Monday, October 31, 2011


Is a beautiful thing.

For the past month and a half, Tyler's sleep habits have been as erratic as a moose chewing bubble gum trying to itch his hind leg with one of his front legs while also sneezing into a thin tissue.

The stats:

Last night: four wake-ups at 1:00 a.m., 2:30 a.m., 3:30 a.m., and 4:30 a.m. Each time, he wakes with an incredible gusto, as if he'd been summoned to run with the bulls, climb to the peak of Mt. Everest, or eat a yellow lollipop.

Jennifer and I thought we had left this stage long behind, after we passed babyhood and entered the glorious land of toddlerhood. And now, hitting the big "3" we were sure it was over and done with. After all, only two months ago we were the proud parents of a child who slept from 6:30 p.m. until 7 a.m. every night.

No wake-ups.

Not so much as a cough or a mumble.


I used to listen to the other parents at playgroups discussing their problems with non-sleeping children, and I could nod empathetically and emphatically, all the while thinking Dude, we, like so DO NOT have that problem! And I am desperately sorry for you. Yes, I really, REALLY am. But I'm so glad that I am me and you are you. Because seriously: I couldn't handle losing that much sleep.

Now I am the one who gets the empathetic, emphatic nods. And I know what they mean.

Yup: I am the one now. Jen and I are the ones who don't know what it feels like to say goodnight and then wake when the sun is rising. Instead, we hear the shouts from our little man and we half-wakingly mumble to one another "Your turn?" while each hoping it can't be me again!

But then something happened last week to change everything.

The thing that happened is the kind of thing that can revitalize life and goals and dreams and hopes and joys. As a writer, the thing that happened is particularly applicable to other areas of my life.

Namely this: surrender.

Jen and I finally realized that nothing works. We tried letting him cry out the wake-ups. But Tyler only got more and more, well, woken up. He then got scared. Really scared. Coughed. High-pitched screams. Trial over.

We tried talking it through. Dead-end.

We tried eating a lot before bed. Nope.

Eating a little. Zero success.

Drinking a lot? Drinking a little? A bit of Children's Tylenol? A softer mattress? A harder mattress?

No, no, no, no, and no.

And so finally we came to the realization that I think happy parents everywhere must come to: surrender, baby. Surrender is what it's all about.

But not surrender as in, I give up! This is too hard! White flag: wha-la!

No--I mean surrender as in we say: Okay, all my theories turned out to be about as substantial as using masking tape to fix a broken banana.

Jen and I began letting go of the expectation that Tyler was supposed to be sleeping straight through the night. We started to think differently: hey, he's not sleeping through the night now. One day he will. Not this day.

And expecting him to wake up, and dealing with it hopefully, has made all the difference. Surrendering our view of the ways things should be has allowed us not to miss the joy we're experiencing now, when he's AWAKE (instead of walking around the house mumbling, I'm as tired as a donkey who has hiked the Grand Canyon down and up while also contemplating the image of a moose trying to chew bubble gum, itch his hind leg with his front leg...)

We're getting the same amount of sleep, but we're feeling a whole heck of a lot more rested.
As a writer, expectations run the gamut in my head. Before I began sending work out ten years ago, I had an inordinate amount of expectations about what the publishing process is like. Once I began getting back my early rejections on my first novel, I began to develop a more realistic sense of how it works.

But it hasn't been until the more recent close calls on my sixth novel that I'm seeing how dizzying it all is, and how inevitable a part of the process waiting is. We write. We wait. And if we're really committed to being lifelong writers because the thought of NOT writing makes us feel like moose who chew gum while...then we write while we wait.

We see ideas painted in the sky and graffiti-ed on the fences and stamped along the construction sites where we walk and live and laugh.

We hear ideas in the words of a grocery store clerk, a learning baby, a consoling daddy, an interesting bathroom experience.

We sense ideas in a scene that develops before our eyes like it was part of some cosmic movie projected just for us--just for a moment--so that we could be inspired by life to create life that will inspire others to live.

To live.

And isn't that the point of it all? Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote it, "To live the questions." One way of living the questions--as a parent and as a writer--is to surrender to them.

It doesn't mean throwing up our arms and then sitting on a patch of dry grass sucking our teeth. No. But it does mean letting go of the expectation that things have to progress a certain way, or follow a certain formula.

Because children and books share one beautiful thing in common: neither much likes to be told who it is--to be told exactly how to live, grow, stretch, sleep, wake, breathe, dream, dance. Both need to have the space to learn themselves and find their own ways into the hearts of their creators, the hearts of their friends.

And space, perhaps, is just another word for surrender.

Whether Tyler sleeps straight through the night tonight, or five weeks from now (or more!), I've stopped holding my breath. Instead, I'm learning to enjoy the waking moments, not counting the cost so much of the minutes of slumber lost.

Whether I get a call from my agent tonight with the news that a novel or a picture book has sold, or five weeks from now (or more!), I've stopped holding my breath as well. Instead, I'm learning to throw all energy into the process. More voices clamber for their stories: that seventh novel needs to be written to join his six siblings. That 29th picture book is waiting for an incarnation to join his cousins.

And there's too  much to enjoy to count the minutes of waiting through the times that don't follow the patterns of my expectations. Because the living is in the now, the living is all about learning to have real joy and create magical moments even if Sleeping or The Call don't arrive anytime soon.

And if there's one thing I want to teach my son, it's exactly that: don't live your life waiting for the next thing; live your life embracing the present thing. The next thing will happen soon enough--and usually once you stop calculating exactly when.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Long View

It had been over a month since I'd been to the Fulford Bowls Club--a collection of men over 65 who play indoor lawn bowling. (And one 30-year old American.) Life has been pretty hectic lately, with Tyler fighting cold after cold, sleeping through the night a thing of legend and lore, and allergy attacks gathering around me like I'm a never-ending supply of sticky notes for a highly organized person.

So attending the Thursday night bowling just didn't make the list of Must Do in Order to Survive.

But this past Thursday, I attended again.

Ten years ago, I ran the London Marathon with my oldest brother, Christopher. By mile 20, the two of us were Jell-O men, stumbling forward under the weight of gravity and lunacy, in equal parts. Walking into Bowls last Thursday, my legs felt similarly. I wanted to keel over a few times--or at least just bowl from a chair.

But as I looked around, I felt heartened. So many older men welcomed me back. Told me they missed me. We shook hands. Talked about the weather. Talked about the wars they had fought in fifty, sixty years ago. Talked about bowls.

Always about bowls.

Ah, good wood there, mate!

Just ease up to the Jack. Bring it straight round there.

Oh, ay! That's a Yorkshireman's delight right there.

Every time down the green fake-lawn mat, these older men smiled with joy at the smallest attempt, the closest call, the possible point.

The thrill. Even of indoor lawn bowling.

And I was struck by something my soul was in desperate need of: the long view.

I talked with Ken, one of the men who landed on the beaches at Normandy when he was only 18 years old as a conscript of the British Army. He was paid twelve pence a day. By contrast, American soldiers during World War II were paid the equivalent of four pounds a week. Ken was making 84 pence a week. And he served at the invasion, then for two years in Palestine during terrible battles there. In both places, he was wounded.

Now, Ken smiles with ease. He jokes. He laughs.

Ken has survived. He has taken the long view of life, realizing that we pass through immeasurable difficulty and confusion and fear and sometimes horror, but somehow, we survive. And when we do, we keep on walking the path that falls before our feet.

I talked with Tony, who described how his four-year old daughter (now 39) would wake up screaming night after night after night. For six months. He and his wife had just had another baby, and between the four-year old screaming, the newborn with terrible colic, Tony and his wife had zero sleep. Literally. I watched Tony's face as he recalled the time.

"How did you make it through?" I ask, wanting to glean some kind of wisdom for our own sleep trouble with Tyler of late.

Tony shook his head, looked at me, and smiled. "The thing is, our daughters are beautiful human beings. You just have to love them through the hard stages and remember that you might always know what the hard stages are about, but they pass." Then, Tony smiled and patted me on the back.

The long view.

During the eight o' clock tea break, I talked with Henry, who lives and breathes bowls now, as a seventy-year old man. His face rose and fell like an ocean of glee as he described the five Bowling Clubs of which he is a part. The different match-ups, the visiting teams, what bowls means to him and how it gives him a place to belong.

And I couldn't help but think, here's a seventy-year old man, and he has passion and joy. He looks forward to waking up each day, playing bowls almost every night. He;s not mourning his past, regretting the past 69 years. He's living his 70th.

The long view.

Walking back from St. Oswald's Church Hall at nine o' clock with the wind whipping cold across my ears, hands, all I could think, over and over, was the long view.

I am often so accustomed to contemplating the short view. What is happening now? What if this or that circumstance doesn't work out? What if this hard stage lasts forever?

Such are questions that the vocabulary of the Long View doesn't know or acknowledge.

In bowls, you might have an incredible turn: your ball might land square next to the Jack, lean against it like there's nothing in the world that will take that point away from you. But then another player gets up and knocks your ball completely off the mat. Your point is gone. Lost.

Alternately, you may bowl a ball that is as far away from the Jack as ice from fire. But then another player takes a turn and inadvertently slices your ball, knocks it square next to the Jack. One point.

You never know. The game changes moment by moment. Like life. And you can't play by giving so much power to each turn that you lose the thread of the game.

You can't live by lending so much significance to every circumstance that you lose the narrative of your own arc.

It's what the men at Bowls are teaching me. It's what I am slowly learning to do--slowly learning how to see. The Long View doesn't throw away the moments, nor does it anxiously plan and prepare for the future. Instead, it simply approaches the present with open hands, receives it, but does not allow any present moment to crush or signify the worth of existence. The worth of a life is much more valuable than any one thing, much more authentic than any sound bit, no matter how treacherous or beautiful.

Because what is most miraculous about our lives of it all is this: the story. It's not the sentence that decides our fate, nor the chapter. These are but a part of the narrative. The story as a whole is what matters. The mistakes I have made before, the patterns of fear I may have allowed to beat in unison with my heart--these do not signify the substance of the novel of my life. Nor yours.

The Long View tells us to wait and see. Keep living. Keep going. Keep bowling. The next time down the lawn mat, we may just end up with an incredible bowl, one that we would have missed had we been caught lamenting our last turn.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Writing with Enthusiasm

Say that something's in the air: the changing of seasons, exhaust from the cars, baby gifts to the world as strollers (aka buggies) whirl past our little home on Lesley Avenue. Whatever the case, enthusiasm has been my best friend lately.

There are those days when the writing feels hard to begin. When e-mail seems a lot more exciting, or easier, and reworking that MG manuscript or picture book idea for the 21st time doesn't doesn't seem to possess the YES! that it sometimes does.

This past year in England, though, writing has become more of a Show Up endeavor. Specifically, this process of writing not by emotion but by will entails two parts:

1. Show up.
2. Write.

The more I show up at the computer each morning, afternoon, or night (depending on Tyler's sleep schedule), the more the Emotion, the Inspiration, and the YES! decide to join me. In other words, once those Lovely Three start to learn, hey, this guy's going to write his brains and heart out no matter what, it's like they decide, Okay, well, if he's that loyal, let's go give the guy some company.

And lately, enthusiasm has been pounding through my heart and fingers--even when I haven't recently poured myself a cup of strong-beyond-belief coffee.

Take today, for instance. After dropping Tyler off at pre-school this afternoon, I came home and went straight up to the computer. Before I checked e-mail--always the culprit that sucks time like a Hepa-Filter-Super-Powered-Vacuum-Cleaner--I opened up my MG work-in-progress, Fortress (about a Muilsim boy, a Jewish girl, a Christian owner of an old, falling-apart movie theater, a Grandmother with Alzheimer's who, only at three a.m., is struck coherent and relates a story about York, England from 1198 that involves King Richard the First, Robin Hood, the Crusades, and a little girl named Liljiana who loves flowers).

I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.

I wrote like my characters were no longer characters. As though the letters of my keyboard were very, very tiny orange lifesaving floats that I had to furiously press repeatedly to get them to reach the characters but then--

Oh no!

Something would inevitably happen and my characters had to find out how to deal with the new storm, the new joy, the new complexity.

All that to say, this afternoon, writing was not writing. Writing was living for a group of people whom I could watch being created by fingers that moved across the keyboard that were not my own.

I wish every writing day could be like today. But the ones that are not hold their own beauty, their own excitement. (Even if that excitement only happens to be a single line that is made right after forty attempts at the sucker.)

But man, I sure an grateful for days like today: when emotion and will mix and create one heck of a little baby.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


We cut our fingernails,
Peel back the sleep from our eyes.

We pull the stray hairs off,
Watch them fall.

Crooked eyes make for
The straightest disguise:

We wear the face of humanity--
Our imperfect noises, ideas, cries.

In the face of despair,
We turn our tired eyes towards


However dark our lives,
We rise.

Against all logic,
all fear,
all confusion,
all despair.

We rise like rain
That bounces off rock:

Too bold too stay,
Too strong to remain.

Made for more than this,
More than superficial bliss,
We rise.

And while we stand,
The crooked of our pain remains,
But the straight of the sun dances
Like it's new again.

Like it's piercing holes in

Like the Nothing that we
Worshipped was a sham.

(I wrote this poem while listening to the following song on YouTube over and over, and over and over, and over and over. And again. Hold Us Together by Matt Maher

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Gruffalo and Pees! (Or, Notes on Getting a Toddler Home While Also Realizing You're Not Realizing The Words That are Actually Coming Out of Your Mouth)

Today, Tyler and I made the trek into the city center to go to the Dinosaur Museum. In reality, its official name is the Yorkshire Museum, which sounds a lot more formal and considerably more dull. So, we've taken to calling it by our own nomenclature.

It was the first day of only slight drizzle which then fading to a Zero Tolerance policy of rain in the late morning. After three days of staying within a five minute radius of home, we had to take the chance and walk the forty-five to the center.

Tyler did puzzles and we watched an endlessly still wolf eating a bunny (poor rabbit--but the little guy is never actually fully eaten, which makes explaining to Tyler, "No, no, the wolf is just high-fiving the bunny with his paw and he's actually smiling, not growling" a lot easier. Once Tyler turns three in a couple of weeks, I may have to add a bit more reality to the scene, but hey, you're only two once. There'll be time enough to learn about wolves and bunnies a bit later, right?). 

We also built a few Roman towers that resembled those who once lived in York a thousand years ago. We looked at reconstructions of dinosaur skeletons. We learned our weight in dinosaur-scale: Tyler has recently graduated from a microvenator to a domiceiomimus; and I have remained a Velicaraptor. We played a touch-screen dinosaur game where we learned that Rob Owen came up with the actual name dinosaur and that a T Rex has a very, very, very, infinitesimally small brain.

Afterwards, running around in the massive museum gardens, we noted leaves, prickers, thorns, and nettles (alternately called prickers or thorns). We ran back inside for Tyler to do a poop in the immaculately cleaned Dinosaur Museum bathrooms. (One of the many other reasons I love bringing Tyler to the Dinosaur Museum.)

We ate a couple of samosas purchased at 79p a piece, and then meandered our way through the city and back home.

Once we reached the final five minutes--the long sidewalk that leads to Lesley Avenue--Tyler announced that he had to pee. Announcing a pee-need for Tyler is akin to a sportscaster calling a ballgame and announcing a grandslam. It's no small thing. It's something the world needs to know about.

And so we began to run. But Tyler soon noticed a yellow-berry bush. He stopped. He was intrigued. I wanted to salvage the sidewalk (and perhaps a some dignity) and get home to the potty (or at least our backyard).

We had planned to watch the DVD version of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's masterful book The Gruffalo when we got home. (An incredibly kind gift from Tyler's Aunt Megan and Uncle Matt, Cousin Jacob and Cousin Ava in Texas.) We were both thrilled. How can one not love The Gruffalo?

And so it was that I found myself attempting to hurry Tyler along by yelling with glee the following phrase: "Let's get home quick and watch The Gruffalo and do pees!  Come on! The Gurffalo and Pees!"

And even though I am a thirty-year old man, and even though I do have some sense (however small) of decorum, something about the words felt right. Magical. Fun. Us.

We made it home; we peed; we watched The Gruffalo. We smiled.

Monday, October 10, 2011

After Illness

The thing is, there's no way around it. Even though we plan our lives to completely evade it as much as possible, we can't.

No matter how much money we try and insulate ourselves with, bam! It's there like mud after rain.

No matter how many packets of Vitamin C powdery-fizzy goodness we mix into our waters, or how many super-healthy-eating cookbooks and fitness guides we buy with titles like Become a Super Human Android in Five Easy Steps While Eating Only Chocolate Only Through Your Nose, it's there.

It is.

No matter, either, if we stayed inside, never got wet, never touched another human being even. It's still there. We're going to get it.

Illness. Colds. Flu. Diarrhea. Vomiting. The whole gamut.

I started to come to peace with this reality when I began teaching seventh graders. I caught everything they had--and man, they had it all. It seemed every week I was coming home with a new variation on the age-old cold.

Now that I am a home-dad, it seems playgroups and playdates in York, England carry those determined bacteria just as confidently as do public schools in New England.

Tyler has just fought off his third bout with something. Jen and I have stopped trying to label each successive cold. Instead, we've tried to love him through it, help him see that it will pass, put vapor rub under his chin, hold him through the coughing fits, and let him watch as many movies as he wants.

(Meanwhile, we steel ourselves for the undeniable fact: we're next.)

But the thing about realizing that we're all going to get sick is this: after illness comes health. Most mornings, we wake up and start our days. But after illness we wake up and feel like high-fiving the post carrier, doing a flip down the stairs, and eating our bowls of cereal while singing the Hallelujah chorus through every bite--milk spraying, Cheerios flying free.

We get better. Colds leave. Flu hitchhikes out of town. Fevers drop. Coughing stops. Vomiting ceases. Diarrhea slows. It passes.

During my most recent battle with a vomiting-inducing-cold of some strain or other, I sat on the bathroom floor, clutching my stomach with one hand, the toilet with the other. Preparing to retch for the 11th time in two hours (no hyperbole, really).

Tyler was asleep, and Jen was there with me for moral support. (It hadn't yet made the leap to my lovely wife.) I looked up at Jen when there was a break in the vomiting traffic. "I can't do this anymore."  Then I took a breath, and then I vomited again.

Jen's reply was as true as true as true: "Yes, you can babe. It's going to pass. I know it's awful, but it will stop and you'll feel better."

And that's the thing. It stops. The better comes.

None of us like to vomit or feel like our heads are exploding or like someone is gleefully sticking their fingers up into our nostrils and poking around trying to find the valve marked MUCUS RELEASE! But we all love the moments when it clears, when we can breathe, eat, laugh, feel what good is, again.

So I'm really only regurgitating here when I write that wisdom is all about--or at least a little about--finding a way to hold onto the it will end! during the it's hurting!

In our illnesses, yes, but also in our work, in our writing, in our relationships, in our wounds, in our confusions. No pain has the power to wield a full attack forever. It stops. Somehow, in some way, it gives up. And what remains are not the trails of bacteria and germs and messy clothes and broken relationships. No. What remains is the way we've grown through the pain. The way we've learned just a little more about love.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Sweeping the kitchen floor,
Washing dishes,
Picking pasta remains off my bare feet:
Singing "The Eye of the Tiger."

A new kind of tiger.
A new kind of eye.