Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Being a 32-Year-Old Paperboy-Man-Dad-Writer-Teacher

Exactly twenty-two years ago I earned the first job of my life: I would deliver 18 newspapers to our neighbors on Alcott Drive and nearby Brewster Road in Windsor, Connecticut for the now-defunct Journal Inquirer. [Note: even though I often delivered the papers later than required, I don't think I played any hand in the newspaper offices shutting down ten years later).

I was ten years old. I was excited. After all, I'd be making my very own money for the first time, necessarily precipitating (and sustaining) the momentous occasion of being able to ride my bike to the local gas station and purchase obscene amounts of candy without asking my mom for money. In the life of a ten-year old, this is huge.

In the life of a thirty-two year old? Not so huge.

In fact, kind of small. Tiny, rather. Miniscule. Microcosmic. Shameful?

So three weeks ago, I got a phone call from the corner store near the home we rent in York, England. Two and a half years ago, when we first made the leap to give away all our possessions, leave jobs, switch roles, and relocate across the Atlantic Ocean (how's that for subtle, slow change?) I saw a sign in the window of this corner store. The sign said BOYS AND GIRLS NEEDED FOR PAPER ROUTES. But we were newly expatriated, broke, confused, and I was slowly realizing that thinking along the lines of quick-book publication-to-sustain-family-making-crazy-leap wasn't exactly a healthy, sane, reasonable, or in any way bright way to think about life.

So, while we figured things out [ahem, continue to do so] and while I enjoyed being a stay-at-home father and writer, I saw the need for a little [ahem: microcosmic] money to help the cause. I figured I could deliver the newspapers before Tyler woke in the mornings and still be ready to go for a day of Lollipop walks, riding swings on various playgrounds, Finding-dog-poopies-walks, and endless reading of truly delightful picture books. [note: picture books are divine. All books are divine. but picture books are especially divine because my son and I both appreciate their awesomeness at the same exact moment.]

The thing is, the corner store never called back.

Until two and a half years later. At which point, Jen and I had talked at length about what God's been teaching us along this seemingly-crazy journey, numerous books have been written and revised and written and revised with great passion and hope and (yes, sometimes) gritting of the teeth. At which point I'd read some of the best novels of my life (Wuthering Heights, Okay for Now, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Middlemarch), and at which point Brene Brown's incredible research and challenge in Daring Greatly had come to present itself to Jennifer and I.

In choosing to do something that doesn't make sense and doesn't follow the arc of what's expected, we--all of us--open ourselves up to criticism. We open ourselves up to the notions that maybe we're making a big mistake. That maybe we're making problems for other people, messing with the Status Quo when the Status Quo would much rather be left alone, thank you very much.

Jen and I have certainly encountered those moments where we'd look at each other and wonder, "Did we really need to give away all that awesome stuff? Remember the drying machine! The DRYING MACHINE!" And during these crisis-type moments, we usually did what any sane, wise couple would do: we scrounged for loose change and bought a bag of Cool Ranch Doritoes and a beer to split. Or, rather, we closed our eyes and prayed, and challenged and encouraged one another, and reminded ourselves that anything different or new isn't easy. It's not supposed to be.

And usually after those moments of crisis, we'd come to another realization: we don't want it to be easy. We want to grow. We want to learn. We want to see life from a different perspective. We want to consider totally different narratives--both for our own tiny family, and for the larger family of which we're all a part. We want to crack the shell of those words Jesus said--love your neighbor as you love yourself--and touch and taste what's inside. We want to ask why not? more than we ask why? And more than anything else, we want to learn what hope looks like when its face is pushed into the dirt. [note: Hope's face doesn't have to be ground into the dirt, does it? let's not get too carried away.]

And so, on my first day of being a 32-year-old paperboy-man-dad-writer-teacher, I loaded thirty newspapers into a brightly reflective yellow bag on which the words THE DAILY TELEGRAPH were splayed. I walked the route that first morning with a sense of hope, even fun. And then, pushing the crosswalk button after I'd finished, I saw a teenager finishing her route too. She even had a matching reflective yellow bag like I did!

Cool! Thinking we'd have that instant job-sharing connection, I smiled wide and tossed a hearty, "Morning!" her way.

And that's when it suddenly descended: the shame. She smirked first, then looked towards the ground in utter disbelief. I realized then what I must have looked like to her: a guy in his thirties with a stubbly beard working as a....newspaper carrier? For real?

And there are moments when all of our lofty goals and assertions sometimes turn back towards us and become our accusers. Moment even when our dreams turn to face us, lift their fingers, and say, You really thought so? For real?

Did we really think coming to England two-and-a-half years ago with no money and changing family roles and knowing no one was going to be easy?


Did we think it was going to be as hard as it felt that particular morning?


But then something amazing happened. Something magical. Something miraculous. (Usually, these kinds of events happen just after the moment when everything you've fought for and believed in tends to suggest that Possibility has taken a permanent vacation).

It snowed. It snowed massively, so that a week into my new paper-route job, I was led to drag a cart with triple-sized Saturday morning papers from door-to-door amidst freezing temperatures. Was I grumpy? yes. was I wondering what it was all for? Yes.

Until I looked back along the sidewalk and my wife and my son were walking towards me. I mean my wife and my son. There they were, holding hands, walking towards the third door of the route, twenty-seven papers left to go. My four-year-old boy grabbed that metal cart alongside my own hand, and my wife grabbed the other side. "We'll do it together today," Jen told me, with a look in her eyes that blew every notion of failure or mockery or impossibility to smithereens.

And that Saturday, we did the paper route as a family. We dragged that cart through the ice and the snow of the roads, yes, but also through the ice and the snow of my own heart.

Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly that when shame strikes we need to say in reply. "This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are no the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame." God says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, "My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness." And my four-year old boy says, "We can do it, Daddy! Come on!"

The beauty of all of these words is that they are not results-driven. They're not about the end product of success or failure--but rather they're about the singular decision to get up and keep going.

Three years ago, I used to wake up and put on an ironed shirt and tie, ironed trousers, and grab a leather satchel filled with student essays and notes for important upcoming meetings. I used to have a binder with PhD coursework for a program at Boston College.

Today, this morning, I did a paper route. I passed by teenagers who aren't much different that the ten-year-old boy that still, sometimes, makes his voice known inside of me.

The trajectory of this character arc could, possibly, be markedly seen as failure. If this life were the stock market? Forget about it.

But when I examine what this experience has been about--what's it's taught me and my wife and our son--there's no way I would trade these last two and a half years for anything. Because, see, there are many other moments like that snowy Saturday morning. There are so many other moments when everything seemed lost or impossible, and then Hope would break through and prove that despair and criticism and fear have no permanent place. They're squatters.

With six months to go on this crazy England journey, I think it's possible to characterize one of the biggest lesson I have been learning in a single line: what matters more than anything else is the way we embody love towards one another. It's more important than all our credentials, all our achievements, and all our significance.

Whatever you face in your life right now, may you face it with the quiet certainty that the love within you is stronger than the circumstances outside of you. And if you need a reminder of this truth, I highly suggest a stint as a 32-year-old paper carrier.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

One True thing from Anna Staniszewski: You Are Who You Are

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. She was named the 2006-2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the 2009 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. Currently, Anna lives outside of Boston with her husband and their adopted black Labrador, Emma.
When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. Her first novel, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, was released by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in November 2011. The sequel, My Epic Fairy Tale Fail, is scheduled for March 1, 2013. And look for Anna’s first picture book, Dogosaurus Rex, coming from Henry Holt in Spring 2014. Visit her at
Here, Anna shares her One True Thing about becoming comfortable with who she really is, and why that decision profoundly unleashes creative potential and authentic capacity to pursue one's vocation. 

You Are Who You Are
By Anna Staniszewski

The main thing I've learned about life is that you are who you are for a reason. Now, I think thirteen-year-old me would greatly disagree with that statement. She would say that being a painfully shy, nerdy kid was the worst thing ever, and that there could be no good reason for the universe making her that way. 

But I've come to realize that there was a good reason. If I hadn't been shy and bookwormy, I would have never become a writer. I wouldn't have years of embarrassment and loneliness to draw on, and hundreds of amazing books to inspire me. Ultimately, I needed to be me in order to have stories to tell. 

I grew up wishing I could be like other people, wishing I had the right hair or clothes or lunchbox, but all along I was being trained for what would come later. I was toughening up and learning, all in the quest of becoming the me I was meant to grow into. 

Nerdy Anna, meet Author Anna. I think you'll find that you two have a lot in common.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

One True Thing from Alexis Hire: Good Exists

I was fortunate to have Alexis Hire as a student in one of my 7th grade English classes three years ago. As a student who loved creative writing, who treated everyone in the school with compassion and dignity, and who always fought to understand the authenticity in situations and people, Alexis inspired many people--students and teachers alike. Now, as a sophomore, she continues her love of writing, teaching, and inspiring others. So I am very excited to share One True Thing from a past student who is a hard worker, a compassionate citizen, and a believer in the beauty of hope.

Good Exists
By Alexis Hire

Joy. Happiness. Cheer. In today’s society, where we have very real knowledge of slavery, poverty, and violence it is hard to feel these emotions sometimes. Our joy, our happiness, our cheer, it can be taken away from you in a second after receiving bad news. We become easily aggravated, upset, or mad at someone for the slightest thing. Sometimes, it isn’t even anyone’s fault; one person just becomes the tip of the iceberg for the day and you lash out at them because you are so sick and tired of everything going wrong. Admit it; we’ve all had one of those days. Face it; we’ve all had many of those days.

I have been working with children for a little over three years now. Just about every day I am doing something that revolves around children. Mondays, I teach 6th grade religious ed, Wednesdays, I’m preparing fundraisers to raise money for children going through bone marrow transplants, Thursdays I’m mentoring my 5th grade “little sister” for Big Brother Big Sister, and Sundays I teach 4th grade religious ed. Any other day is up for grabs for any or all of my 10 step-nieces and nephews I gained from my mother’s marriage two years ago. 

I won’t lie; it is frustrating working with all of these children so often in my life. They don’t always listen and things almost never go as I planned them to. I get angry with them and I have even gotten to the point where I want to just walk out of the room and scream as loud as I possibly can for as long as possible. They know it, I know it. Anyone who has ever worked with or has children of their own probably knows that feeling too. The thing is that I have no greater joy than when I am with these children. I have never laughed as hard or smiled more brightly than when one of these children says or does something that only children could get away with. You know that saying, “Out of the mouths of babes”? Yeah, that’s pretty much my life.

I am a sophomore in high school. I am in a class where we talk about war and cultural groups that are being destroyed because of humanity’s selfishness. We talk about mistakes that have been made and the consequences other people have suffered. I have seen pictures of children who are suffering, watched movies that show mothers screaming, begging not for their own life to be saved, but for their children. I have studied the worst of humanity. We have talked about it and tried to make sense of it. There have been times when I’ve wanted to cry because of the hatred that I have seen/read about.  It is hard, knowing this material and then having to carry on with my life as a white, middle class American girl. I know that there are people suffering, but I know that at least for now, there’s nothing I can do. And it sucks.

Maybe that’s why I love working with kids so much. My life hasn’t been nearly as bad as some other people I know, or as many other people in the world, but it hasn’t been easy either. It sure isn’t the life I would have chosen for myself, that’s for sure.  When I see people being kind to one another, choosing the hard path to just be nice when it’s so easy to be aggravated and nasty to each other, that’s where I get my inspiration to teach, to mentor. That’s where I find my strength to keep going in this world. Because that’s the kind of person I want to be. I want my students and my “little sister”, and my step nieces and nephews to know that there are still good people in this world. I want to set the example for them that they do not have to only see bad. That there is good, too. Because there is. 

I find the good in the children I spend my time with. Sometimes with people I work with or my peers, but mostly with the children I love so much. In my life, one true thing that I have learned is to never give up hope. I know that I can’t travel around the world to help people. I know that I can’t travel around the country to help people. But I can do what I can. I can do what I’m good at. I can be an example of the good that is still in this world and show people that kindness and patience do exist. That sixteen year olds that want to spend their time with children exist. That good exists. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Novel Ideas (Titles Included!)

Today's post is especially for writers--but it may also be of use to those struggling with how to find exactly the right words for certain amorphous emotions. Sometimes, we all get struck. The idea well runs dry, or the idea well runs dry, or we just feel like the idea well runs dry. For times like that, this post is essential. Already, this post has been hailed by major newspapers and magazines and also by international movie festival circles as "Pure Awesomeness Sliced Into Delightfully Thin Slices and Then Packaged as Deli Meat But Given Free of Charge."

Bono has called this post, "Mesmerizing."

The rest of the U2 band called this post, "Deeply Mesmerizing."

Michiko Kakutani has written, "Now that I have explored Luke's post for the thirty-second time, I am convinced that I have simply found the most perfect piece of English prose ever crafted."

Ryan Gosling was overheard shouting, "Yes! It's the one. I found it!"

Without further ado, then, here are NOVEL IDEAS (Titles Included!). Grab any one of these ideas, and go write that book you always knew you had inside of you.


Title: Moon's Holiday

Premise: The Moon (as protagonist) becomes angry at the Sun's constant need to be "the source of all energy" and decides once and for all that he [note: possible angle of added tension if the moon is female while the sun is a patriarchal male figure] will take a holiday. After this occurs (which happens to be forty thousand years in the future), humankind must endure the destructive consequences of this holiday: no more frozen yogurt, constant replaying of old Burt Reynolds movies on every television channel, and the mysterious disappearance of all suspenders everywhere.


Title: You Got Me, Babe

Premise: Conny and Sher are two people madly in love, but then they each begin growing a strange antennae from their heads. At first, each thinks the other is the only one with this strange metallic device poking out from their hair. But then, in Chapter 40, they finally look in a mirror and realize IT'S GROWING ON BOTH OF THEM. (Ends with this huge reveal and then leads into Book Two of the trilogy, where more stuff happens.)


Title: Whether 'Tis Nobler in the Mind to Suffer the Slings and Arrows

Premise: This novel can pretty much be about anything. Because its title is taken from Shakespeare. And titles taken from Shakespeare are awesome. They rock.


Title: Beach, Magnifying Glass, Condensation

Premise: An avid beach-walker finds a strange coin one morning on her beach walk. She leaves it on the nightstand later that night when she goes to bed. In the middle of the night the coin wakes her up by doing historical (and mind-bendingly accurate) impersonations of famous figures--Winston Churchill, George Bush (both) and other famous people that you can insert at will. As the novel progresses (and tension rise), the woman (who is named Samantha) must decide whether she will maintain her loyalty to the Talking Coin and resist what society tells her (That she is psychotic) or whether she will undergo therapy and intensive hospitalization.

Also, at the end of every chapter of the book, Samantha makes various smoothies. Each time, she uses different varieties of fruits, milk, yogurt, and sometimes even raisins and / or dried cranberries.


Title: Yes, You Know That I am Talking To You

Premise: This book is told int eh second person. The novel centers around an elite group of army intelligence personnel (retired) who are convinced of a conspiracy plot to overthrow the current government. After lots of intrigue, wrongful-accusations, and unnecessary violence, the crew of underdogs finally prove the conspiracy, but just as they do so, the President orders for them to be summarily executed. Can they prove their innocence and resist the Covert Executive Order and save America before it's too late?

*Note: throughout the novel, many people will say (during dialogue): "Yes, you know that I am talking to you," which readers will begin to think of as a refrain. Then, this will also (somehow) be the last line of the book. And there will be a secret page that is folded into the hardcover copy of the book, which, when readers find it and pull it out, will say, Yes, You Know That I am Talking To You (which will really freak out readers and probably help generate interest for a movie deal.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Buster Nose Shares the Honest Truth about Shame, Cynicism, Fear, and Defeat...

Last Fall, Tyler fell absolutely in love with Anthony Browne's magnificent Willy the Champ. Browne, author of some incredible picture books, created a persona that Tyler and I began drawing over and over and over again: a rather large, nefarious, overwhelmingly-overpowering character: Buster Nose.

Today, Buster Nose finally came clean and shared some thoughts on what his mask of bravado, fear, and shame really were. Tyler and I decided we'd better share our rendition of Buster's confession:

Monday, January 14, 2013

One True Thing from Dr. Donna Robinson: There Are Always Two Sides to a Story

As a college student, one of the activities I remember enjoying most was an assignment I had in Dr. Donna Robinson's Methods of Teaching Secondary English course. In a group with three other students, we were charged with reading Parker Palmer's highly inspiring and deeply vulnerable book The Courage to Teach and then creating a presentation which entailed a highly interactive, engaging, and instructive approach. My group members and I tried to do what Dr. Robinson had always encouraged us to do--to think of how we'd fare with what we shared inside the corridors of a real high school. What would engage our students? What would interest and instruct them?

And so, we decided upon sock puppets. And a song in rhyming couplets set to the rhythm of a highly popular Billboard chart-topper of the time. We sang our song (or, more precisely, the sock puppets sang and we merely orchestrated) and I remember looking up at Dr. Robinson and seeing the seed of a smile grow. After many courses with Dr. Robinson more than a decade ago, and teaching myself in three different school settings, I have continued to remember her great zeal for making learning active, engaging, and rigorous for students. The mantra that comes to mind when I think of Dr. Robinson is, undoubtedly, the resolve to practice what one preaches. In every one of Dr. Robinson's lessons and lectures, she consistently embodied that ideal--she modeled for us what effective, engaged, and inspired teaching looks like. And I am deeply grateful for her passion, her enthusiasm, and her wisdom.

So I am very happy to share Dr. Robinson's One True Thing today.

There Are Always Two Sides to a Story
Donna Robinson, Ed.D

Growing up in a small rural town in Maine I had to make my own excitement. It was the only way it was likely to happen. When I was eight, one of my favorite positions for doing this was lying on the floor with my ear to the cold, linoleum floor.

My Dad was a revered Baptist pastor who was known throughout the little town for his compassionate counseling abilities.  Many an evening those in need of his countrified wisdom sat crouched close together in his crowded study - directly below my bedroom.

The ones I liked best were the couples that came in screaming at the outset – I didn’t have to strain to hear as much as with the quiet folks. Inevitably, Dad made a firm and unequivocal pronouncement to the loud combatants. “We are going to hear each of you thoroughly and without interruption. That means that first one of you will explain your journey to my doorstep and then the other will do so – without interruption! We are going to hear both sides of the story.”

Over numerous years I listened to some pretty interesting stories and I learned a great deal about human nature – and, no, I was never caught, nor did I ever speak of what I had ascertained. I knew the gig would be up if I did.

One solidified observation of those counseling sessions stood out above all others. There really were two sides to every story. Just when I finished hearing a woman tell her side of the perceived argument and I was certain her husband was at fault, my Dad would calmly turn to the man and say, “OK, let’s start at the beginning and hear your perspective.”  And then an ever-expanding web of complexity began to grow.

As a wife, mother, friend, middle school teacher and professor I have found that learning to not rush to judgment has been the outgrowth of those days spent listening on the floor.

Both children and adults deserve the respect of being heard completely – with no interruptions or hasty conclusions.  One true thing that has permeated my many days in the company of my human companions on this journey is that there are always two sides to a story. An honest writer always remembers this when portraying characters and experiences and outside the realm of fiction, I see the need to act on this as I intersect with those around me.