It’s summertime, and the living is fine, for sure. Morning walks along the boardwalk and the beach, sitting in the shade and writing, watching the hundreds of birds at the feeders, enjoying an ice cream cone or a treat from the ice cream man, lunches and dinners with friends, picking green beans from the garden, wandering downtown, fishing with my husband, laughing with my nieces and nephews…life has been simply beautiful. It helps that I’m feeling extraordinarily better than last year at this time. I am once again an active participant in life with an awareness of my limits. I’m doing my best to savor each of my experiences and celebrate the ordinary moments in my days. Feeling better physically has led to a more positive mental and emotional outlook as well, and I can’t remember a time when I ever felt this content.
I said yes to an opportunity on a Facebook status months ago, and it turned out to be a fantastic time with friends and classmates as we saw the Violent Femmes in Asbury Park. Random, spontaneous fun for sure as the gents of the Femmes rocked the house. What a great time with even greater people!
But isn’t that the point of life? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to enjoy every moment of our time here on Earth?
Yes. Definitely YES. And I will be saying YES to life from this point on.
In other news, my novel is taking shape. I can see the storyline now, and what helped me get to this point was creating two large plot boards. I color coded events, themes, and symbols and arranged them in the order I want to include them on large, styrofoam-type poster board. It’s easier for me to look at it all at once, versus paging through a notebook to find the right note. Now everything is right there in front of me. The novel is going to be in three parts, and I’m almost done with Part One. My goal is to finish Part Two before I go to Dublin in the middle of August, then write most of Part Three after I return because that part takes place in Dublin. While there, I plan to visit some locations and look through the eyes of the main character so I can accurately write about it. I’ve been writing every day and am plugging along as I tell the story of Kelly Lynch and how her friend, Shannon, led her to her true purpose in life.
I’m also going to be setting up an author webpage with it’s own blog that will track my progress. Once that’s set up, I’ll be promoting it here and then you can follow me on that avenue if you’d like.
If you are looking for a great book to read this summer, consider Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver. I had the opportunity of briefly meeting Liz at BookCon in June, where I received an advance copy. Set in Dublin, the novel develops the story of Oliver Ryan and is full of suspense. Talk about signs…when I started reading it, I had no idea it was set in Dublin, or that Liz Nugent hails from Ireland. I couldn’t put it down! It’s going to be released later this summer here in the USA. I highly recommend Unraveling Oliver.
Have a splendid day, and thanks for being a part of my journey.
The other interesting feature on my report is that Ancestry matches my DNA up with others who have already had their DNA tested, and then provides links to possible family members with percentage probabilities that they are, indeed, a relative of some kind.
For instance, Ancestry was “extremely confident” the name on the top of my list was a second cousin. They were right. It is my mom’s cousin DM.
I have a very small family, so the large number of names on my list of potential “relatives” intrigued me. I was going to wait until the end of the month to begin poking around, but last week, I showed a fellow teacher my report because he was interested in getting his own DNA analyzed and wanted to see what it was all about.
The second name on my list of potential relatives or matches, one that Ancestry had labeled “extremely high” that this person was my second cousin, is a gentleman, AT, from Minnesota. I clicked on his profile as I showed my friend how cool it was that this information was available, even though I had no idea who AT was. We didn’t have family in Minnesota, so who could this guy be?
I read the first few sentences of the AT’s profile out loud, then paused mid-sentence. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I then yelled, “Holy shit!” My friend looked at me, as did the others who were around us, as my mouth gaped wide open and my eyes became as big as saucers.
The man in the profile, AT, wrote that his mother, K, was adopted, and he listed her birth parents’ names and her original last name.
Her birth parents’ names were the same as my Grandpa C.’s, the one who I thought was Irish, and he and K shared the same last name.
Holy shit, indeed.
Grandpa had a sister I never knew about.
Mind blown. Literally.
I never would have expected this in a million years. Finding missing family members only happens in the movies or in books, or to other people who lead much more interesting lives. It doesn’t happen to little old me.
But here it was, right in front of me. K is my Grandpa C.’s sister, my Uncle G and my father’s aunt, my great aunt. The DNA confirms it.
I couldn’t contain my excitement and raced home after dismissal to write AT a message. “I think my grandfather was your mother’s brother,” I typed, along with some other details and my email address, then hit send with a ridiculous grin on my face.
I anxiously checked for a reply all day Tuesday, but none came. No worries, though, as I had an afternoon date with my nephew, I, for our annual early summer boardwalk excursion. We had a lot of fun on the rides, at the aquarium, and enjoying pizza and ice cream. By the time I got home, I was exhausted!
I drifted off to sleep rather quickly, slept right through the night, and hit snooze as soon as my alarm went off on Wednesday morning. On the alarm’s second ring, I hit snooze again, but something was nagging at me to check my email. I put on my glasses, opened my mailbox, and there it was.
A reply from AT’s sister.
A reply from my first cousin once removed, KT.
KT is one of seven children born to my great Aunt K (including AT). That’s at least seven new first cousins for my Uncle G. KT said that her sisters and brother all live in various parts of the country, and that they have been looking for her mother’s brother’s family for a long time.
Man, my father would have loved all of this!
KT included three photographs with her email, one being her mother’s favorite photo of her brother from when Grandpa C. was very young. Aunt K kept it all this time.
At work, I held up that picture of Grandpa C. alongside my face, and almost everyone remarked at the resemblance between the two of us.
Before writing KT back, I knew I had to tell my Uncle G about this amazing discovery, so I headed over to his house after school. As I began to read KT’s email to him, I handed him the three pictures that accompanied the email.
Uncle G got up as I was reading and handed me a framed picture from his table.
It was the same picture of Grandpa that KT emailed to me, her mother’s favorite picture of her brother.
Uncle G and I talked about what he could remember Grandpa’s family. He thought all along that Grandpa might have had a sister that was put up for adoption, but he was never sure if that was true or not. He knew Grandpa’s father wasn’t in the picture at all but doesn’t know anything at all about him, and that Grandpa had an older brother but he never met him (nobody knows where he ended up either; apparently my father was named after him). Uncle G told me what could recall about his grandmother, S, who was Grandpa’s and Aunt K’s mother, but it wasn’t very much.
I brought the picture book he gave me last summer with me. We slowly paged through it and found two old black and white pictures of a light-haired little girl, each with Aunt K’s name written in pencil on it.
Grandpa had kept his sister’s pictures all along, too.
Uncle G couldn’t believe all of this and loved learning he had cousins. He hates technology and has never used a computer or a smart phone at all, so seeing my Ancestry report on my phone and how I could click on the links blew his mind.
I took a picture of Uncle G and of me holding that framed picture of Grandpa that KT had emailed to me, as well as some other pictures of Grandpa from his life. When I got home, I wrote KT back and emailed her all of the photos I had, including the two pictures of her mom.
On Friday, AT sent me an email, so I am now in contact with two new cousins. Of course, both sides have a lot of questions, and we all wish that Grandpa and Aunt K could have connected with each other before they passed on. Underneath all of our excitement, there are some threads of sadness interweaving with this miraculous story. Consider that Aunt K and Grandpa lived two towns away from each other in the early 1940s but never knew it.
This is the stuff novels are made of, and I’m living it!
I’m looking forward to staying in touch with my new cousins and to learning more about my family heritage. One of the first places I am going once school is finished is to the library to continue researching my background.
If it weren’t for my spirit guide, I’d never be on this path in my journey in the first place. Thanks, TG, for leading me to family. And thanks to the Universe. You never cease to amaze me.
All I wanted to know is if I was truly Irish.
With the payoff from that originally disappointing less-than-1%-Irish being a whole new lot of cousins that I never knew existed, I’ll gladly take it.
I have always remembered the reason for Memorial Day and Memorial Day weekend and have honored it by remembering those lost, going to a ceremony or two, putting flags in my yard, wearing red, white, and blue, or raising awareness through my writing. For me, the true meaning hit home twice, in 2010 and 2011, when two very special young men who spent time in my classroom paid the ultimate sacrifice, each with immense courage and bravery.
One is Sergeant Ronald A. Kubik, Army Ranger, and the other is Lance Corporal Nicholas S. Ott, United States Marine Corps.
Both are forever heroes.
On Friday, I taught my current journalism and English 11 students about these two heroes who sat in the same seats as them at some point in their lives. It’s important to me to keep Ron and Nick’s legacies alive with the hope that today’s generation can learn from them and possibly emulate something from each of their examples in their own lives. I am now toying with the idea of writing a curriculum unit for other teachers to use in their classrooms, not just necessarily focusing on Nick and Ron but on other New Jersey heroes lost in all conflicts.
Below is a letter to Ron and Nick that I originally wrote and posted in 2015. I updated it for 2017 as my thanks and tribute to both of them on this Memorial Day.
May 29, 2017
Dear Ron and Nick,
It’s been 15 and 13 years, respectively, that you were students in my English class. You both sat at a desk for 180 days, Ron during 9th grade and Nick during 11th grade, and spent 50 minutes every day writing, reading, learning vocabulary, completing assignments, and earning your grade. And during those 180 days, each of you made a lasting impact and taught lessons to someone who was supposed to be teaching you.
Ron, I will never forget how you read “Of Mice and Men” aloud in your best British accent, yet you read your part in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” with a thick, southern accent. Laughter, that’s what I remember. Pure laughter. I remember you enjoyed writing, but as a freshman, you didn’t want to admit it. How I wish I kept some of your essays and reflections, for they were good…much better than a typical 9th grader’s writing. I remember your pride in your hometown, your blue mohawk, and your incredible effort on the football field, playing each game like it was the super bowl. It wasn’t the same when you moved away, and there was a huge hole of missing spirit that couldn’t be filled by anyone else. I am aware of the legacy you left at Manasquan High School and how you are still an inspiration in that building. Through the magic of social media, we caught up after you graduated and I enjoyed seeing the pictures of you in your band, and then as an Army Ranger. I am sure the United States Army immediately knew that they were getting one of the best of the best. I know that you absolutely loved it when some of my students called you a badass merely from my verbal description of you. Then when they saw your pictures? Yeah. You loved every minute of their reactions and are still basking in that glow.
Nick, your smile and your work ethic are what I most remember about you. No matter what it was you were doing, you always your best…in the classroom, on the field, on the stage…and you never, ever complained. More often than not, you surprised even yourself by doing better than you ever expected, even though at times you weren’t a fan of what we were studying. And that smile…that big, wonderful smile, with that impish spirit behind it…there’s no other smile like it. I fondly remember your part in The Varsity Lettermen’s TWO acts for Hawkapalooza, working hard to perfect each routine, and selecting that perfect dress for your costume, the powder blue shift with the rhinestone broach. That moment of greatness and sheer joy has never been matched on the Hawkapalooza stage since, except maybe the secret, surprise return of The Varsity Letterman the following year. One of the best days in my life was the last time I saw you, when you were home on leave and stopped by the school for a visit after classes let out. I was having an extremely bad day and wanted nothing more than to go home, and I got a call from the main office that someone was here to see me. That was the last thing I wanted, but my anguish was quickly replaced with excitement and happiness as I saw you round the corner of the hallway with that smile beaming as you walked down to my classroom. We spent about 90 minutes catching up and talking, and those are the best 90 minutes I ever spent in my life. While I don’t have a photograph of that moment, the picture in my mind’s eye is crystal clear, like it happened yesterday.
Words cannot express the extreme heartache and sadness that I, along with so many others, felt upon hearing the news that each of you had passed away. In fact, I remember exactly where I was standing when I got the news about each of you. Yet, upon learning that so many others were saved because of each of your actions, I had two new heroes to look up to for the rest of my life.
Not a day goes by when I do not think of both of you. Several times every year, but especially on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I share your stories with my students who sit in the same desks that you did…stories of heroism, of bravery, and of courage.
I am forever grateful for the lessons you, the students, taught me, the teacher:
Actions, not words, matter.
Make your dreams a reality.
Put others before yourself.
Have an amazing life.
Thank you, Nick and Ron, for your lessons, for your sacrifice, and for leaving footprints along my life’s journey that can never be erased. I will do my best to continue sharing your legacies and your stories for as long as I can.
With my utmost admiration, gratitude, honor, and respect.
Regardless of your politics, I urge you to take a moment this weekend to honor what the day means and stands for. Educate the young people in your life about the true meaning of Memorial Day and about real heroes like Nick and Ron and the thousands of others who gave their lives for the United States of America. Attend a local ceremony or service for an hour, and/or join in the National Moment of Silence at 3 PM Tomorrow.
Thank you to all the men and women who gave their lives while serving our country. I am grateful for your sacrifice and I honor your memory.
I’m recovering from an existential crisis of sorts, undoubtedly fueled by a combination of current events, the reality of time, and the rousing of that evil entity known as self-doubt from its slumber. Please allow me to unburden myself…
I’ve been making progress on my novel, holding off on writing other words that are nagging to get out of my brain in order to remain focused on progress, but I’m stuck at a point with the main character and what is happening to her. That got the wheels of mediocrity spinning, and as I read what I wrote, I hated every word of it. I let it fester, and reread it all, and revised and edited, and still hated it. So I let it sit.
Then the inevitable happened, as it always does. I came down hard on myself for not making progress. I looked at the days with no progress and noted how each of them sped on by, just like the last 25 years did. I thought about things that happened 25 years or so ago and marveled that “wasn’t it just yesterday that happened?” I stopped and gasped as I realized that if the next 25 years goes by just as fast as the last 25 did, I’ll be in my seventies before I know it.
And what’s the frigging point of it all, anyway?
That’s the agenda of self-doubt, isn’t it? “What’s the point? Why even bother?”
So I was already feeling pretty crappy, letting my perceived inconsequential existence rule the roost as I moped about.
Add to the mix my varied emotions after learning about the passings of both singer Chris Cornell and a local powerboat race driver at a race I attended yesterday. The result has been one, giant mess of me, including tears and numbness with a side of insecurity-sprinkled gloom.
I talked things out with a friend today and I feel slightly better. Thanks, friend.
I thought about letting all of this continue to fester in my brain but decided to write about it instead. These are the words that need to come out today. Not words for my book. Not words for an article or a diary.
These words, here, need to be HERE, in this post. That’s what my gut and my heart are both urging me to do today.
I’m done fighting against the words that want to flow. When they want to see the light of day, I am going to let them pour out, even if they have nothing to do with my novel or are complete jibberish.
These words were elusive when I began writing this post, but lo and behold, here they are, waiting to be read by you.
I’m also done apologizing for being human.
Yes, the passing of Chris Cornell rocked me to my very core, even though I never met him.
Yes, I cried over the passing of a gentleman named David who I never met but photographed less than 24 hours before he died celebrating in a parade and less than an hour before he died gunning past me then out of the Inlet. Yes, David died doing what he loved, and I am keeping both his and Chris Cornell’s family and friends close to heart.
Yes, I am afraid I am running out of time. Big time.
Yes, I don’t know what path my main character is going to take and yes, sometimes I don’t know what path I am going to take, either.
Yes, I find writing creatively to be very challenging but I am going to keep writing and do my best to keep self-doubt in exile.
Yes, I find inspiration everywhere and observe everything.
Yes, I have a big heart.
Yes, I am human, and no, I’m not sorry for it.
The only thing that is real is this moment. Everything else is either a memory or a fantasy.
Wait a second…isn’t that the point James Joyce tried to get across in Ulysses, anyway?
This moment produced these real and honest words of confession and healing and epiphany.
It’s not often that big name creatives make their way to the Jersey Shore. Usually, the musicians and writers I’d love to see perform are either in New York or Philadelphia and it’s just too much for me to go. However, my serendipity streak is alive and well, resulting in the opportunity to hear one of my favorite authors speak this week only 30 minutes away from my home, and even better, it was free.
Most people recognize Colm Toibin’s name from his novel Brooklyn; the movie based on his book premiered last spring. If you’ve followed me for a while now, you are well aware of the string of signs that led me to Ireland last year, fueled by what I like to call my spirit guide. Mr. Toibin’s works Brooklyn and Nora Webster both appeared several times along that serendipitous timeline, well before the movie trailer for Brooklyn was released. Mr. Toibin’s breadcrumbs led me to other literary connections, personal discoveries, and further signs along my journey. The fact that I’m almost 30,000 words into my own novel is based, in a very slight part, on his contribution to my timeline.
What most people don’t know is that Mr. Toibin was a journalist before publishing essays and novels. His creative streak came alive later in his life, which is something I can truly relate to and is one of the reasons why I look to him as an inspiration.
When I saw that Monmouth University was hosting Colm Toibin as their final author in their Visiting Writers series this year, I jumped at the chance to attend. It was open to the public. With serendipity once again running the show, I couldn’t believe I had nothing else on my schedule on that particular afternoon during a week of a craziness filled with deadlines and due dates and contingency plans in the event my niece decided to enter the world (she’s smart…she’s still nesting comfortably inside mama as I write this). I even had a friend who wanted to go with me (thanks, C!).
We arrived about 45 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin and were able to get excellent seats near the front. After a short while, my friend went upstairs to check something on her phone since the signal inside the auditorium wasn’t every good. A gentleman began testing the microphone, and it was Mr. Toibin himself. He looked at me and smiled as he walked past me. Within 30 minutes the room was packed with Monmouth University faculty and students, as well as members of the general public like my friend and I, all eager for the program to begin.
Monmouth University’s Dean Michael Thomas began the program by speaking briefly then handing the introduction over to his colleague, Dr. Susan Goulding. After a few moments, Mr. Toibin took the podium, and from his first word, his accent captivated my attention for his whole presentation. He intertwined tales from his own life and his writing process in between his oral readings from both Nora Webster and Brooklyn.
The way he explained how he used real-life elements in his fiction made an impact on me, as I am attempting to do something similar with my own writing. Mr. Toibin said that writing is all about therapy, and that it is sometimes brave yet difficult to write the stories you don’t want to forget. “I didn’t know I was a novelist. If I didn’ I would have taken notes,” he said. Me, too!
Mr. Toibin develops a strong sense of character in his works, which is something I am trying to do in my attempt at writing a novel. He urged adding details during revision, and to do it right, to describe as if you were looking at a photograph. Confusion can be worked out later as you add levels of intensity to the characters. Make the landscapes fully real and have a sense of your audience. Not everything has to be symbolic as you look outwards from self. All of his advice is on point, and I was reassured by his words because I honestly am doing exactly as he said, or at least I think I am.
Mr. Toibin lists Mary Lavin, Colin Barrett, and Claire Keegan as writers who have influenced him. I find it encouraging that two of the three writers are much younger than he is, emphasizing that there’s always a lesson to be learned through the lives and works of others, no matter the age difference.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway was a lesson that combines his own experience with the experiences of his characters Nora Webster and Eilis Lacey: finding yourself is a lifelong journey. I’m even more comforted and reassured after hearing Mr. Toibin’s presentation that I am in the right place at the right time.
Afterward, I thought about the experience for a bit after looking over my notes. I then began fantasizing about the idea that maybe, someday, I would be addressing an audience about my works and my influences. I wonder if Mr. Toibin knows that I’d be talking about him (and others) just as he talked about Lavin, Barrett, and Keegan.
The rainy deluge has transformed to ice, which is building up on the grass and pelting the windows with a ferocious plink. Any minute now, the wind and the cold will transform the ice to snow. What a difference from yesterday’s balmy 64-degree sunshine, a splendid day that I was unaware of as I was held hostage by cinder blocks, each one with its own demand masked as a responsibility. I’ve got a lot going on yet no time for anything. I’m treading through distraction after distraction, falling further behind, and it’s quite difficult right now to stay afloat. As I cross one plateau, an obstruction suddenly appears, extending the distance between what I thought was my purpose and that elusive finish line. I gasp for breath amid life’s cyclone, and with each inhale, a smidgen of my soul dies. What was so clear is cloudy, again, so far off behind the cyclone’s eye that I struggle to catch even just a fleeting glimpse.
Is it my mind that’s the bully, or time? Or is life the bully, entertaining itself by heaving an obstacle in my path to throw me off again? Ideas blaze into my head at the speed of light, diverting my attention like a shiny set of keys on a shimmering key chain as I become consumed with spiraling thoughts and plotting out possibilities. Should this new idea be the reason I abandon all of the former ideas that stole my focus, making me abandon those other ideas that are now left floating lifeless, dissolving as quickly as time is running out? It’s so close, my somewhere over the rainbow, but which path will take me there, and how do I move forward when the cinder blocks won’t allow me to escape? I’m not sleeping, oh no.
Writer, Poet, and Singer Leonard Cohen passed away this week, but with the current state of unrest in news feeds, you might have missed that. I think we all need to just sit and be while listening to his performance below to help us see the bigger picture. He did not leave us in vain; rather, he left us something beautiful and moving, a song which will be guiding me forward. I hope it will guide you, too.
Back in the early 1990’s, before I made a mess of my collegiate academic record, I wrote letters. I mean, a lot of letters. Instead of studying, I would be writing and writing and writing to so many people, many of whom I never even met.
This was the time of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.
I saw it as my duty to write letters to every address printed in the local newspapers as a show of support. Some I knew from high school, some I did not, and most were about my age.
Regardless of their reasons for serving, I don’t think many of them, if any at all, ever thought combat would result during their service.
But it did.
And I know that each of their lives was changed forever.
I have led a comfortable life, so to speak. Sure, I have skeletons and demons in my closet…who doesn’t?
Mine, though, is no comparison for those I can only image that live in the closets of my friends who chose to serve our country during what turned out to be a very difficult time.
Friends like Joe, Matt, Tom, Jason, Jim, Bobby, Phil, and Rich, who in my eyes are brave and forever heroes. Each rises and perseveres every day, never giving in to the darkness that might be chasing them or to those demons that might live in their proverbial closets.
That’s the true definition of strength and courage. Persevering no matter what.
They served by choice. They became heroes by example.
I am honored to call each my friend, and I am thankful that after all of these years, we are still friends.
Happy Veterans Day to all who have served, especially those close to my heart, with my utmost admiration and gratitude.