End of an Era

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Booktrope, the publisher who signed me for my first novel, Moonlight and Orangesthe publisher that turned me from “writer” to “author” announced on April 29, 2016 that it would be closing its doors.

This was the publisher that helped teach me what it’s like to professionally edit and revise a manuscript, to collaborate with others in a book’s cover design, how to write the words that on the book’s jacket that invited readers to explore the interior.

Gone.

And along with Booktrope’s demise also goes the viability of all three novels that I published with them.

I cried. I tried to focus on the good things that would survive this collapse, even as my mind crowded with a hundred unanswered questions.

The day after the heartbreaking announcement, I pulled out my stationary and wrote cards to the dear friends that I’d made through y connections in the Booktrope family. These relationships would last. No matter what happened.

I have a new path ahead of me. I’m facing the decisions needed to keep my books available (they go out of print unless I find a way to get them republished). Additionally, I need to settle with the creative teams who came together to make these books. My mind is pretty scattered.

It’s felt like a tragedy. It’s felt like a chance to start fresh.

To say I feel peaceful and optimistic about the future would be somewhat wishful thinking. Right now I feel enveloped in a low-lying fog, fully expecting the sun will break through in due time.

A good thing died in the closing of Booktrope.

I know it wasn’t a perfect publisher, but I don’t regret my (almost) five years with them. I’ve learned and grown so much–and ultimately taken myself seriously as a writer. These are precious gifts.

I’ve forged some cherished friendships among this community. These are priceless.

And so…we move on. I will continue to write. There will be more books to come.

By the by, should you want a copy of one of my books for yourself or to give as a gift, order them before May 31, 2016. Once this date passes, the Booktrope editions of my books will cease to exist.

I hope to make “out of print” an impermanent situation, but until then, these are about to become collector’s items.

So you can go save your copy in a glass case (ha!).

Through the Valley

cemetery

 

One of my son’s favorite places to visit is the cemetery.

We walk there from our house (it’s our nearest “park”) and, once past the enclosure fence, my son crawls down from his stroller and pushes the stroller around like a life-size toy car.

There’s a fountain under a huge old fir that we call my son’s fountain.

Flat headstones make level ground which is easier to navigate than the lumpy soil and sod. It’s common to see my son leap from stone to stone, his shoes slapping happily as he runs.

There’s a special section on a hill covered in pinwheels, balloons, and little toys. Babyland. I once read a book that described such a section of a cemetery and it said, “By the waters of Babyland, we lay down and wept.”

This particular area used to break my heart. Then my son insisted on exploring it. So, I followed him between stones that noted lives that had lasted one or two days. Babies with names who had not grown old enough to recognize them.

And while my heart rose to my throat, my little guy strode on, picking up pinwheels and spinning them to flash in the sunlight. He crouched to smile at a teddy bear, droopy and sodden from many nights out in the rain. And I was reminded that we all walk through the graveyard of loss.

No matter what direction we try to take.

I can grieve. (Grieve and grave seem like word-siblings. I only just now see this). And there will be times when I cannot rise from my knees. But this will not consume my days. I will pass through the cemetery. I will intimately know some of the names carved on those stones.

But, like my son, I must also raise my eyes. To delight in the sparkling water fountain, the blanket of lawn daisies, the luminous leaves of the grand old maple.

At an Ash Wednesday service, a woman from my church read a poem, the essence of which plead this passionately: in the face of war, cruelty, torture, brutality, racism, starvation, and death, we cannot forget to laugh, dance, throw lavish parties with our friends, and delight in the blessings of the earth.

I think of the film, Life is Beautiful, and I glimpse the courage to be joyful in the face of the unspeakable. I watch my son’s innocent playfulness as he touches a toy sitting on a baby’s grave.

These things keep us strong. These are what we mean by the word brave. These are the songs I must find the strength (Jesus give me the grace) to sing.

These are the songs I must sing.

Work Until You Cannot See

shadow-plant-1512993-640x960It’s purely maddening and bewildering to discover this:

The longer I work on something, the more I try to improve, the more I can’t tell whether I’m actually getting better.

I exercise and my muscles get sore and irritated and suddenly sitting up straight is a challenge. (Oh great! Now I’m going backwards!)

I add a few more spices and a dash of salt to the sauce on the stove and now I’m not certain it will taste good with anything.

I write and revise and experiment and then I wonder if the story is still speaking its message or if I’ve just screwed it up.

The only cure I’ve found for this is asking for help. I.e. Will you watch me do this? Will you taste this? Will you read this and tell me if it makes one shred of sense anymore?

Not at all sure why my critical capacity is hampered proportionally to how hard I work on something, but maybe it’s a fail-safe. A part of our human design to need each other.

My husband tastes the food for me. He reads a lot of drafts. He encourages me in my exercise efforts (even if he does turn on the blender while I’m trying to hear the Youtube instructions). Heh. I definitely, absolutely, desperately need him.

Another surprise-I didn’t know my third book was my best writing yet. I honestly didn’t think it was. But people keep telling me it is.

And now it’s a finalist for the INDIEFAB 2015 Book of the Year in its category. (Can I just say YAY!!!?)

So when you are working hard and you can’t see straight anymore and you think you might actually be getting worse, ask someone else to look at it in your stead.

You could be doing something amazing.

Here Comes the Bride

 

brideandmaidofhonor

I met her at freshman orientation. She and I had both circled a long list of identical activities from a series of opportunities designed to help us explore our new university campus.

We wanted to see all the same things. It was a sign. (I love looking for signs!)

She told me, over lunch a few days later, that she felt we’d known each other for years already, and were only just getting reacquainted.

There are friends and there are bosom friends.

I have been honored to be touched with a handful of beautiful friends who’ve passed in and out of my life in various seasons. Some passed out and then passed back in. Some passed through and faded. Some still have yet to pass back in. Some I still have yet to meet.

Today I want to tell you a bit about Lainie.

Hanging out with college friends

Hanging out with college friends

My whole family fell in love with her. She’s a woman who loves with her whole heart, laughs with her whole body, gives with her whole soul.

She is a brave world traveler, a passionate cook, an intellectual who challenges you to greater heights that you’d comfortably reach on your own. She’s encouraged my faith, soothed my wounds, and inspired my creativity.

We were inseparable in college.

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At a friend’s birthday, I lost a board game and cried about it. She walked with me and calmed me down.

We made a pact, early on, that if we had to cancel a “date” together, it was always acceptable if the reason for canceling was a romantic opportunity (although I think we phrased it “You can always cancel on my for a boy.”) We promised to always make things right if there was pain or disagreement between us. We promised to keep our friendship alive.

We went out swing dancing. We saw theater shows. We acted in theater projects. We painted together.

I have one distinct memory from one outings in which we decided to wear floor-length red gowns and paint in a park.

(Yes. This is the sort of thing we do.)

Lainie, my sister,me, the cast of Twilight

The dresses happened to be of similar hues, though that was unplanned. While we perched on a bench in Carkeek Park, conversing happily and making our brushstrokes, a woman approached with a timid smile on her face and asking if we were celebrating our wedding.

Ah yes. We did meet in Seattle.

But on the subject of weddings—and this is where I am going, she and I haven’t been perfectly synchronized when it came to chronology.

Bridesmaids at my wedding.

Bridesmaids at my wedding, helping with my veil

I met James while I was still in college. About a year after graduating, James and I tied the knot. Lainie was my maid of honor. She said such amazing things about me during her speech. It’s comforting to know she thought I was a good friend to her too.

Lainie and I have actually spent a lot of our friendship apart since the early college years. We’ve written stacks of letters. We’ve continued to share our hearts and dreams. We’ve reconnected over holidays.

Celebrating a play that Lainie starred in.

Celebrating a play that Lainie starred in

Five-ish years into my marriage, I gave birth to my son. Lainie rejoiced over him as his auntie. My heart ached to share this new season with her. I wanted to raise our kids as friends. I wanted to be a married woman alongside her. I wanted all of this to be mutual territory. But it wasn’t.

I prayed a lot. It was one of those fierce, determined prayers, begging, pleading that Lainie and I could share these things together. To be wives and mothers together. I know this isn’t something all friendships have. I know a friendship doesn’t need this common ground to keep going. But I wanted it badly, so I kept praying.

I don’t hear clear and vivid answers to prayer very often.

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Dinner with friends

But in Lainie’s case I did. God told me on Christmas 2013 that Lainie would meet her husband in 2014. I waited a long time to hear the news. But when she finally told me she’d started dating this wonderful man and that he loved her in such a way that she was reminded of the way Jesus loved her, I was silently screaming with happiness. I didn’t tell her about the whole “God told me about him” until Nathaniel had proposed marriage.

It was a very happy secret to share at last.

A wedding is the merging of two lives.

It’s the beginning of the most important team we’ll ever build. It’s the hardest and best human relationship I can imagine. And I’m overjoyed to see my darling friend stepping into its folds. She’s found her lover and her friend.

Lainie, you are a bright light. You’ve found a man who treasures you. I couldn’t be happier for you and I’m giddy to watch you become a bride. There are so many moments in life where things seem to get harder, but this is one of those times when I’m certain it gets sweeter.

I wish you both joy, laughter, an abundance of grace and forgiveness for each other, and a friendship that will weather the years of scarcity and of plenty.

I’m sending you all my love.

Real Life Drama

It’s a blast from the past today. Drama school lessons ranging from social studies to sexual attraction.

(Photos of Elise from acting projects at the end of this post!)

A large part of my personality formation came through my involvement in the drama department at my university. I took the year-long acting series offered there and gained an enormous depth of understanding for:

1. What makes people the way they are

I performed a monologue in which, I was the victim of horrendous abuse, brought into a place where I could accuse my former attacker of his crimes, only to hear him deny that he had ever harmed me. By the time I was through with working that monologue, I couldn’t perform it without getting one or both of my palms slick with sweat. (Play: Death and the Maiden)

2. What makes people do wild, irresponsible things

In another project, I was a woman about to be married who is sure she’s going to enter into life with the wrong man, has recently discovered she’s pregnant, has drunk far too much wine the night before, and now, in the dregs of everything, decides to be honest with the true love of her life before it really is too late. (Play: Maids of Honor)

(Heh. Okay, from these two examples you’ll assume that I only did dark and highly-dramatic plays. A fun aside: For the scene in Maids of Honor, my partner and I performed the scene in English and then, for extra credit, in Spanish. It was like doing a live telenovela soap opera.)

I also learned:

3. What makes a physical space beautiful and enchanting

I was cast as the Spirit of Wind for a musical performance of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Someone wrote original, four-part harmony songs to create the whimsical atmosphere of the island, but the beauty of onstage spectacle was something I’d never experienced hands-on. The play was performed in a Theater-in-the-Round, so the audience sat at four points on bleachers around the stage. In between the seating hung long tendrils of muslin fabric like tattered jungle vines. At the very end of the story, I and the other Spirits wound the four masses of vines together, forming a trunk at the very center of the stage. The audience saw, as the play’s final image, a tree growing in center stage. The image never left me. Beauty can be wrought from the simplest things.

4. That I was appealing, as a woman

This awareness hits us at different times in life. I can’t honestly say if I was late or early in my own realization, but through work on a scene from The Birthday Party I was made aware of the reality that I was beautiful, attractive, and interesting to the male sex. As I write this, I hear a chorus of voices proclaim this is just an effect of the debauchery of all drama departments and no one leaves its clutches without a stain. I hear you. I don’t completely disagree to the licentiousness present in much of theater—and yet it does a fantastic job celebrating the dangerous, beautiful mating dance of attraction and all that belongs to that world.

For those who ask, “What happened in this scene, Elise? What the heck did you do?” I didn’t make out with someone on stage. I didn’t sleep with my acting partner. I played the part of a woman who’d had too much to drink, got involved with one of the other party guests (we walked off stage and I fluffed up my hair to make it look disheveled) and then re-entered a minute later, pushing my acting partner to the floor and straddling his chest. It wasn’t just the scene that alerted me to my own attractiveness. It was the way my acting partner and my director (both friends of mine) spoke to me throughout. They weren’t disrespectful, and yet both men clearly had no problem imagining Elise as able to carry out all of her directed action, naturally.

Drama is by no means a tame, safe beast. I’d never put that in its sales pitch.

Theater attempts to understand the primal forces of human nature, which can be harrowing, exhilarating, and emotionally complicated to an actor who chooses to venture therein.

All I can say is drama impacted the adult person I became. It enhanced my confidence, improved my empathy, and refined my communication skills. It reminded me that I am a flesh and blood woman, and that it’s a powerful thing.

You want to see some theater pictures? I’ll end with that. I’ve dug up a few from the archives. In one I have theater blood on my face. It was a domestic drama (kind of a horror story). The other ones with my blue dress and the big hair are from The Tempest.

Elise as Wind

The Tempest: Yes, my hair really does do that under the right conditions.

 

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From a student directed short “A Kiss Before You Go”

Water, Earth, Wind

The Tempest: Spirits of Water, Earth, and Wind (Left to Right)

Ariel, Wind, Water, Trapeze

The Tempest: Ariel movef across stage on a trapeze!

 

In all that, you might guess that I would defend theater until my throat was bloody from speaking in its defense. But you probably guessed it already!

xoxo

Elise

2015 Highlights

frozen-flower-1182297-1280x960This year has truly, madly, deeply* been one of the craziest that I, my family, and my heart has ever seen.

I’ve experienced more heartbreak this year than most of those that came before it and I’ve been knocked to my knees, in tears, by generosity and love in measures that have risen to meet the height of my pain.

 

*Truly, Madly, Deeply by Savage Garden was a beloved song during my high school years.

 

2015 Highlights

January 2015 – My short story Phoenix was published in an anthology of fantasy stories and I was finally able to share the story about love chasing love into the realm of death itself.

February 2015 – I faced the unbearable and found that Jesus gave me the strength to bear it. Time is a mercy that softens the blade of the sharpest sorrows.

May 2015 – I defined a few of my own wisdom gleanings–things that took me years to learn and years more to believe for myself with pure conviction.

June 2015 – I faced the sacrificial years of motherhood that lay ahead of me and determined to live without regret, knowing I’ll have just a few short years of childhood with my son.

July 2015 – The little prince of my household turned 2 this year and I stopped to notice just how much he’s becoming himself in an astonishing, powerful way.

August 2015 – I went down into the black of general anesthesia for my very first surgery (apart from my wisdom teeth removal), and I found that as I stood on the brink, I was desperate to thank my husband for all the good he is to me, and to acknowledge I’m not nearly grateful enough. I realized, in the painful, Velveteen Rabbit kind of way, that this loss and sorrow and pain might just be part of my process in becoming real. Then I found myself struck speechless by the number of friends and family who chose to walk with me though the darkness.

November 2015 – My third novel, Guardian of the Gold Breathers, entered the world to the fanfare and excitement of many friends and supporters. I continue to be amazed by the community that supports me with fierce loyalty.

***

As this year ends and another one begins, I am hopeful in a state of quiet fragility. I am growing to believe I’m strong, though most days this word does not seem to fit me at all.

I long for beauty and healing to visit  me in full measure, and I know this takes time, and that life will not stop moving no matter how slow it seems to crawl.

My arms hang wide, palms up, in deep gratitude for the people who surround me, hold me, pray for me, and believe on my behalf in the breathtaking and good things that are yet to come. I cling to the hand of my God, knowing he has not abandoned me yet, and he has no intention of doing so.

Happy new year and Merry Christmas to you!

I send you my love, my hopes for a fullness and joy in your 2016, and my wishes for a peace that fills your heart deeper than any understanding and head-knowledge can bring.

 

Love,

Elise

Pan’s Labyrinth visits Shadows on the Sound

Hello friends!

Here is a link to the most recent episode of Shadows on the Sound, a podcast hosted by authors Camela Thompson and Z.D. Gladstone. (They’re a lot of fun!) I visited their show and discussed the dark-yet-beautiful film Pan’s Labyrinth.

Warning: There are many spoilers for the movie’s plot, as we discuss the film in details! There might also be a bit of adult language.

Bonus: I talk about a creepy toy from my childhood.

Enjoy!

Heritage

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I come from the place of ice blue mountains that enclose me like crowned walls.

I dream of green forests that smell of possibility.

 

I am the child who found warmth under a gold lamp as I

huddled with musty books beneath a gray cloud blanket.

 

I come from a house filled with singing, shouting.

Laughter in one breath, tears in the next.

 

I come from a proud line of women

with bright eyes, large hearts

power and beauty grasped in each hand.

 

I come from a clan of mothers who fight for their children

hold on to them tightly, and never let go.

 

My world comes from music, rhythm

Beats that move feet into air.

 

I come from cinnamon rubbed with garlic on chicken,

of milk in a pot on the stove when I can’t sleep,

applesauce and lime soda when I’m sick on the couch.

 

I come from a land of soft words, cold hands, and the wish for a friend.

My safe place is the one I built. Made with

Barbies and model horses, plastic tigers and dinosaurs.

 

I come from a series of passport stamps,

riding in the back seat with my brother,

sharing a bed, tasting strange food,

trying to shape the foreign words on my tongue.

 

I come from early mornings spent with my mom

Dry paintbrush in hand

As I fancy I’m painting our Persian carpet.

 

I come from afternoons spent screaming

Wishing my parents would see I was ready to date.

 

I come from fierce love and overabundant piles of words.

From snow’s fresh excitement and summer’s fleeting glory

Twined in emerald grass and sapphire lakes.

 

I come from dozens of cousins who fill my family

With babies and noise and drama drama drama.

 

I come from a world as broken as it is beautiful.

 

I come from a light-streaked darkness where I must let tears pass through

I come from living without the answers I want.

 

I come from two parents, two siblings, more good times than bad.

I come from optimism that shoves against winter-black depression.

 

I come from my grandma’s crossword marathons,

my grandpa’s wild garage of inventions.

 

I come from spaghetti all over my face and orange popsicles under the cherry tree.

 

I am the child of all of these things.

I come from a hundred places. I come from my home.

I come from the life that came to me.

Lift Your Glasses, Lift Your Hearts

elise

It’s a calm contentment, this feeling inside.

(That isn’t exactly the vibe my picture is giving you. I was striking a confident pose at the time)

The calm contentment comes later, now that the emotional confetti has settled from the air.

The third novel waits alongside its brothers in my home’s Harry Potter closet (we have a fantastic cupboard under the stairs!) nestled in its box, filled with the words that I hope will ignite and capture the imagination of many minds yet to read it.

This past weekend I threw a large party to celebrate the book’s “birth.” (I’ll admit I don’t think I’ll ever lose the Baby Analogy for this sort of thing.) We designed it to be as fun as possible.

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Having fun talking and eating!

There was a tea table with scones and cucumber-cream cheese sandwiches, an assortment of tea and lemonade, cold ham and fruit.

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Baby Michael is awed by the fresh flowers my friend Carrie brought. Me too!

I gave a short speech and talked about how I’d threatened this year to take a break from writing, and how my community of friends had strongly protested. I talked about making plans for my future and getting thrown a curve ball. I choked up.

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You see that cucumber sandwich on her plate! Delicious! Thanks, Scott!

My family’s a capella quartet sang a few songs. You know what’s fun? Surprising friends who think they know you. Lots of people told me afterwards, with big grins, that they’d no idea I sang in a quartet. I love the sound of blending musical notes with my mom and my siblings. For a moment our hearts and our voices are one.

There was a photo booth with costumes so that guests could snap a picture of themselves being silly and putting on fantastical guises. (I brought my husband’s Claymore sword. There was a belly dancing skirt and an Elizabethan veil and lots of cool hats. Let’s just say the costumes rocked.)

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“Is this the peak? Are you on top of the mountain right now?” a friend asked me. She’d called me a supermom, noting everything I’d done to get this book out there while staying home to care for my son. Honestly, I think all moms are pretty super. I was happy. I was excited to see everyone. But it didn’t feel like the “high” of my first book. It felt like something more familiar. Something less mysterious, but no less valuable.

It wasn’t about sales (Friend: “Is your book on the New York Bestseller list yet?” Me: Heh. No.”)

It wasn’t about popularity. I invited a bunch of friends, but I didn’t chase down RSVPs. The ones who thought it was important made a point to come.

It was about doing something I needed to do and allowing others to celebrate it with me. I admitted that writing a book and dealing with the business of publishing was incredibly difficult. My son has tried to physically push me away from my laptop when I’m in the midst of dashing off an email.

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But I also knew that if I didn’t write at all, I’d be going a different kind of crazy. Not to mention the inevitable mush if would make of my brain…

Lastly, but by no means least, I realized at this launch party how deeply indebted I am to the throng of friends who raise their hands to help me.

I had about ten folks helping me set up the house before guests arrived. They polished silver, lit candles, arranged food, brewed coffee, laid out costumes, connected sound-systems, manned the books table, and laughed and loved on me in a dozen ways that were invisible to me as I rushed around.

My heart was gladdened by the love and delight I saw in so many faces.

These people were proud of me. They were joyful with me.

It wasn’t about the book itself, though I’m assured that the book is good (by somewhat biased sources). It was more because I’d written the book and they wanted to be happy with me.

It’s a beautiful distinction.

Thank you for toasting to me and Guardian of the Gold Breathers, my friends! That you for lifting my heart with the hope you have for my future. Thank you for another safe delivery of a written work into the great big world!

I just love this guy.

I just love this guy.

She’s Got Everything Figured Out (NOT)

red-shoe-4-1307923-640x480“I was really intimidated by you.” A friend once told me this.

Actually, a lot of people have said it. I guess I make a killer first impression that says:

“I’ve figured out how to do life. I’ve got my act together. I’m beautiful and powerful and intelligent.”

Heh. On my good days, maybe.

Let’s not forget that I also studied acting in college (full confession for those who don’t know: I’m the first-born child of an actress. You think I *don’t* know how to project an impression?)

I don’t mean to say all you see is a carefully-crafted facade. The reality is that no matter how lovely or competent I look, I’m dragging a train behind me of fears, weaknesses, and a broken heart.

This year especially was the year of broken hearts.

Two babies lost. Two enormous waves of hope that crashed down on the rocks. More pain and despair and awful dark thoughts than I ever thought I’d walk through. And now, perhaps a a result, I see the pain pf others more clearly.

The woman who burns with loneliness and yearns only to see more of her family while her body’s physical ailments confine her to limited movement. The man who had his life prepared to marry the woman he loved, only to receive the shocking and startling “no” that changed everything. The woman who has all the patience, love, and affection to be a fantastic mother who has discovered her body needs massive medical intervention just to have the chance of getting pregnant.

Pain has passed before my eyes before, but in so many ways I saw each instance as an outsider. Compassion welled up in my heart, but now, with my own deep grief, I’m finding that a new empathy flows.

I didn’t want this empathy. I’m not going to say “Oh yay! Now I’ll be glad for everything I went through, because I see how it all adds up!”

On my thankful days, I’m grateful that I can cradle the bitterness of my struggling friends and family, rocking them and pondering with understanding. On the bad days, I’m an impatient, raging mess filled with exclamations of “This isn’t fair!” and “What is the point?” and sometimes, in the darkest moments, “Why can’t I just die now?”

Do you know what takes courage? Finding reasons to laugh when all you want to do is curl up in a dark room. Dancing with your husband (alternate version: dancing with your baby/toddler on your hip) instead of staring at a blank wall. Forcing yourself to not hide from the people whose happiness makes you feel miserable, but also being gentle enough to know when you need your space to recover.

My dad’s side of the family speaks Arabic. The word “habibi” is a term of endearment that translates as “beloved.” When we say it to my son, he thinks we’re saying “Hi, Baby!” It’s these things that remind me to smile. They lead me back, slowly but surely, in steps toward a road that’s lit by hope and joy.

So many things worthy of gratitude pass us every day in life, yet one large vacuum of pain can tear it all away.

For me, choosing to be thankful and to trust God to help me with the challenges I’ll face is a daily meditation. I can only hope that it will help me launch the day with the strength I need to finish it without sliding back into the darkness.

“Wow, Elise, maybe you don’t have it all together.” Yep. That’s the point. I don’t.

So give hugs liberally. Say kind things as often as you can. Offer hope and brightness in your conversations and your emails and your texts. You never know what impact your words and love will make, or what hurting heart will receive them.