Adventures of Hank theCowdog, plus several picture books.
As an end note, I’m looking to read as many of the Hank the Cowdog books as possible without having to buy them (you know, minimalist and all). The inter-library loan only offers a few, so if anyone out there can give me access to more copies, I would be ever grateful.