Goodbye, Uncle Dennis: Lessons Learned from a Life Well Lived

Two Sundays ago, my husband’s Uncle Dennis passed away. The death came suddenly, unannounced by any previous illness or medical condition. A shock.

The 3rd of 10 children, and the eldest boy, Dennis was the first to pass on. That is a different sort of shock, when your own generation starts to die. The remaining siblings look at each other and think, “Who’s next?”

Dennis was a man who never complained at hard work, and who would show up on the doorstep of anyone who needed help. When I heard the phrase “salt of the earth” I thought of him.

He wasn’t a perfect man, as he would readily admit, but strove to be better every day. Religion was his strength. Farming was his passion. Family was his life. His death has left a huge hole in many people’s lives, but left all of us with essential lessons:

Live your truth. Own your mistakes. Make amends as best you can. Work hard. And most of all, in word and deed, love the people you call family.

Because you never know when this time will be the last time.

Celebrating the Small Victories

Face it, we live in a world where society only celebrates the big victories. But many of us don’t have huge victories to crow about, and therefore feel like we’re not enough. I’ve got good news for you, though–even small victories are victories.

Small victories are earned, just like the large ones. In fact, most often the large victories can’t even happen without the small ones happening first. Can’t publish a book if you don’t write it first. Can’t write it except one chapter at a a time. Can’t write a chapter without sentences.


Words on the page. Forward progress. Baby steps. It all adds up, and it all becomes something bigger than the sum of its parts. A lot of us have family obligations, day jobs, other must-do things on the To Do List. So just showing up to do the work is a victory.

Why am I thinking of small victories today? Because in April, I racked up almost 16,400 words for the month. Which is more than twice as much as the previous best month of 2019. Even more exciting to me is that 10,500 of those words were revision of my YA novel Veritas.

April's small victories

I have not worked on Veritas in any word-countable way since September of 2018. Half a year ago.

I was working on it, in fits and starts, but not in the computer. I revised longhand, working from a printed copy. The revision is still far from finished, but I’ve made substantial progress–enough to put my revisions to date into the computer and print a new version to move ahead with.

It’s gratifying to see the longhand-work translate into word count. A small victory, slow in coming, but I am happy with it.

Maybe next month I will break 20,000 words.

Small victories. What victories are you celebrating today?

Spring Break Road Trip!

There is a saying among writers, “I don’t like writing, I like having written.” I feel much the same way about traveling.

I don’t like traveling. But I like having traveled.

Being at the destination is always fun. The people, the new experiences, the change of scenery is always welcome. But getting there…ugh.

I hate the hours in the car, or the plane. They feel endless and they wear me out. They grind on me like sandpaper. I am exhausted by the time I get there, and I don’t even do the driving.

I am a person who likes my routine. Anxiety disorders are often best managed with routine and predictability where you can get it. So driving long distances, with the unpredictability of traffic and the lack of schedule for meals and stops grates on me. And I am also food-anxious, so the looming specter of “will I find something I like to eat?” and “will I be able to eat when we stop?” is always hiding in the background.

I won’t mention some of the bathroom facilities we have stopped at along the way. Because some things are better not thought about too much.

As wearing as traveling is to me, the end result is always worth it. Time with family, time to think, time to drink in different life experiences.

I hope anyone on Spring Break this week is enjoying some time to relax and regroup before heading back into the work-a-day world.

Notre Dame Cathedral: The Rise of the Human Spirit

I have never been to Paris. I have never visited Notre Dame. But I was still brought to tears by the sight of the Cathedral structure engulfed in flames. You don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the history and artistry of the structure. You don’t need to be religious to feel the sacredness of the place.

So I watched Notre Dame burn with tears on my face and an aching heart. Taken with all the other nastiness lately, it felt like the whole world was burning. Watching the flames devouring the building, the spire toppling, the roof caving in…it seemed impossible that anything would survive.

And yet much did survive. The main structure. The bell towers and bells. The huge stained glass rose windows. The titanic organ. The altar. Many of the artifacts and artwork.

All saved by the efforts of humans who looked insignificant pitted against the enormity of the flames.

Humans working together toward a single goal, with no selfishness, no thought other than to help.

The worst tragedy brought out the best of humanity. Which us how I know that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes, powered by the best in the human spirit.

The moments of profound darkness reveal the true brightness of the light.

Revision Difficulty? Maybe it’s your theme

I’ve been trying to revise Vertias for a long while now. I’m struggling with it, which is unusual for me. I normally love revision. So what’s the problem this time?

My first thought is perhaps I subconsciously don’t want to make the suggested revisions. This idea has merit, since none of us like to hear that our work is not quite up to par. However, I can see the value of most of the suggestions, and the changes I have already made have strengthened the story.

That should have been enough to get me excited, but it hasn’t. I still find myself procrastinating. Avoiding. Making excuses.

Truthfully, I’ve found it hard to get excited about anything writing related for a while. The burnout is real, and could also be why I’m struggling. But I don’t think it is—or at least isn’t the whole answer. Because when I get past the procrastination and into the work, it feels good.

Then I read K.M. Weiland’s post about plot and theme. And I got to thinking that perhaps in the almost 2 years since I first finished it, the theme had shifted. Now the plot and theme might not be working together seamlessly, and that’s why the revision is hard.

A lot has happened since I first wrote Veritas. Trump became president. My husband was away for nearly 10 months. The world has changed. I have changed. I am not who I was when I wrote that book…and maybe now I’m trying to say something different.

Every story has multiple themes, as evidenced by how many different ways readers interpret the same story’s meaning. The theme that I am working with now was in the original, but was a sub theme. Now it wants to take center stage.

If I let it, the revisions will be deeper and wider than expected. They will be more difficult. But maybe they will also finally be exciting again—a challenge to be conquered rather than a chore to be avoided.

Have you ever had a theme change in mid-stream? Or a life change that makes you see your book in a whole new way?

Mary Hobson Warren (1821-1904)

People often ask why I love genealogy so much. I think it is because of the stories. So many of my ancestors struggled and worked to give their children better lives. The stories themselves are compelling, but also I realize that without their work and sacrifice, I would not be who I am or where I am today. Their story is also mine.

Here is the story of my 3rd great-grandmother  Mary Sellers Hobson Warren (1821-1904)


In 1852 Philadelphia, Mary Hobson Warren’s  life was good. Her family had been in Philly for generations, well established and fairly comfortable.  Her father Benjamin was a tailor, and her mother worked as a layer out of the dead, so Mary and her five siblings were secure growing up. On 18 September 1839, at age 18, Mary married James William Warren (age 28), an immigrant from Nova Scotia, Canada.

Now, 13 years later, they were well set. James had begun his career in men’s apparel, but now was a conductor on the railway. They had 5 children: Clara (age 11), Thomas (8), Benjamin (7), James Jr. (4), and Henry (2). And another growing in her belly. Life was going to plan.

Then, on 5 October 1852, came the knock on the door. Men from the railroad told her that James would not be coming home ever again. He’d been killed by a train. They spared her the details, but they were in the paper the next day. He’d fallen from the roof of a rail car, and been crushed by the wheels. He had died instantly. A small mercy.

But here she was at age 32, with 5 children, and her two months pregnant. As an immigrant, James had no family to step in and help. Her family could only do so much. They buried James in a grave in Monument Cemetery owned by Mary’s sister-in-law, Margaret Seward Hobson.

Mary took up washing and sewing, some of the only jobs open to honest women. She worked her hands raw…but her troubles were not over. James, Jr. died of typhoid fever just shy of 4 months after his namesake father. For the second time, Mary stood at the Monument Cemetery gravesite, mourning the loss of her 4-year-old son.

James William Warren (1853-1920)

But Mary didn’t give up. She kept washing and sewing, putting food on her table and a roof over her family’s head. 22 May 1853 saw the birth of her son, whom she named James William Warren after his father and brother. The family got along as best they could.

Then on 31 March 1857, she married Daniel Leinau. He was a businessman from Tennessee, a veteran of the war of 1812, and 25 years older than Mary. Clara was aged 16, Thomas 13, Benjamin 12, Henry 7, and James 4. Daniel and Mary had no children together, but Daniel was the only father young Henry and James ever knew.

Mary’s life got easier with Daniel to provide for her and her family. Slowly their house emptied. Clara married Frederick Valletto McNair in 1862. Clara and Frederick’s eldest son Warren Leinau McNair died in 1865 at age 1 year and 9 months. They buried him in Monument Cemetery with his grandfather and uncle. Thomas married Emma Spooner in 1872. Their first children were stillborn twins, in 1873, and they were buried in the Spooner family plot in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Thomas died young, at age 35, in 1879 and joined his children in the Spooner plot.

Daniel Leinau died 9 March 1883, widowing Mary again. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, and Mary moved James, James Jr., and baby Warren McNair from Monument Cemetery to the new family plot in Laurel Hill. Mary’s children were now old enough to support her, as she had done for them.

James married Clara Godshall in 1884, Benjamin married Emma Kinsey in 1887, and Henry married Mary Drew in 1888. Mary lived out her life with her youngest son, James William and his family.

Upon her death at age 83 on 23 May 1904, she joined both her husbands, her son, and her grandson in Laurel Hill. Three of her other sons are also resting in nearby plots.




Mental Health Day

Sometimes with anxiety disorder, life gets on top of you. You’re just cruising along in your normal routine and then one or two new additions to your schedule crop up. These are not terribly taxing each in themselves, but the cumulative weight of everything starts to build.

You carry the weight because what choice do you have? Life needs what it needs. But the weight gets heavier every day, the exhaustion sets in, and eventually all you want to do is put it down.

Put. It. All. Down.

But if course you can’t put it all down, because life doesn’t stop, especially when you have a child. So you do the next best thing and put down the things you can.

So today I put down the blog, just for this week. I’ll be back next week!

Be kind to yourselves out there. If you need a break, find a way to give yourself one, even a small one. Put down what you can. You can always pick it back up when you’re ready.

Book Fair Spring 2019

It’s Book Fair time again! And this year it’s Dino-mite!

The first half of the Fair is usually the most hectic in my school. All the classes come in and browse the books so they know what they want when they return later in the week. The middle schoolers take care of themselves, but the younger grades make Wish Lists to take home for their parents to look at.

The Kindergarteners need lots of help with the Wish Lists, as many can’t read or write well yet. Some first graders need help, some don’t. Some just need help reading the titles that are in fancy or cursive fonts. Some kids need help finding the price on some books. And then there was the child who handed me a book and said, “Can you write this for me? The title is too long.”

By 2nd grade most kids are able to do the lists themselves and we only have to make sure they are including all the necessary information. There’s also a shift in the lengths of the lists in 2nd grade. While the little kids would put every book the see on the list, the 2nd graders are more discerning. They know the type of books they like, and often will read the back cover blurbs before deciding if they want to put it on their list.

We’ve gotten through the most hectic part of the week, and now comes the fun part–seeing the kids’ faces light up when they buy their books and realize they can take them home to keep.

In our school all of the money made at the book fair funds the library, allowing them to buy new books, repair machines, and other library needs. It is the only funding for these items that they have, so the Book Fair is not only fun for the kids but plays a vital role in keeping the library fresh and interesting.

Wishing for a DNA-centric Vacation

A couple of weeks ago, both Ancestry and MyHeritage unveiled new tools for managing and figuring out your matches on their sites. These include tree matching suggestions, sortable colored dots to mark matches and make it easier to visualize, and auto-clustering of matches with a shared ancestor. I am eager to work with these tools, but as of yet have not. Why not?

My father.

More precisely, his DNA. His Ancestry test came through before the new tools, so I have been working through his many matches using the old interface, because that is how I started the process and the new one is very different. I am giddy with excitement over getting his results in for a few reasons, the first being that it took so long for it to process I was afraid it had failed.

The other reason is because it is an Ancestry test. His DNA is on other websites, but I have had the most luck tracking his matches on Ancestry. It is not unusual for people to have one company that garners more or better matches for them. MyHeritage, for instance, seems to do better with more recent European immigrant lines. It’s all about who tests where.

My mother is not on Ancestry (yet), and until my dad was, I had no way of knowing if matches to me were paternal or maternal. It is not uncommon to have a group of 10 or more matches who all match each other but you have no idea how that group relates to you. If you are lucky and can find one person in the group that you can trace back to an ancestor you share, then you know the rest of that group is also somehow on that family line.

I have been fairly lucky on Ancestry with figuring out matches. I have about 40,000 total matches on Ancestry. About 400 are 4th cousin or closer range. I have figured out how roughly 70 of them connect to me. Which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a much higher number than I have been able to figure out at the other DNA sites. And of course that means any people who match both me and one of 70, I at least know what line they are on. So they are sort of half-figured-out.

Now, with my dad also on Ancestry, Ancestry marks the matches that match him as Paternal. Which means that by default, the unmarked ones are my mother. So now I can mark those with colored dots and then sort my matches by her. This is great because her side of the family is much harder to trace than my dad’s. Now I can know for certain I am working on the correct side of the family!

Also, since my father is a generation above me, he will have stronger matches to people I match to, and he also has a higher number of 4th cousin and closer matches, which is important on Ancestry for Shared Matches. Where I have about 400 4th or closer, he has almost 700. By being able to spread the net wider and find a deeper pool of shared matches, I can hopefully figure out how some of these unknown groups fit into the puzzle.

So I have been fun working through my dad’s matches. Once I finish, I will jump into playing with the great new tools on MyHeritage and Ancestry and see if they smash down any brick walls for me.

Do you ever wish you could take a vacation just to indulge your hobby of choice?

Separating the Art from the Artist

With the recent documentaries on R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, the perennial debate has resurfaced: when an artist does reprehensible things, what is the appropriate reaction to his art? Do we boycott, or can we indulge with a clear conscience?

This dilemma is not new. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby. Many of the greats have turned out to have feet of clay or worse. So where does that leave their art?

I have struggled with this, as have many people. In the end, when it comes to movies and TV and music, I have decided it is okay to enjoy the art despite the artist. These ventures are the product of multiple people’s efforts, and it seems unfair to punish all the others involved because of the actions of one.

Writers who have been called out for racism or misogyny are more problematic for me. A book is usually the work of a single person, and their worldview and biases almost always creep into their books. Names that come immediately to mind are H.P. Lovecraft, Orson Scott Card, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, all of whom have been subjects of controversy in the past few years. Lovecraft’s bust was removed as the statuette for the World Fantasy awards in 2015, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name was removed from the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in 2018, and Orson Scott Card’s politics are acknowledged to be racist and homophobic. But where does that leave their works?

People are not black and white. We all are a mix of the ugly and the angel. Our society needs to stop with the either-or and realize it is “and”. These people did or said horrible things, AND they created art that moved us, touched us, became woven into the fabric of our lives. They were both beauty and beast.

Instead of jettisoning the beauty, we need to begin the difficult and painful task of contextualizing our celebrity heroes. Is it possible to condemn the actions, condemn the artist, while embracing the art? I believe it is. There is even a possibility that their lasting works of art grew out of the very damage that also caused them to behave in the ways they have—two sides of a coin.

Disgusting people can create beautiful art.

Brilliant artists can be awful human beings.

Evil people can do good things.

Their art can still teach us, touch us, and illuminate something deep about the human condition.

Art transcends time, space, and the artist themselves.

In the end, every consumer of art needs to draw their own line in the sand. That line will be different for each person. Predatory or bigoted behavior should absolutely be called out no matter who does it. But removing the good with the evil leaves the world a darker, bleaker place.

So my take is not to boycott the art, but to contextualize it, to teach the people coming to it for the first time where it came from. The artist’s actions will inevitably color the relationship of people to the art, as it should. This experience of placing the art in relation to the artist causes the viewer’s mind to wrestle with the deep complexity of human nature—which is exactly what art is supposed to do.

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