A Tale of Two Bombs

For my applications to MFA in Creative Writing Programs, I have to submit both a personal statement and a writing sample. I wanted to share with you the personal statement I wrote as to why I want to pursue the MFA.

One of the schools to which I am applying is Southern New Hampshire University (which is a 100% online program). They asked me to address the following: explain how someone else’s story – such as a novel, movie, or a personal account – has impacted your life and influenced your drive to become a writer.

Here’s what I had to say:

I was twenty-one years old in the spring of 1996. I had been working on campus in the Office of International Programs, a job I loved because it was all about studying abroad and travel. Tucked at the back of our department were two smaller offices that belonged to faculty in the English department. While I had never taken a class from Dr. T., she was someone who was gregarious and often engaged me in conversation because she knew I loved to read.

I graduated that May and as a gift, my parents allowed me to audit a two-week study abroad program to Italy. On my last day of work, Dr. T. pressed a mass-market paperback into my hands and told me it would rock my world.

I started reading it on the plane to Milan and was immediately engrossed. So much so that I stayed up as night bled quickly into the next morning to find out what happened next. I read it on trains, and at night in my hotel rooms in Florence, Rome, and Siena. Stunning art and architecture surrounded me by day and a great story, well-told, filled my nights.

Finally, in Venice, I finished it. I was sharing a room with two other women and they were both sound asleep. But I had been so completely electrified and inspired by that book that I wanted to jump from bed, fling open the shutters and shout into the darkness of the city: “You must stop what you are doing immediately and read this book!”

The title? A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

Dr. T. was right, my world had indeed been rocked to the foundations. I had always toyed with the idea of writing fiction seriously, but in the moment I finished that book something shifted. I was so astonished by the way Irving gathered together plot threads. Then he didn’t just neatly tie them together at the end, he wove them into a fuse that exploded a bomb in my mind.

If someone so unknown to me as John Irving could have that much impact upon me with a novel, I knew then and there that I wanted to do that. I wanted in.

By nature, life mostly does not go according to plan. I went on to get a second bachelor’s degree, but during my time at the University of Minnesota I took many literature and creative writing classes. I loved them as much as the classes in my major.

In 1999 I had two bachelor’s degrees (one in Anthropology and one in Art History). I knew plainly and painfully that I was neither truly motivated nor brilliant enough to pursue an advanced degree in either subject. While I loved both disciplines, it was the stories they told that held the most fascination for me. 

I did write, but not steadily. I knew I had the requisite talent to create stories and novels, and the muse occasionally got me by the throat and I would write furiously for a couple weeks. But I did not have the dedication nor the drive to create a portfolio in my early twenties.

Even so, I knew that books and literature were it for me. So, I did the only thing I could think of that would surround me with stories that paid well and had health insurance: I became a librarian. It was practical and it helped to lull me into a false sense of being part of the literary world.

It worked for a while, but I knew deep down it wasn’t enough. 

By my mid-thirties I desperately wanted to write something. I craved it. But I had no ideas. I started looking at mythology, thinking I could retell a story from the Greek pantheon. Then, on March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm, I was scrolling through a web page on the nine muses when I hit on the idea that would become my first novel. Like the explosion that had been detonated by A Prayer for Owen Meany, this too packed lots of gunpowder. I was a live wire, smoking and snapping with the charge I just received.

I was so excited that evening as I went for a walk with my husband. I gamboled around him like a baby goat, telling him about the story I was planning. Details and plot points flew at me in a rush. And with that second bomb, I started writing. Really writing.

I wrote the first draft of my first novel in twelve weeks. I have written three other novels since and have ideas for three more on the back burner. I have a steady, faithful writing habit I have sustained for ten years. Only once, after my mother died after a protracted illness, was I unable to write for grief. But I eased back in by writing flash fiction and working up to short stories. I even got some of them published.

My reasons to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing are twofold. The first is I want to be surrounded with writing in my day job–I want to teach at the college level. The MFA will get me there. The second, and most important, is I simply want the experience. I want to indulge and immerse myself in a program that will engage my critical thinking again and make me a better writer. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

I have come a long way since that night in Venice when John Irving blew my mind. I now possess the maturity and motivation to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and a portfolio to show for it. I will never forget the gift Dr. T. gave me that day she presented me with that well-worn paperback. A Prayer for Owen Meany cracked me open to the endless possibilities of stories and the devastating effect of great writing.

I want that.

The 28 Year Wait

Last New Year’s Eve my husband and I were at a party at our friends’ house and Fabiana announced at the dinner table that this year for her birthday she was going to get a tattoo. And I immediately piped up with, “Can I come with you?”

I already have a tattoo. I got it in late 1992 when I was 18 years old. I got it on my rib cage just below my left breast. It is your typical cliche: a heart and dagger with a cross behind it. I picked the design out of a book and a woman with long red hair and tattoos of snakes twining down her arms inked it for me. She scared the hell out of me but was very kind and gentle. She even offered a teddy bear for me to cling to if I wanted.

I still like my tattoo and never once regretted getting it. Of course, almost no one ever saw it, me not being the bikini-wearing type of person. It was my own little secret that only a few were privy to.

I went on a study abroad tour when I was 20. We studied for five weeks in Oxford then had a three-week tour of Western Europe by bus. That’s when I first noticed the fleur de lis. A stylized picture of a lily, it was everywhere: all over the churches in France, on the city crest of Florence, everywhere. I liked it. To me it spoke of the history and art and travel that I so desperately loved.

I went back to Italy in 1996, a year later, and was once again suffused with the history and art and love of travel. The fleur de lis was everywhere, constantly reminding me of the things I loved. It was that summer in Florence that I adopted the fleur de lis as my own personal symbol.

I have many representations of the fleur de lis. Earrings, a necklace, a brooch I used to wear on my good winter coat back when I needed one. I had it on glassware, I made a mosaic of one:

It has been a constant in my life. And over the years it has only strengthened. Now, I have even impressed more meaning into this symbol. 

There are three petals. Each petal signifies one of the following: art, history, and travel. And the thing that binds them altogether? Writing. It could not be a more perfect representation of me. I am the fleur de lis and the fleur de lis is me. 

Not that I’m going to start asking people to call me that. Or go by a symbol instead of a name like Prince did for years. It is my totem.

Back to New Year’s Eve. I had not known when Fabiana announced she wanted to get a tattoo for her birthday that she had been announcing this for years and always fell short of going through with it. (She hates needles and pain.) But when I jumped in and offered to go with her she was sort of stuck. Now someone else wanted to share her experience and I guess she didn’t want to disappoint me?

Her birthday is in March and so we made appointments with a really great tattoo artist in Tampa named Adam Dunning with Visionary Tattoo in Tampa. We chose him because Fabiana’s daughter, who has a lot of tattoos really likes him because he’s a fabulous artist and a really nice guy.  

But then COVID-19 hit and everything went to hell.  We had to cancel our appointments because of the stay at home order. But we waited and they opened back up at the beginning of June. Our new appointments were made and they happened last Saturday, June 13th.

Fabiana had to go first or she might not go at all, and I wanted her to do this because she’d been wanting this for a very long time. She was a trooper. She got the clam shell symbol of the pilgrims that walk the road to Santiago de Compostela, because she did just that. She walked however many hundred miles all by herself. It is a reminder to her that she can do anything. Even get a tattoo. She lay on the cot, didn’t move her arm a muscle and did not cry.

My turn next. After Adam had fastidiously cleaned everything he put the stencil on my wrist, I lay down on the cot, and he got started. It stung, but it didn’t really hurt too much. Apparently I have a high tolerance for pain because I didn’t flinch once. I just lay there with my eyes closed and breathed. 

And then it was done. 

I absolutely love it. It means so much to me that I can look down whenever I want and remind myself what matters most in my life. (Besides my husband and my Dad who top the list, of course.)

I chose the inside of my right wrist because I wanted to be able to see it whenever I wanted. I also want the world to see it, and let those interested ask me about it so I can tell them a little bit about who I am. Because in the 28 years between tattoos I no longer feel the need to keep my story a secret. The world can share it with me and I’m fine with that.

I don’t think I’ll get another one. I can’t think of a more perfect representation of who I am. Of course, as we grow and evolve, things do change. I hope to never stop growing, so maybe there will be another symbol in the future that means more to me than this one. But it has stood by me for twenty-four years, so I’m pretty sure it’s okay to set this one in the flesh.

 

 

 

 

My Mom: Jan Nelson

With my mother’s memorial service coming up a week from Friday, I was asked to put together a few words about her for my pastor. Of course, I wrote three pages. But I wanted to share them with you, along with some of the pictures I put together for a photo slideshow which will be shown at the church. Here she is in my own words:

My mama was the sweetest, most gentle heart I’ve ever known. She got that from her mother, Marcy, and her generosity of spirit from her father, Wally. Mom was kind and loving and so accepting of others. It took a lot to make her angry, and when she did get angry it was over pretty quickly.

Underneath that sweet exterior lurked a quick and wicked sense of humor. It’s one of the reasons she loved my father so much, because they were well matched. (Obviously, there were other, major reasons as well, but the fact that they laughed together, even in serious situations, was a gift to their marriage.) She and her friends Pat and Marie could laugh themselves into fits of hysterics and often did when they got together.

Mom loved to travel. The two of us went to London for a week in 1997 – the one and only time she went overseas. She loved every minute of it. We walked everywhere and had aching feet at the end of each day, but we saw so much. We even took day trips to Oxford and Windsor Castle. She made three consecutive scrapbooks to detail our trip.

My parents and I always did a two week vacation in the summer when I was a kid. We would usually go camping somewhere out west and we were fond of the National Parks. Glacier, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Death Valley, Lassen, Sequoia and Rocky Mountain National Parks all saw us at least once, but we revisited our favorites many times. We also explored the beauty of the Canadian Rockies by visiting Banff, Lake Louise, and Waterton Lakes. Even though camping wasn’t her favorite (she didn’t like bugs or wild animals), she went along with it in good humor because it got her out to see the world.

Unfortunately, bugs and wild animals seemed to like her. Mosquitoes flocked to her arms and legs and one time when a June bug flew at her and hit her in the face she literally jumped out of her sandals. And while in Mesa Verde in Colorado, two inquisitive mule deer quietly came up behind her to investigate our campsite while we were washing up after supper. They drove Mom to the safety of the car while they innocently nosed the frying pan.

Mom also loved the North Shore of Lake Superior. She went many times as a kid, usually staying with her family in Halcyon Harbor. But we made quite a few trips ourselves when I was a child. I remember sitting on the rocky shore with her and arguing over who got to read our only copy of Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. She loved Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls, and wandering through the many gift shops that line old Highway 61, plus eating at Sven and Ole’s in Grand Marais, and Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors.

She and Dad had an absolute blast traveling around in their RV. Unfortunately, her health problems made them have to stop after just a year on the road. Her goal was to see all 50 states, and she made 47 of them, missing only Alaska, Hawaii, and West Virginia. She also collected pictures of state capitols and wrote a newsletter called the Roads Scholars that she sent out to family and friends.

She did have a multitude of health problems, but she never complained about them. She bore everything on her small shoulders with grace and fortitude. She had quiet strength that could withstand the most difficult situations. She had a fiercely strong spirit and was determined to beat the odds. In the end, her lungs gave out on her, but she fought all the way. She said she didn’t want to die because she had so many things she still wanted to do.

Mom was gifted with all creative pursuits. She decorated our home beautifully, but also loved scrapbooking, painting, cross stitch, sewing, and needlework of all kinds. Scrapbooking was a particular passion in later years, and she would spend hours slaving over pages of memories. She made two books chronicling my life, one for her sister, one for her best friends Pat and Marie, one for her mother-in-law Eileen, one for Disney, even one specifically for pictures of people wearing silly hats at Disney World. (Yes, she really had enough pictures.) She delighted in putting together colors, layout, pictures and words to create something truly eye-catching and special.

Mom had a few obsessions. Some of these included Disney, picture frames, Disney, soap dishes, Disney, scrapbooking, Disney, Department 56 houses, Disney, Christmas, Disney and Disney. She worked at Disney World for a period of several years and got to indulge that obsession as much as she wanted. She collected pins, Lilo and Stitch memorabilia and quite a few pieces of art from the local artists who worked with her at the Art of Disney. Her time spent at the Art of Disney, a high end art store where you could buy anything from a $5 keychain to a $40,000 painting she discovered she really liked helping people choose the perfect treasure and had a knack for selling.

Mom was really smart. She got very good grades in high school and had an amazing memory and was a quick learner. She loved to read and devoured books voraciously. If she wasn’t occupied with one of her obsessions, you can bet she had a book in her hand. She adored mysteries, fiction, biographies and Harry Potter. She instilled a love of reading in me, leading by example.

She loved art, especially the Impressionists, and loved museums. She liked to write and was quite accomplished at it. She always thought she would have made a good librarian, and was so pleased when I made that my career. She was a bookkeeper and would have made a fantastic accountant if she’d had the chance to go to college. She loved learning of all kinds and was always looking for ways to expand her knowledge of the world, whether it be through books or travel.

In addition to art, she loved music too. Every Easter she got excited because our church service usually ended with the Hallelujah Chorus, in which she loved to participate, and Lorie Line was her go-to Christmas music. We saw her several times in concert. She loved singing in Mount Calvary choir and joined the Disney employee choir which sang at the EPCOT Candlelight Processional. She got to be on stage with Neil Patrick Harris, John Stamos, Eartha Kitt and Phylicia Rashad.

And she was always playing music in the car. When I was still in a car seat, she would strap me in and subject me to large doses of Barry Manilow. I, being an extremely good daughter, took her to see him in Fort Myers a couple of years ago, and was surprised that I knew the words to all but one of the songs, which was in itself a little frightening. But it made her so dang happy it was hard not to enjoy it.

She loved her family. On her father’s side she was the youngest of 25 first cousins. She adored her sister, all her nieces and nephews and their children, and had a special friendship with her cousin Kay. She was proud of her Swedish and Norwegian heritage. She loved her parents fiercely and was devastated when she lost them just six months apart. Being only seven at the time, I didn’t understand the magnitude of her loss. But now I have a very keen understanding of what she went through at just thirty two years of age.

She loved animals. From her collie Chloe, when she was a girl, to my cats Shady and Fingers now, she lavished as much attention on them as they would let her. She loved the softness of fur and animals recognized the gentle spirit that lay within her, and loved her back.

Most of all, I think, she loved my Dad and me. When my husband Kosta joined the family, she gathered him right in and loved him too. We were a tight unit with inside jokes and a rubber chicken that used to get passed to unsuspecting recipients at Christmas. No one has a perfect marriage but as the years passed Mom and Dad settled into the comfortable roles of best friends and soul mates. And yet, they included me in their love so that I never doubted it for a moment.

Mom left us too soon. She didn’t want to go, she wanted to make her 50th wedding anniversary in 2019, and see me be a published author. She wanted to visit Disney again and go to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. She had books to read, and scrapbooks to finish and so much living to do and most of all: people to love. And even though her spirit was strong, her body crumbled away before our horrified eyes. She has left such a large hole in our hearts and knowing that I may have to live half of my life without her is almost too much to bear sometimes. I’ll never see her beautiful eyes again, or feel her soft hand touch my cheek. She was one of my best friends. I’ll never stop missing her and will remember her daily for the rest of my life.

My Kosta

Konstantine-George  Athanasios Karras

Konstantine-George Athanasios Karras

 

Twelve years ago this morning I met the guy above. It was my first day of work at the Naples Branch Library and my supervisor David introduced me to Kosta right by the CD racks. I still remember he wore a red-checked shirt and was very nice and funny.

Did I think immediately I was going to end up married to him? Good heavens, no.

But after about six months of working together we discovered we had things in common: we had both studied archaeology, we both loved to write, we both loved history and art and travel. When he suggested we go out for a beer to talk about writing some more I agreed. We went to McCabe’s and had a beer and talked and talked and talked. We were friends.

After that we went out once a week as friends. We laughed and drank beer and ate burgers and had a great time. We did this for about six months before I was brave enough to take things to the next level. So on January 6, 2006 I invited him over to my place for a home-cooked meal. I made spaghetti and garlic bread and he brought the wine. We watched The Thing from 1951 with James Arness as the monster. I don’t really remember anything about the movie at all because I was so nervous. When the credits rolled I leaned over and kissed him.

He didn’t run screaming, which I took as a good sign. It took him a while to figure out his mind though. At the time he was 49 years old and had pretty much decided he was going to be a permanent bachelor. He was concerned that there were eighteen years between us. But by President’s Day that year he had committed and we never looked back.

Now we write together. We talk about history and art. We travel as much as we can afford. We laugh every day. And yes, there are eighteen years between us but it doesn’t make one whit of difference. We are best friends and that is that.

The only thing I would change about my relationship with my husband would be that I had met him sooner.  I love you, honey. You’re the one for me.