A taste of SIRENS, coming soon

I wanted to provide a quick update on the status of my novel. After four years–which is much shorter in accumulation of actual nap times–I am finally preparing to self-publish SIRENS. But first… I plan to try out a new service called KindleScout. It’s a platform for authors to showcase their never-before-published books, and the reading public helps decide if a book gets published by voting. All that’s displayed will be the book cover, book blurb and a very short excerpt, so it’s kinda like browsing in a book store (remember those?) to decide if you want to buy a book or not. Anyway, selected books win a publishing contract with Amazon, which is pretty awesome for an indie author. Once I upload, I’ll have 30 days to accumulate enough votes to win a contract. Which is hopefully where you come in! I’ll be sharing the link once it’s live, and I would love for you to vote for me. It’s super easy and simply entails clicking a “nominate” button next to my book. It’s a long shot, but hey, why not?

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a brief sample of the book because, of course, you are a person of integrity and must fairly decide if you actually want to nominate me.

This is an excerpt told from the point-of-view of Mello, one of the three main characters. He is one of my favorite characters because he is pretty badass. And he looks like this.

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Excerpt from SIRENS, Rising Tide

by T.L. Zalecki

 

He could see and feel nothing but blackness, as though he was floating in the universe. Dim lights twinkled like dying stars, but he could not tell if it was in his mind of if he was physically a part of the darkness that surrounded him.

“Pass … scaaaalpellll … no, the laaaarger one.”

“Excissssion of the … glaaaand …”

“—ectomy is compleeeete.”

“Yes … doctorrrrr.”

The words sounded garbled and elongated, like they were coming from underwater. No faces to match with the distorted voices. He could tell one was female, almost sultry. The other was male. A tinny clanking sound, like rusty chimes, was barely distinguishable in the background, and low beeps echoed in a syncopated rhythm.

He could not feel pain, but something told him it was there, penetrating him on some deeper level beneath the numbness. His body jiggled here and there in its limp state, and he could feel the pressure of hands prodding and pressing down on him, down inside him. His body was open, exposed. Dread was the only tangible element in his universe. He could see it in the blackness, contracting and expanding like a fourth dimension.

Who was he? What body was he floating away from right now? His identity had detached from himself when he entered the ether, escaped from his mind like a helium balloon. But he could feel it hovering close by. He knew who he was, if he could just … just … think.

Images of a girl undulated hazily in his mind. Someone close, but unknown. Someone lost and then found. Someone with silvery blond hair. Someone … dead. He had come for her. To this strange and cruel universe. He struggled to comprehend, but the confusion was unrelenting.

Garbled words again. Elevated voices. Loud beeps.

“Look at his … levels—”

“Shit, he’s … reinsert the … liver!”

“Doctor … losing him—”

“Cut the—!”

“Too much blood loss!”

“Close him up … Now, dammit!”

His body jerked and twitched as multiple hands shoved him, poked him, threaded him like a piece of cloth. He wanted to open his mouth and scream but nothing could come out. His body was too far away. Then he felt a relaxed sensation, the feeling of falling down, down, down … back to Earth?

The beeping inside the room became louder, blaring. His ears felt as though they’d burst. Then he felt the pain.

“He’s back!”

The voices were clear now.

“Great,” Said a man. His voice sounded far away, like he wasn’t present. “I want the subject ready for the testing phase by nightfall. Prepare the tank.”

The tank. The words sent a fresh wave of dread through his body. Then he remembered who he was.

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Manning the Hawk

Love is patient.

I had a super snarky post ready to go today about gender roles and how ridiculous Valentine’s Day is. But last night made me rethink things.

It was five o’clock on a Friday and my neighbor Steve was over with his son Miles, Will’s BFF. We decided what a brilliant idea it would be to take the kids to The Coupe for an early dinner, beat the late crowd, have a nice happy hour. The place is set up to accommodate kids. They have a kids menu you can color on, a whole barrel full of communal toys, high chairs, etc. It’s a fancied up diner with a cozy ambiance and a pretty good beer menu. So Steve’s wife Maura joined us and we sat at a table with the four adults and three kids. It started out fine other than that I really didn’t get to catch up with Maura as I’d hoped to. Despite us bringing books, the Leap pad and our iPhones, the boys had to have adult attention. She was lucky enough to sit on their side, so most of her time was spent reading books to them and helping them color.

Our beers were served promptly and we cheersed to life and being out of the house on a Friday. My porter was delicious.

Ava was doing great for awhile. I had her in our own booster seat chair with an attachable tray which is so much easier than the restaurant high chairs. I had brought goldfish, squeezy apple sauce, a sippy cup and a few books from the communal barrel. I was prepared. We ordered mac ‘n cheese and chicken nuggets for the boys to split, and my plan was for Ava to share my meal, roasted chicken, carrots and sugar snap peas. But things did not go as planned.

We ordered our food.

Ava, who had been entertaining herself with the straw inside her to-go cup of water, squeezed it too hard and the top snapped off as it fell to the ground. Their bath time book Water Water Everywhere flew through my mind as the pool grew below us and I wondered why they felt it necessary to give kids that much water. Our poor waitress swiftly got a mop, sopped it up  and crawled under our table with a towel to get the rest. Then someone put up one of those big yellow caution signs right next to our table. Appropriate.

We all laughed about it. The kids were getting a little antsy, but their food arrived and it tied them over for awhile.

An hour passes. No food for the adults and the kids food is devoured. When the kids have already eaten and you have to continue sitting at the table for the unforeseeable future, you know you are in trouble. The boys are dinging silverware, crawling up and down under the table onto the dirty floor, jumping up in the booth to make faces to people on the other side. People are staring, either feeling sorry for us or wondering why the hell we brought kids out to dinner.

Ava starts crying. And continues. Finally, after trying more books, the Leap Pad, and my iPhone despite the mac and cheese all over her tray, I give up and pull her into my lap. Within seconds of the server putting down my second porter, which I really really needed, she spills it. All over the floor, the table, my knees.

John scrambles to help clean up the table while the server comes again and gets on her knees to wipe the floor. I catch eyes with Maura, Steve, John…. Ava is still crying, loud now, kicking and struggling and I feel eyes of everyone in the restaurant on me. And they are all surely just feeling sorry for me now. Suddenly I can’t laugh at it. A lump forms in my throat and I try not to let the tears roll down, but they do of course. So to follow, my face burns bright red and I just keep my eyes down.

John announces he will take Ava outside. It’s in the teens outside, but I let him deal with it while I concentrate on sipping my beer, which has kindly been replaced, and eating my food, which has finally, after an hour and a half, arrived. Steve and Maura were so sweet and understanding. I’m sure thinking to themselves, thank god we only have one.

Or, reminder to self, don’t go to dinner with the Arangurens.

John and I finished the night with Gone Girl and popcorn on the couch, but I couldn’t help feeling sad. It was just one of those nights when I couldn’t laugh at the ridiculousness of child rearing. Sometimes I feel like my patience is all used up.

I remember last year, when I was at my lowest point with Ava’s sleep issues (or lack thereof). It was the 8th month of waking up literally every two hours to feed her (she refused bottles), and I was running so thin on patience, I felt like I was going to lose it. My parents were in town and my Dad sat me down and told me about manning a hawk.

When he was young, he found two red-tailed hawks in the wild and took them in as his pets. He kept them, trained them, fed them. I’ve always thought this was pretty cool, but I had not heard the details of manning a hawk. He said part of the training ritual was to sit in a dark room with one lit candle all night long with the hawk sitting on your forearm. It couldn’t fly off. It had to learn to stay with its owner.

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The relationship between the falconer and the hawk is not one of love, it is one of need. The bird will stick around as long as he knows his owner can provide for him. Once my Dad had the birds’ trust he would take them out hunting in the woods. They would perch on his arm, he’d shove them off into flight, and they would catch a squirrel or field mouse or whatever they could find, and bring it back to him. He would skin it and feed it to them.

I imagine my young father sitting all throughout the night in a candle lit room training a wild bird of prey. The patience required of that ritual, as well as the whole experience of being a falconer, must have been immense.

I am glad he told me that story because I’m at a time in my life where I need to exercise lots of patience. I love staying at home with my kids, and I would not trade that for the world. Right now Ava is going through serious separation anxiety and Will no longer naps. And he is being potty trained. The days are so much fun, but they can sometimes feel long. And often I spend all my patience on my kids and then end up snapping at John for no reason in the evening. Thinking of that candle lit room inspires me to dig deeper for patience. It is challenging. Patience truly is a labor of love.

Yes, Valentine’s Day is a stupid commercial holiday that is shoved down our throats. Yes, it is for suckers. Yes, I told John not to waste money on overpriced roses. All this was elaborated on in my other post. But here I am, on Valentine’s Day morning, writing about love. What can be so bad about that?

And how lucky I am to have, not one, but three Valentines. Patience will be my gift to all of them. My kids need me–are indeed needy on a daily basis–but unlike the hawk, they love me back. What a gift.

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Fan Fiction Anyone?

I first heard of “Fan Fiction” in regards to Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Apparently EL James, Fifty Shades author, was disappointed with how often the Twilight scenes stopped right before Bella and Edward got really hot and heavy. She wanted to read more of what went on behind those bedroom doors. So she wrote her own version of Bella and Edward, changed their names, made the guy an S&M freak instead of a vampire, and wrote some very very graphic love scenes. She began this in the format of fan fiction. Fan fiction is basically when you take a show/movie/book and begin writing your own tangent about one of the characters, an alternate ending, or just take the whole plot in a brand new direction. It spans all types of genres. People usually write them serially and gain a readership. For example, EL James had several thousand followers with her Twilight fanfic well before she released her book trilogy.

There are several sites on which authors post their writing, such as fanfiction.net. I spent some time on the site and I will say, the quality definitely… varies. But the people with the most followers naturally have the best writing and most interesting stories. Here are some entries on Breaking Bad, another one of my all-time favorite shows.

Thinking back, the reason I began to write SIRENS was because I was emotionally distraught when LOST ended. I loved that show and a hole was left in me when it ended… (melodramatic?). But I really loved that show. And I wanted to create my own world to escape to once that was gone. SIRENS isn’t LOST fanfic, but it was certainly inspired by it.  I decided to try my hand at this unique writing form with one of my current favorite shows, Walking Dead. There is a hiatus right now until the next season begins, and I thought it would be fun to take the characters in a new direction… East. Check it out if you are a Walking Dead fan. I’d love your thoughts… or additions!

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Chapter One The Aquarium

By T.L. Zalecki

I stared up at the hammerhead swirling around in the tank above me, the water glowing blue. The body of the Stiff looked so mangled, at one time I would have looked away. Now, it did nothing. I was numb. Thank god. At least I had something to care about, make me feel alive. At least I had a purpose. What did it matter that I hadn’t see the light of day for as long as I could remember? Those fish had gone years that way, stuck in their tanks for people to ogle them at $30 a pop.

Three more sharks swam across the viewing glass – Derek, Siena and May. May’s grey skin clung to her rib cage like someone had sucked air from her insides. I waved, mustering a smile. I didn’t know how long it would be till I got another Stiff for them. I wandered over to the control panel to check the Aquarium security monitors. As usual, several Stiffs lumbered around outside the lobby banging into the doors like lugnuts. It looked dark outside. Night. No wonder I didn’t have the energy, I thought suppressing a yawn.

I looked across the room to my bed, a sling once used for transporting sick marine mammals to the veterinary annex on the other side of town. I had affixed it to a few coat hooks on one side and a column near the tank on the other. The hammock’s mattress consisted of a mass of old coats I had repurposed from the lost and found. There was even a sleeping bag from the kiddie sleepover events the Aquarium would host once per month. Just as I was about to switch off the shark tank light, a motion on the monitor caught my eye. It was a smoother movement, not the jerky, gimped gait of the Stiffs. My eyes widened, and I leaned closer into the screen.

“Shit.”

My heart jumped. I hadn’t seen another person–besides James–since it all happened. Months. A year maybe. I didn’t even know. As I tried to count the people, to distinguish the living from the dead, on the black and white screen, the whiteness of flames flashed brightly. Blood splattered across the polished concrete and against the no smoking sign. An arm, still moving, rolled awkwardly into the bed of grass. A lone foot slammed against the glass wall. There was no sound, but I could hear it in my mind. Blasts. Fire. Bodies dropped to the ground like puppets with their strings cut. I looked down at my hands which were now shaking.

A man in a leather jacket came into view. Behind him, a young boy in a cowboy hat. He swirled around a gun that was almost as large as he was. Then a woman wielding a sword. Or a machete? I was unsure. It was a weapon I had only seen in video games. A few others were running up the breezeway. One lingered behind, glancing up at the “Georgia Aquarium” sign.

I turned from the screen, trying to catch my breath, and leaned up against the wall. Should I be excited, scared? Dare to feel hope? No. I’d fallen into that trap before. My brain raced to figure out what to do as my breath hitched in my throat. I turned back to the screen thinking maybe I had just been imagining things. Living on such little food often led to hallucinations. One time I had sworn I saw a giant octopus in the dolphin tank.

The man, tall and handsome, fingered the glass double door of the Aquarium entrance. I could see the stubble of his beard, the look of determination in his fixed jaw. And I could see the freckled face of the boy. A woman with short hair walked up next to them, pressing her nose to the glass in a relaxed kind of way. One of her hands steadied a gun that was slung over her shoulder. Another hand caressed the head of a baby in a carrier. A baby. In that moment I knew, they had found their way in.

Still, I couldn’t let them see weakness. They had to know I was in charge. I drew in a breath, shoved my blond hair, now mostly dreadlocked, out my face and walked directly to the wall where it hung. My trident. It had been behind glass on display for the patrons when I’d found it. Made of galvanized steel it weighed more than an iron baseball bat. But I knew how to use it from all the dive trips over the years. The life of a marine biologist has its perks in the dead world. And these days I had nothing better to do than work out. I yanked the trident off the wall and rolled up my sleeves, then headed down the submarine glass tunnel faster than I had moved in days. A few aquatic predators passed in shadow above me as I hurried through, wishing me luck. I hoped to god this I wasn’t making a mistake.

These days, mistakes cost your life, I thought, suppressing the image of James. That horrific last image. Damn him.

Ten minutes later I had emerged from the bowels of the Aquarium and was making my way through the main hallway, past the ticket booths and into the airy lobby which now reeked with deathly stenches. My nose barely registered them anymore. Everything was dank, wet, dead to me.

The dead Stiffs lay strewn across the ground outside. The people were still there, milling around the entrance in some sort of heavy discussion. It looked like they were arguing. I hopped over the security turnstiles and approached the doors. The guy noticed me first. Before I could change my mind, I slid open the heavy lock and opened the doors waving the group inside. They slid through the opening quickly, seamlessly like water in a narrowing creek. They smelled of the outside, of places I had not been. In a long time at least. The faint smell of blood and medicine, like a hospital, stuck to them. And death. I could always sniff out death now. I was a fox.

As soon as they were all in, about ten of them, I slammed the lock back in place. Without a word I ushered them into the deeper area of the lobby where the recessed circular fish tanks glowed turquoise, illuminating algae ridden water floating with globs of dead organisms. I propped up my trident, clutching it white knuckled with my right hand and leaning my left foot on a bench.

“I’m Lorel,” I said, asserting the strongest voice possible.

They all stared back at me. Tired faces. Dejected. They had been through something. We all had, but misery was fresh on every face that returned my stare. The baby was asleep, its head muzzled into the woman whose gun was now resting quiet on her back. My eyes were drawn to the peach-fuzzed head, a safe place to rest them.

The man broke the silence, stepping forward. I noticed he wore cowboy boots. His jeans, tattered at the bottom, revealed thick muscular quads beneath. “Rick. Grimes.”

I nodded. As if last names mattered anymore.  “Lorel Phoenix.” No one had ever looked me in the eye like that before. At least not in a long time. I liked it. I liked who I saw inside.

“How about I show you to the cafeteria?” I said, relaxing my stance and slinging the trident over my shoulders like a barbell. “This way.”

My hair stood on end as they followed me, but I kept my back straight and my chin up. We passed through the tunnel headed for the basement where the cafeteria was located.

“You been taking care of these fish? I can’t believe there are any still alive,” said the boy saddling up beside me.

His small turned up nose was that of a child, but the hard look in his azure eyes revealed a lifetime of experience.

“I used to do research here. I know enough about the food chain to keep the biggest ones kicking. Just don’t look too closely into these tanks. It’s not pretty.” As I spoke, I glanced over at an underwater rock formation. A Stiff stuck in a tangle of overgrown kelp opened and closed his mouth emitting a stream of bubbles. His grey skin was puffed out and half disintegrated to expose his maxillary. I’d grown used to him. I called him Dick.

We entered the cafeteria, and I turned the lights on to illuminate a large airy room of shiny chrome and glass. Dozens of empty tables gleamed. All but the closest one, mine. The remnants of my dinner–baked beans and peanut butter–still sat on a plate next to a kid’s box of apple juice and a crumpled napkin. To my surprise, my face flushed with embarrassment. Did I still have a trace of my old southern hospitality? It seemed absurd, but then again, only a few years ago I was a blond belle living among beauty and wealth. I brushed a dreadlock out of my eye and pointed my trident across the room, “There’s the kitchen. Help yourself.”

The group didn’t hesitate. I sat while they ate, shoveling the food into their mouths like they hadn’t had anything in days. I didn’t ask them any questions. And they didn’t ask me any questions. It was mostly silent. But I watched. I observed. They had a hierarchy. They knew each other well. Almost like family, but not quite. There was strength in their dynamic, but a darkness too. I couldn’t tell why, but I knew it was there.

After digging through the lost and found area to locate a few more sleeping bags, I returned to the tunnel corridor and tossed them down on the floor.  “The bathrooms are down the hall that way, then to the left.”

“Thanks,” a woman whispered from behind. “I’m Carol.”

“Sure,” I replied.

“Sorry none of us are very talkative. We had a setback today. We… lost one.” She cast her eyes down. “I just didn’t want you to think we were ungrateful.”

“Okay. Well, sounds like you all could use some rest. And Carole,” I called as she turned away, fluffing out her pink and green polkadot sleeping bag, “I get it. I just lost someone too. Yesterday.”

I headed back to my bed, knowing I wouldn’t sleep, and a feeling of loneliness washed over me that almost brought me to my knees. There were people here. Real live people. But the one I’d lost left a hole too big for anyone to fill. In this world, all I could do was move on, wait for the numbness to kick in. And maybe, just maybe… hope. Deep down, I knew the real reason I had let them in. Beyond the remnants of compassion still inside me, beyond my ingrained southern hospitality.

The real reason was that they could be the key. Tomorrow I’d tell them what I knew.

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Examining Life: A Listicle

In considering my New Year’s resolution, the most obvious ones came up first. Exercise. Eat more veggies. Drink less. I will, again, attempt all these worthy aspirations. But what else? I felt there should be more, that I should press for something more meaningful. As my mind began wandering deeper into how to be a better version of myself in 2015, I realized it had been awhile. Awhile since I had dug into the recesses of my conscience where I reflect. I used to reflect often, think about who I was, who I wanted to be, my weaknesses and my strengths. In college I even read some of those squishy self-help books (Come on, Seven HabitsMen Are from Mars??)

But two kids and writing a novel has distracted me from thinking about myself. And I mean in that most critical, honest way. I remembered the motto I’ve always liked… the unexamined life is not worth living. As did Socrates, I like people who think. And I like to be a thinker. In an effort to not let that part of me slip away in the ever-growing tasks of daily life, I came up with a list of questions that I consider essential to any rigorous self-examination. Please feel free to add on!

12 Steps to Self-Reflection

  1. Is there a reigning belief in my life that I have never questioned? And I mean honestly, deeply questioned. Weather it be religion, parenting philosophy, your approach to your social life. Maybe this exercise leads us around in a circle and back home where we started. Maybe not.
  2. Who sees me in my life as I want to be seen? It seems like for most of us, we feel a little different around different people. Some people bring out the silly/happy/sad/crazy side of us. Others do not. It’s why we choose our mates, our friends. Because most of the time, those people see us as the person we want to be seen as. The way we see ourselves when we look in the mirror.
  3. Who does not? Why? Sometimes people in our lives don’t see us the way we want to be seen. They make assumptions about us that are wrong or just totally misunderstand us. They think they know us, but they don’t. Or worse, sometimes they do. They are right. They force us to see that the person we want to see in the mirror is not the person we are. That discrepancy, if it is there, is hard but important to face.
  4. Are there people in life I show my worst side to? This is often people we are closest to in life. I know it is that way in mine. Showing those people the best, kindest version of yourself is sometimes ironically the most challenging. Isn’t it easier to keep from snapping at a stranger than at your own mother? The beauty and the curse of this is that we all need these people in our lives. Because we can’t be sweet and kind all the time. Thank goodness for unconditional love, like a mother’s.
  5. What do I avoid? Can I even admit I avoid it? Sometimes there are elephants in our room. We know it, but we just look the other way. Often, others can see the elephant even though we think they can’t. Or even if we can’t. Elephants must be looked in the eye.
  6. Am I afraid of being vulnerable in front of people? What do I do to avoid this? Fear of vulnerability can really drive weakness into our character and cause us to react rather than act. I see this in myself sometimes. I’ll be in some deep debate with someone and find myself not letting go of my point only because I don’t want to “lose”. It ultimately keeps me from learning. I want to be an open minded person, not closed.
  7. Do I hide parts of my personality from others? By this I mean, can you be the same person in front of your family as you are in front of your friends? Your co-workers? This is a common challenge, but if you can pull it off I think it shows you a) know who you are, and b) you are confident in who you are.
  8. How much distance is there between who I put forth and who I am? I think we are all on the same page that social media gives us a platform to put forth our most care-free, fun and happy selves. For the record, I don’t think there is anything wrong with posting smiley pictures of happy times. But it does make you think, are we broadcasting ourselves that way on more than just Facebook? Is there someone we try to be because we think they are a more interesting/fun/cool version of ourselves? Pictures are one thing, but eye to eye, face to face, we should have the strength to be real.
  9. Are the things that keep you the busiest worth it? If you were going to die tomorrow–no, I hate that one–if you were going to die a year from now, would you still be doing these things? Same goes for the things you waste precious energy worrying about. For example, I spent all this time worrying about how I would ever find time to send out my Christmas cards. As other people’s Christmas cards rolled in, each served as a reminder that I did not have my sh*t together to create, mail, stamp, collect addresses. And then I realized, its all okay if no one received the A’s family picture this year. (Next year I swear though!)
  10. What is your relationship with material things? I love shopping as much as any other girl. And I don’t plan to stop. But I think it’s important to remember that “buttons come and buttons go” as Pete the Cat says. My Kate Spade purse could be stolen or lost tomorrow. I don’t want to give that purse the power to stress me out. By wanting something I don’t have or losing something I had. John’s mother died in 2005. He has an amazing capacity to stay emotionally detached from material things, and he really never sweats the small stuff. He told me one time how after his mother died, he looked in her bedroom. Her jewelry, her clothes, all her stuff was still there just as she had left it. None of it mattered. Its ok to have all that stuff, just know that you take nothing to your grave. (She, from what I hear, was someone who did not sweat the small stuff either). Only people matter.
  11. When I judge someone is it valid or is it just to validate myself? I don’t think “judge” is a bad word. I think it is a necessary survival instinct, a way to filter the world around you and understand who you are. But knowing that judgement is part of our nature, I think it is especially important to be critical of our own judgements. Judgement can be a seduction calling us to criticize others’ behavior or character only to justify our own.
  12. What advice would you give your younger, say, teenage self? Oh geez, don’t even get me started. But it is good food for thought.

So that’s what I came up with. Please comment if you think of other good ones. I thought it was a fun exercise to start the New Year.

The ability to self-reflect, or meditate, or whatever you want to call it, allows you not only to make yourself the best person you can be, but it also enables you to lift up the people around you. I believe that people who focus first on themselves so that they can be happy, are best situated to help others. To be strongholds in others lives. So go. Be selfish!

Now I must go eat some raw broccoli and and have a smaller than usual glass of wine.

Cheers to 2015!

Step #1  Music…

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I Met Santa

And she is not who you would expect.

It all started when I was at my friend Maura’s house and I complimented her beautiful green Le Creuset pot. “Oh, it was a gift from our real estate agent.” I remember thinking, wow, that’s a nice gift. Maura and her husband Steve live a few houses down from me, so over the past couple years that same conversation repeated itself regarding other random items around their house.

So when we found ourselves needing an agent to help us sell John’s old condo (that lingers endlessly in our lives), Steve told us to give her a call. He said she was one of the best, if not the best, in the city. Judy was awesome. Sweet, down to earth, really knowledgeable and optimistic about selling our place. So, I swear, I liked her even before I realized… she is Santa Claus incarnate. We had considered waiting until the new year to list our place but decided to do it in November. That was a great decision. Because we got an invite to the famed holiday party. The one she has been throwing for over twenty years for her clients, past and present.

Steve and Maura tried to prepare us. When they were over for happy hour on Thursday, Maura pulled a frilly Christmas apron out of her bag (not sure why she was carrying it) that looked like a cross between lingerie and a tutu, as an example of gifts they had gotten from Judy beyond just the Le Creucet and Crate & Barrel items. Boutique-y stuff. After listening to them talk, John and I glanced at each other.

“So are we going to this?” he asked with a nervous laugh.

“Hell yeah!”

I am not one to miss out on a party. Or gifts. Plus, Judy is awesome.

But nothing can really prepare you for a trip to the North Pole via a Cape Cod cottage in Arlington, VA. So last night, I put on my new ugly sweater dress from Target with a cat and Christmas tree on it (which I actually got a completely serious compliment on), put Will and Ava in their Christmas best, and we all piled in the car. We followed our GPS to the VA address and wound through the charming residential neighborhood until we saw the house. It was easy to spot, lit up in white lights from top to bottom. But parking anywhere near it was impossible. We found a space a couple blocks away and walked.

On our way, I noticed people headed to their cars carrying large presents topped with giant bows that blocked their faces.  Approaching the house, my eyes took a few moments to adjust beyond the twinkling lights of the front to the activity in the side yard. There was a bustle of elvish high school boys carrying giant boxes – at least 3×3 feet – to cars that were lined up along the curb. It seemed the heart of the operation was taking place inside a big white tent where there was another line of people waiting. As I craned my neck to see beyond the tent to where the Elves scurried back and forth, I noticed a pile, no, a mountain, of boxes. More boxes. Each one had names neatly marked on them.

John and I walked up the bush lined walkway to enter the party, each of us carrying kids who were gawking at all the lights and people. Guests spilled out all over the yard, nibbling from pretty plates and sipping a variety of drinks. Under a big tree there was a tent with a table covered in wine bottles. We looked at each other, not knowing what to do next, when a pretty girl (Elf?) in a santa hat greeted us with a clip board.

“Welcome! What is your name, please?… Is this your first time?”

I think the second question came as I inaudibly stammered out our last name. Newbies. She crossed us off a list, then explained how to find the coat check, the kids room, the bartender, and the bathrooms once inside the house. “And please stop by the white tent. Judy has a little treat for you when you leave.”

“Oh really?” I said.

Inside it was shoulder to shoulder. I’m not good at guessing numbers, but it seemed like at least 200 people. Christmas lights draped from the ceiling and lined the perimeters of the wood trimmed doors and windows casting a cozy glow everywhere.  Christmas decor covered every window sill and built-in shelf in the house. We checked our coats to settle in, but quickly realized that getting a drink or a plate would require some serious wait time, and setting the kids down would land them in a sea of ankles.

We headed to the “kids room”. Behind a door with a big wreath on it was a set of stairs leading to an attic nook of exposed wood and a steepled ceiling.  Cozy blankets and big red pillows covered the floor and about 15 or so kiddies sat quietly watching Aladdin. Two charming teen Elves greeted us at the top of the stairs, offering for us to set down our children and go enjoy the scene. If only Ava and Will would have gone for that.  I love the idea of sitters at a party though.

After trying once to leave Will and Ava, hoping they would be so enthralled with Aladdin that they would not notice our departure, we all headed back downstairs. John and I grabbed glasses of wine from the self-serve bar outside and immersed ourselves again in the party. As the sea of people carried me along toward the dessert area where I had my eye on a giant pile of brownies, I glanced out the window into the back yard. I could see a garage with lights on inside. And more boxes. We’re talking inventory. That’s when I turned to Will.

“Will, this is Santa’s house.”

Will did not respond to me. He was in my arms staring open-mouthed at the 13 foot Christmas tree in front of him. We were standing in an A-frame room with a cathedral ceiling that allowed the tree to just fit. Surrounding the tree were piles of beautifully wrapped presents in dozens of shiny paper patterns. Many piles reached almost to the top of the tree. It was magical.

After wandering around a bit longer, we got our coats and made our way to the white tent. Two ladies at a table inside asked for our name, then crossed it off a list. They told us to get our car and pull into the receiving line and that someone would load it up. We get the car and pull into a line long enough to clog up traffic except that it was so well organized. The Elf helpers directed the line and loaded up cars with gift after gift. When it was our turn, the box labeled Aranguren was carried out and our gifts were piled into our trunk. At that point, it really would have been appropriate if a reindeer just towed our car all the way home and dropped us through the chimney.

So now, our Christmas tree that was empty yesterday morning now sits among about a dozen gifts. The prettiest packages with big shiny bows and personal labels to each one. For Ava. For William. For the Arangurens. And thank goodness, because I had been slacking! Do I even need to shop now? I guess I should open the gifts, but they look so beautiful. And we are having an Ugly Sweater party next weekend so I want them there looking pretty. Judy has inspired me… should I pay it forward? Buy gifts for all my guests?

I met Judy once, for fifteen minutes. And if hell freezes over and our condo actually sells, she’s really not making much on it. Maybe just enough to cover our gifts.

Or maybe the beautifully wrapped boxes have coal in them, who knows?

Anyway, if anyone needs a real estate agent in DC…

 

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Artjam

I love this idea for a party – Artjam.  A spirited gathering of any and all creative ventures, from live music performances and readings to people knitting winter scarves. One prerequisite is having some creative friends. And everyone does. Most people are creative in some way, even if they haven’t shared anything before… or if we are liberal in defining creativity. (Drink mixing? Nail painting? Sure, why not.)

My friend Annie invited me to her “Artjam”, a term which I believe she coined. I attended this past weekend. Here’s the invitation:

 

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At first I was like, hmmm… what the heck am I going to bring to this? My ukulele was the most obvious choice, though deep down I know I’m not really as good at that thing as I think I am, and the thought of actually performing kind of terrified me. Annie suggested I do a reading of Sirens. I ended up reading a brief excerpt from Book 2, Lost World. Being at the mic made me more nervous than I expected, but it was fun.  And people clapped. So that made me feel good.

The overall vibe of the party was awesome. It took place at this guy Matt’s house, which is half under construction (appropriate to add here that he is the one constructing)–exposed wallboard and plywood on all surfaces with sparkly christmas lights everywhere. It was the perfect venue. There were canvases taped to the wall with art supplies such as oil pastels. Its amazing how refreshing it is to be at a party that is not just centered around food and drink – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Its just fun to be surrounded by all the creative spirit. And you get to see a new side of people.

Annie is a musician. She plays violin in a band called Calamity Row. The whole band was there with a stage set up for their use as well as any other open mic performances or readings. The band is very talented and I love their bluegrassy sound. They just recorded their first album:

Other creative ventures that took place:

  • Korean street food cooked onsite
  • A scarf being knitted
  • A journal writing session
  • Lots of pictures being painted
  • Live music performances in addition to Calamity Row… Kim killed it with a song she wrote called Superhuman. I captured a very brief clip of it here:

Annie and her friends plan to throw an Artjam about once a month. I better think of my next performance…

 

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Mermaids: What the Legend is based on

I have gained a reputation throughout my life, rightfully so, for being a collector, admirer, and sometimes even believer in mermaids. Because of this, anyone who knows me and happens to come across anything mermaid related sends it my way. When Mermaid: The Body Found was aired on Animal Planet I must have gotten ten notifications from friends that wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. And I didn’t, of course! When I was a child I received so many mermaid statues, books, figurines, etc. that by the time I graduated high school I was a bit mermaided out and actually made it known that I had put a pause on my collecting of mermaid paraphernalia. But then several years passed without those gifts and I started regretting it. Needless to say, the collection continues.

My friend Kim, who I met in DC a few years ago, shares the very same affinity for mermaids. (And happens to kind of look like one too.) Her husband Trey sent me this article this morning, and I love it. At the end of the day, I am a science person. I am a skeptic. I don’t believe in mermaids, but I really wish I did. It’s like when I was a kid, I wanted so badly to believe in Santa Claus, but even at the youngest age, I knew the truth. But believing is so much more fun, if one can muster it up.

Anyway, the article Trey sent me addresses the myth of the mermaid and some animals that lay behind that myth. Mermaids, Sirens, nereids, etc have cropped up in Greek mythology and in many other cultures in different manifestations. But most of them are based on something people saw, something that  provided enough visual evidence to allow them to believe in the mythical creatures. These are stories that I find fascinating from a history perspective as well as a mermaid perspective.

There is one animal kingdom classification in particular that is responsible for the myth. It is called Sirenia. I use this in my evolution story for the Sirens in my book, whose scientific name is Homo sapien sirenia. In real life, the dugong and the manatee fall under this category. The dugong is a rare and intriguing creature. I remember reading about it in Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and being terrified. The manatee is similar and both have human-looking faces, albeit very unattractive. Christopher Columbus says it here…

“The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.” And then they got back to the murdering and enslaving.

In reality, the admiral had likely seen a manatee (what Smith had seen is anyone’s guess, considering manatees don’t venture that far north). And indeed it was strange creatures like these, a group known tellingly as the sirenians that also includes dugongs, that explorers encountered as they made their way around the world. Sadly, they ended up driving the most incredible sirenian to extinction: Steller’s sea cow. At an astonishing 33 feet long and 24,000 pounds, it was 20 times heavier than the manatee. But because it was so large, it never needed to fear predators before humans. By the turn of the 19th century, it was gone.

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But it was the dugongs that were likely the source of the myth in the first place. They swim the waters around what used to be the former Syrian and Babylonian empires, and could well have inspired the half-human half-fish gods Atargatis and Ea. And as Michael Largo notes in his Big, Bad Book of Beasts, the mermaid as a bad omen could come from ships sailing too close to shore, where sirenians congregate, only to run aground. Because when in doubt, blame the harmless aquatic mammal.

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Write Something, dammit!

When I picked up this new hobby of creative writing a few years ago it felt pretty solitary. Which makes sense – that is the nature of writing. But last year I found a wonderful group through meetup.com which has allowed me to get to know other writers and forced me to expand my own material (which is good considering I have been writing one thing for about 4 years now). It also provides a great platform for drinking beer, socializing and occasionally performing karaoke.

We meet every other week at a neighborhood bar called The Pinch where the bartender is an honorary member (though to date he has never submitted anything). The official name of the group is Write Club (yes, like Fight Club). It has stringent rules which are laid out for any new member in attendance by our fearless leader, Mike Madden. Mike is a criminal defense attorney by day, crime noir author by night whose characters often seem uncannily familiar to Mike himself. He is known to send jabbing emails to each of us in the off weeks saying things like, “the kids are sleeping, pick up that pen!” or just “write something dammit!“. We all get that one a lot.

Mike’s rules are enforced by Marla (Aka, The Sheriff) who doesn’t take crap from anybody.  The most terrifying rule, at least to the one upon which it is being imposed, is rule #6. Rule #6 states that a new member to the group must write. Here and now. We sequester them in a corner with a beer and tell them to write something, anything, but it must include the hook and must be something they have never written before. And then they have to read it aloud to us. Thank god I missed this as one of the original members of the group.

But I am continually impressed with what people come up with. Maybe the spontaneity allows for a good creative flow. Or maybe they are cheating and writing from memory something they worked on for years (what do we know?). Regardless, a lot of talented people have come through Write Club. I thought it would be fun to feature some of the stories that people submit for our critique sessions on my blog. This short below is Mike’s. We always joke that he is the toughest for us to critique because his writing is so darn good. This one in particular was written as a penalty assignment, which means Mike must have broken one of his own rules…

moreau suspicious

Ain’t Nobody’s Bitch

By Michael Madden

It was a routine under-aged drinking trial notable only for the sheer stupidity of my client, Bambi, who had been flagged by a bartender at The Pinch for using a forged ID. Somewhere in the middle of the first witness, the shrooms Bambi had given me kicked in. She had warned they were potent but that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, had a lag time of four hours.

Turned out, it wasn’t the first time the hussie had lied.

There was the auto theft case where she’d claimed the car salesman had consented to the three-day test drive, the assault case where she’d claimed her boyfriend had consented to the beating, and the ass-grab case at the Roxy Lounge where she’d claimed the male stripper had . . .

Bambi was big on the consent defense.

The witness currently on the stand was the bar manager, a lanky transplant from Pennsyltucky with a goatee and a bad attitude who was parroting back the report he had given to the police: how, through his training and experience, he’d detected the forged ID from thirty feet away in the dark and dingy bar.

Swear to God, Your Honor, he could see it as clear as day.

I ignored the halo that appeared over the bartender’s head and concentrated on taking copious notes. Trying a case hopped up on shrooms is a daunting proposition for the best of attorneys and I was pretty fucking far from the best. Four hours of intense litigation stretched out before me. Tough hours. Cross examining witnesses. Lodging objections and making motions. The situation would require the mustering of every skill, the marshalling of every talent gleaned from three pointless years of law school.

God damn it, I thought as the lights in the courtroom began shifting through the colors of the spectrum. Was I up to the task? I was sitting there, wasn’t I? All suited up, ready to wage war against the jackbooted forces of our fascist government. Would it make one iota of difference if my exquisitely guilty client were represented by another attorney? A Harvard graduate, perhaps. Or at least an attorney not suffering the throes of a panic attack brought on by psychedelic chemicals?

Never presume that anyone else is better trained, more prepared or less depraved than you.

“Your witness, Mr. Madden.”

“Thank you, Your Honor,” I said.

I took my sweet time crossing the well of the court, then leaned against the witness stand and stared deep into the bartender’s eyes. It’s important to demonstrate confidence to these Neanderthals early on. Shows them you’re not to be trifled with.

“Counselor,” said the judge. “Will there be a question?”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

I scanned my notes. Nothing but a quickly scrawled cartoon of a monkey with a goatee behind a bar, peering into the crowd with binoculars. Across the page were scrawled the words: Drag the monkey off the witness stand. Do it NOW you coward! Disembowel the lying cur then bury his entrails in the parking lot behind Landlord and Tenant.

My notes were useless.

“Good afternoon, Sir.”

“Counsel.”

“So, you could see the ID was fake? From thirty feet away? In a dark bar?”

“Affirmative.”

“Explain yourself. What do you mean by, affirmative?”

He rolled his eyes at the judge. “I could see the ID, Your Honor.”

I had the bastard on the run. His halo had long since dissipated, but there was still something of a bartender smirk plastered to his face and I was tired of his word games. Perhaps it was time to remind the cretin of the sanctity of these proceedings. “You do realize this is a search for the truth, do you not?”

“Objection,” said the prosecutor halfheartedly.

“That our entire criminal justice system is a quest for veritas?”

“Objection.”

“And that your highly implausible yarn, constructed with falsehoods and aimed to deceive such as it is, makes a mockery of the criminal justice system itself?”

“Objection, Your Honor!”

“Counsel,” said the judge through gritted teeth. “Move on.”

Always good advice.

Had I the sense to move on when Bambi first offered to sleep with me in exchange for defending her, I’d be at The Pinch right now working my way up to a healthy drunk instead of cross examining a snarky bartender. It was time for the big finish.

“Let me ask you this,” I said. “How can you be so sure my client is under age?”

“Told me she was sixteen.”

“Ah ha!” I said, catching him in a bartender lie. He had testified they’d never spoke. “You testified earlier she never spoke to you.”

You told me she was sixteen. Last night. Drunk at the bar. Right after you slept with her. Remember?”

The prosecutor dropped her pen and glared at me. Smiling.

Dammit to hell.

She looked seventeen at least.

 

 

 

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10 Books That Stay With Me

Oops, I kind forgot about my blog for awhile! I blame my kids. And summer. And fun. Anyway, I miss it and want to get back to it. This seemed like a good reason to start.

I noticed a meme going around on Facebook, 10 Books That Stay With You, and I had to add my list to the pile. These are books that I just love, ones that I read long ago or recently, that left a deep impression on me. To supplement, I also listed 10 Books That Won’t Go Away. Either because people just keep insisting I read them, or because they are somehow “classic” or “life-changing”, or because they just suck.

In no particular order…

10 Books That Stay With Me

  1. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens – I love Dickens. He is a master storyteller. The epic sweep of this book along with themes of regret and revenge and the fantastic twists make this possibly my favorite book of all time.
  2. Atonement, Ian McEwan – His writing draws you in immediately. The setting – English pastoral, wealth, grand estate – is beautiful and the main character has such deep regret and love which drive the story. Also epic and grand.
  3. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery – If you think this is just for kids, you are lame. Go draw a lamb in a crate.
  4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane,  Neil Gaiman – I just read it last year and it went straight to my top ten. Magical realism when done well let’s you really get lost in an alternate universe. Reading this is a true experience.  So original.
  5. Swamplandia!, Karen Russell – Some people love it, some can’t get past the first 20 pages. I was just in SC staring out at a marsh and lost myself again in this unique and odd story that takes place on a touristic island off Florida.
  6. Watership Down, Richard Adams – I never would have thought a book told fem the perspective of rabbits would make this list, but this classic is incredibly smart and there is so much to analyze in the trials and tribulations of the well rounded, and lop eared, characters.
  7. Freedom, John Franzen – Do not let the length dissuade you, it reads fast. About people that are so normal and boring you don’t even know why you absolutely cannot put the book down. But you can’t.
  8. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand – Doesn’t read quite as fast, but the philosophies really make you think about how the world works, whether you agree with it or not.
  9. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky – A classic exploration of the head of a murderer. I read it recently and it went much quicker than I expected. A great book.
  10. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – I love anything to do with time travel. The guy has a ‘chronological disease’, so it ends up reading pretty realistically. I did not want it to end.

10 Books That Won’t Go Away

(I won’t bother with explanations. If you need one, you probably disagree.)

  1. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
  2. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
  3. The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling
  4. Celestine Prophesy, James Redfield
  5. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  6. Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James
  7. The Twilight Saga, Stephanie Meyer
  8. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
  9. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
  10. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey

But I shouldn’t be too hard on these guys. After all, I know writing a novel ain’t easy…

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Mother, unabridged

If asked, could you write a story about your mother’s life? Like, the unabridged version. I’m not talking Cliff Notes here! The newly discovered writer in me was thinking about this. And with Mother’s Day coming up, I was thinking about not only my own Mother but myself too, of course… what I, and everyone else in my family, could do for ME!

Like, maybe John can watch the kids and I’ll take off and go shopping, get my nails done, or something else unnecessary that I don’t get to do now that I have two kids. (Though, did I ever get my nails done?) Last year I left Will with John and went on a shopping spree with my sis-in-law incurring some serious damage to the bank account with the excuse that it was my day to indulge. But as I was thinking about this Sunday, I thought, wait, its Mother’s Day. Why not just spend time with my children? And that’s when I realized… I am starting to think like a true and seasoned Mother.

My Mother–and I’m sure most people’s that are reading this–has always put her children first. Despite her many talents and skills, she is a Mother before anything else, and a good one. Hear me out… I know there is a lot of focus on making sure we spend enough time on ourselves, don’t neglect our needs, keep up our own hobbies and interests, etc., and I am definitely down with that. A good parent is one that keeps a sense of self and doesn’t over-focus on the child to the point of smothering and self-destruction. But, I wanted to reflect unapologetically on the selfless part of the Mother, something that I think is just instinctual, natural and beautiful.

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When I think about my Mother, and who she is as a person, I’ve always seen her in the frame of myself. She has supported me financially and morally, seen me through heart wrenching break-ups, listened patiently to my rants or raves, wiped many tears, taken me on endless shopping sprees, read SIRENS from beginning to end (not once but twice). My Mom is awesome. But who was she before 1978? She’s just always been… my Mom. Before that though, I know she was an individual. She had her own needs, dreams, desires and fears. She had her own break-ups, her own Mother.

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If I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit, I don’t think I ever thought about her, and who she was, as a separate person from me and our family until my adult years. Maybe its the clarity you get as an adult (youth can be ignorantly, blissfully self-centered). Or maybe its a strange type of possessive thing, like, I don’t want to believe my Mom existed as someone who didn’t have me at the center of her universe, someone who existed when I was still just stardust.

I got tidbits of her past life growing up–the Cliff Notes. Pictures of her when she lived in NYC as a model–how glam! A letter regarding a baby, a girl, that wasn’t me–how mysterious! Who was she? One day I would learn I had a half-sister. But again, I saw it through the lens of myself… how cool is it that I have a sister! I have always wanted a sister!  And it was an awesome story to have and tell. But I never knew how my mother felt when she found out she was pregnant for the first time, what it was like to know you would be giving up your first child. Who did my Mom talk to then? Who comforted her? What was her relationship really like with him? It was all in a black box that I definitely wondered about, but never really asked.

That’s the thing… you have to ask. If you don’t ask, you may never know. My Mom doesn’t talk a lot about herself unprompted. But she’ll listen to me for hours.

However, recently, my Mom and I drove up from Charlotte to DC so she could stay at her pied a terre that she and my Dad rented just for the purpose of helping me with the kids, and… I asked. I learned so much. They were things I knew that had happened to her on paper, so to speak, but to hear her tell me in such detail, it was like a story–the unabridged version–I had never heard. She was a character in a newly discovered book, dynamic and fully rounded out. She shared what it felt like, the names of the people and scenery of the places where these things happened. These life experiences that took place pre-Tanya. My Mother has a trilogy of Lifetime movies from her life that could be blockbusters (well, on LMN at least!). She has fascinating stories. I told her to write them down, but I know she won’t. I’m afraid now that I’ll forget, that the details will fade and I’ll only remember the gist. But my whole point is that the gist, the Cliff Notes, just isn’t enough.

Maybe I’ll write them down, tell her story. If she doesn’t mind. I’m sure she’ll at least edit. She’s gotten a lot of experience in that with SIRENS.

The interesting thing is, I think this phenomenon of our Mothers’ mystery lives pre-us is the last of the era. For our generation, our children will know everything about us… or at least the picture we paint on our FaceBook timelines and Tweets and photo streams. They won’t have to wonder about our lives, or at least they think they won’t. Our social media accounts can–will–be misleading, far from truly representing our lives. After all, we don’t always have smiles on our faces and we aren’t always surrounded by two or three other people also smiling. But the curiosity will be satiated enough that our children may never ask, may never wonder…  Mom, what were you like when you were twenty?

Its just funny to think about. Here I am on the other side, a Mother now, with my own humble non-Mother life in my rearview mirror. It has started to become hazy, a compilation of little vignettes and stories I may or may not tell. Will William and Ava dig them out of me one day? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, I feel myself turning into my Mom in the way I care for my children. Its not that I plan to give up the ukulele or writing or shopping or singing karaoke late night at the bar once in awhile… in fact, I need to hold onto those things for dear life, but its just a paradigm shift. And I love it. My world has tilted towards Will and Ava, a magnetized axis of sorts.

I see this happen in my close friends that have kids too. I could see it all over my friend Erin’s face when I visited her in the hospital last week. What’s really cool is that I see it in my friends that aren’t mothers yet… that maternal fire that we are all born with, whether we have children or not. Its always there in us, and can be directed towards anyone, adult or child, even if you never end up having kids. Not to say that men can’t be selfless, because they certainly can, but its something special about that maternal nurturing instinct that women have. Its awesome.

It makes me think about my Mother in law, a woman I never got to meet. I feel love for her anyway. I think of my cousin who lost a baby recently–she will always be the Mother of that little girl. My friend Hillary who, any moment now, will be popping out a THIRD CHILD (omg!). I think of those that are Mothers, those that aren’t Mothers yet, and those that play the maternal role in so many unconventional ways. I suppose even a man can fall into that last category! So much beauty in the word Mother… or… “Mama”!

This video, which inspired this deep existential dive into the meaning of the word mother, truly melted my heart.

 

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