National Poetry Month — Day 17

Today is my daughter’s birthday, and I’m one of those moms who makes her kids’ birthday cakes herself most of the time. One year, when the Fairy Princess Badass was very little, I came up with a chocolate cake hack for her birthday, and since I wasn’t sure whether it would end up being a nightmarish mess or something absolutely wonderful, I called it Chocolate Disaster Cake.

The only disaster was the impact it had on everyone who was trying to diet.

This cake has been the most popular dessert I’ve made for seven or eight years now. My aunt suggested Continue reading “National Poetry Month — Day 17”

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Women Writers Wednesday 1/14/15

It can be really wonderful, when we have the chance, to review a book by someone we know and care about, because we want to share what we love with the world. It’s even better when we know the author of said book because we read the book, love it, reach out, and the author (until then a stranger) reaches back.

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Mom To Mom, Teacher To Teacher, Writer to Writer: A Conversation With Erin Lindsay McCabe

by Jennifer Wolfe of mamawolfe

 

It’s a good sign when you meet someone for the first time and you’re dressed in identical outfits. I guess Erin Lindsay McCabe and I were both more than a little excited the northern California heat had broken and jeans were finally not too hot and sticky to wear out for coffee. Our denim paired with cream-colored lace shirts and sandals, we giggled as we looked at each other in person for the first time. This synchronicity started off what would prove to be a delightful Sunday morning chatting about parenting, teaching, writing, and her latest book, I Shall Be Near To You, as we sipped organic coffee (me) and spicy chai (her) and nibbled on freshly made pumpkin muffins and bear claws. I found Erin to be as real as her Civil War character Rosetta as mom to mom, teacher to teacher, writer to writer, we filled three hours in a little bakery/coffee shop in northern California, the start of what I know will be a new friendship – mom to mom, teacher to teacher, writer to writer.

I first ‘met’ Erin when I devoured her Civil War era book, I Shall Be Near To You, over the summer. I’ll admit, I was on a historical fiction kick and jumped at hers after seeing the cover – loved it – and was enticed by the love-story angle of the title. After only a few pages, I adored the main characters, feisty Rosetta and tender Jeremiah – and knew I had to tweet the author right away:

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe So excited to start#ishallbeneartoyou by @erinlindsmccabe I love Rosetta already! #books #civilwar

ErinLindsMcCabe: @mamawolfeto2 Oh I’m so glad you ❤ Rosetta! (Me too!)

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe Oh yes, I’m hooked! Love how you so tenderly portrayed their ‘practice’ – refreshing #ishallbeneartoyou

ErinLindsMcCabe: @mamawolfeto2 Aw, gotta love Jeremiah too. ; )

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe oh yes. He surprised me with his sweetness.

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe just finished#ishallbeneartoyou Wiping away the tears. ❤️

Yes, I devoured this book…and was thrilled to meet a new author who was so eager to talk about her book, her characters, and life as a writing mom. And then life interrupted…

So on that somewhat smoky Sunday morning, inside a brightly lit café near the Sierra foothills, we picked up where we left off, and found threads of motherhood, teaching, and writing peppering our three hour conversation.

 

Erin Lindsay McCabe and Jennifer Wolfe

 

On motherhood:

I think every writer-mom wonders how a published author ever finds the time to make a book a reality. Turns out, Erin wrote the entire draft of I Shall Be Near To You before her son was born, and spent the early years of his life editing, rewriting, and submitting for publication. We talked about the writer/mom life-balance: so hard to juggle that precious time between naps and preschool and play dates, and the palpable awareness of being present during those years — all years, really — when our children are under our wings. Now working on her next novel, Erin notices an acute change in her writing/editing practice, and devoutly sticks to her ‘1,000 words-a-day’ commitment, something she credits to Anne Lamott and found enormously helpful after reading Bird By Bird. “It’s the doing,” Erin shared with me. “Start with 250 words, then 400, 500, and 1,000.”

 

On teaching:

I love meeting teachers, especially English teachers. They just GET my life. They understand what it’s like to balance motherhood and work, they understand how emotionally and physically draining it is to teach all day and then come home with stacks of papers to grade. Erin GETS it – she spent years working as a high school English teacher in the Bay Area, and then again as a community college writing professor. She understands the challenge of attempting to squeeze out an ounce of creativity before daybreak, or most often for her, late into the night. I had to laugh when she mentioned her good fortune that her three-year-old was a night owl — I actually craved those moments when my own two babies were tucked into bed at night and I could choose between grading and writing!

Our conversations circled around how to teach controversial novels, what was just the right amount of feedback to give students, and how we wished our kids would dig deeper into their writing and not give up with a first draft. Her inclusion of ‘hot topics’ in I Shall Be Near To You, such as homosexuality, war, young love, and even profanity have caused some controversy for a few of her readers, but for me, her choices not only provided a realistic story line and characterizations, but also shrunk the time between the Civil War and what humanity is still dealing with today. I loved making the teacher-writer connection, and her eagerness to jump right back into teacher-mode was evident when we started to chat about writing – our writing.

 

On writing:

Erin knew how much I adored I Shall Be Near To You before I met her, and after listening to our conversation swirl in and out of motherhood and teaching, I realized how closely woven her life was with the book and characters; it actually made me love it more! As a lover of historical fiction, I couldn’t wait to ask her how she approached the idea of historical accuracy – something I know requires not only tremendous research, but also carries with it tremendous risk that historians will dismiss her story as too fictionalized. Turns out, the idea that the story of her real-life main character, Rosetta, would be lost due to errors in historical accuracy was foremost on her mind during the writing and editing process. Erin’s choices to depict battle scenes as accurately as possible not only added depth and grittiness to the finished novel, but also were the hardest to write: after writing each battle scene she described herself as being in a ‘dark place’. She found herself attempting to balance just the right amount of detail for authenticity with the numbness that would come with an overabundance of the gore that Civil War soldiers experienced. Interestingly, she intentionally chose not to directly include slavery in the novel, feeling that after ten years of reading and researching the ‘real’ Rosetta’s letters written during the Civil War, it wasn’t part of what she recorded and therefore not authentic to the character’s story.

Our coffee drained, pastries long gone, and families wondering if we’d ever come home, Erin and I ended our mom-teacher-writer conversation with hugs and expectations: new writing, new conversations, new friendship. What a lovely morning, what a lovely writer.

 

I Shall Be Near To You book cover

 

You absolutely don’t want to miss I Shall Be Near To You, Erin Lindsay McCabe’s ‘extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband in the Union Army, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War.’ Now out in paperback!

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Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. A huge believer in love, health, and hope with a colossal amount of emotionally-charged inquisitiveness – throwbacks to her youth spent watching and listening to every 80s punk band imaginable –  Jennifer attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons. Jennifer reflects on life’s lessons on her blog, mamawolfe, as well as on  TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Goodreads.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

 

Cover Reveal for the New Anthology!!!

Hey there!  I have something exciting to share with you all: the front cover of The Milk of Female Kindness: An Anthology of Honest Motherhood.

Milk of Female Kindness front cover

For more information about this book, click here.

I’m so excited to be included in this project, which contains a couple of my poems and a couple of my essays.

Click here to purchase the anthology from Amazon, or contact me directly at forest.of.diamonds@gmail.com for a signed copy.

 

Fashion Friday 10/11/13

It’s costume season around here — probably where you are, too, if you’re somewhere that celebrates or even acknowledges Hallowe’en. October is a big deal around here, and especially in our home. We love Hallowe’en. We love costumes and dressing up. I come from a family who always celebrated that holiday well, until a tragedy happened on a particular Hallowe’en in my youth. (Read about it here.)  And now, the holiday is back.

Tiny Beowulf agonized for a couple of weeks that Continue reading “Fashion Friday 10/11/13”

Open Apology in Advance to My Pregnant or Expectant Friends When I Give Them Advice About Anything

Having grown up in a large family with dozens of younger cousins and siblings around all the time lulled me, as I plowed blindly into adulthood, into thinking that I was something of an authority on the juvenile human.  From countless hours minding my younger relatives to the slew of babysitting jobs I had in high school and college, I garnered a feeling of intelligence about children which caused my breeding friends to Continue reading “Open Apology in Advance to My Pregnant or Expectant Friends When I Give Them Advice About Anything”

Meet My Seven-Year-Old Daughter, the Orange-Belt Fairy Princess Badass

So when school let out a few weeks ago, my daughter’s Tae Kwon Do class had their promotion tests, but she missed it because she was home from school that day, sick with a fever. I could go into the details of how we had to go repeatedly back and forth to find a time when she could make up her test, but honestly, they’re not very interesting. Suffice it to say, it took a while, and she ended up having to crash a summer camp session at another school to do her test at the beginning of their class, or else just not be able to move past her white belt. And although she tried out Tae Kwon Do for a semester and liked it well enough, she’s thinks (at this moment, at least) that she’s ready to go back to ballet when school starts up again in the fall. We didn’t want her to have gone through a whole semester of martial arts and not get her belt promotion (i.e., closure), so we made the effort and got ready for the test today.

Now, when I say “got ready,” this primarily consisted of my reminding her every day this week to practice her moves so she could pass her test. We were going to have five minutes at the start of the summer camp class for her to accomplish it, and then leave. Win win for everyone, assuming she would pass.

Unfortunately, explaining the logistics of it to her made her a wee bit nervous. “Practicing” meant she would perform a single kick of some indeterminate sort, and then get distracted by wrackspurts or something and wander off to pick gurdyroots. In other words, no actual practice was happening. Well, fine, I thought, she’s seven years old and needs to understand why practicing something you want to do well at is important, and after all the stakes here aren’t particularly high and it’s a good lesson to learn on blah blah blah. So I didn’t push.

Well, we get to the camp today and get her changed into her gi, which is white and made of cotton. My daughter is growing so quickly, and the white cotton gi had to be washed in hot water with bleach every week this semester because just looking at it funny would make it filthy, and — you do the math. The pants are a couple of inches too short. And we hadn’t put her hair up this morning before she went to her camp (which is for Creative Writing, by the way, nothing physically athletic*), because she likes to wear it down. I offer to put it up for her before her test, but she isn’t interested.

So see if you can get a mental image: my petite, snaggle-toothed daughter (she is seven, after all, which is going into the prime of her tooth-losing years), in her slightly too-short gi and white belt, turquoise and purple glasses atop her nose (the ones with the colorful flowers etched along the arms), her long brown hair in piece-y straight tufts, barefoot with bright pink sparkly toenails…

…walks into a very large, unfamiliar room, greets her coach, then goes to sit down on the floor along the edge of the wall all by herself while the kids from the camp mob into the room for their class.  They are all bigger and older and blonde and tan, wearing shorts and t-shirts from their various camps with their rainbow of brightly colored belts that indicate they have been doing this a lot longer than she has.

My daughter stands out.

She looks at them. They look at her. They all loudly ask their coach who she is, then run to sit on the floor against the wall. From her perspective, they appear to be charging toward her en masse. She looks at me, no longer smiling or even a little excited. The terror in her face is masked only by her long hair falling into it, but I can see that anxiety, because I am still that frightened little girl sometimes in my nightmares, the ones where I have to play the piano in front of a huge audience (like The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson years) and haven’t practiced in, oh, about three decades and all I can manage to eke out is much-too-fast version of Bach’s “Minuet in G Major.” You know that dream? Surely you know that dream.

My daughter is sitting on the end of the row. The little boy next to her, scrubbed clean and buzz-cut, looking like he’s been on a beach the last couple of weeks, just stares at her. She stares back at him for a moment and then folds her arms and legs around herself and pokes her gaze out to me. I nod encouragingly.

The kid asks the coach, “Does she know ninja drills?”

Ninja drills? What?? I think, Uh-oh, she doesn’t know what that is, this is going to make her even more nervous —

“Yes,” the coach answers, “she knows ninja drills.”

Oh? That’s interesting. I wonder what those are…

Class begins, and my daughter dutifully stands and bows to her coach, just like everyone else. All of them, my daughter included, head for the punching bag stands and start their drills. All these other kids are tearing it up with their side chops and roundhouse kicks and neck freezes or whatever other Vulcan death moves they’re doing. They’re shouting hi-ya! like berserkers.

My daughter is pushing at the bag, gently, you know, so as not to hurt it.

Her coach comes over and she tells him she’s nervous. He pats her shoulder reassuringly and reminds her of each move she needs to execute. While the others are warming up, she’s going to have her test. It takes her a couple of tries to get back into the swing of things, I suppose, but then she’s beating the snot out of that punching bag, shouting hi-ya! like the best of them! She chops, she slashes, she kicks, she punches, she elbows, she turns around and beats the thing up behind her back. She has gone, in five minutes, from trembling mermaid and unicorn aficionado to a freakin’ Power Puff Girl Rage Monster. Her coach smiles proudly, but in a relaxed way, you know, like he expected nothing else.

I’m grinning so wide I think I just might cry.

She finishes all the rest of the drills really well, and then the main event arrives. Everyone goes back to sitting along the edge of the wall, and this time my daughter doesn’t look so scared. The other kids are still eying her a little skeptically, but she just pushes her hair out of her eyes, lifts her chin up, and gives me a happy thumbs-up.

The coach brings her back up to the middle of the room. Everyone else is silent. It is time for her to Break The Board. When the other kids see the board set up, a couple begin stage-whispering about whether she can do it or not. She appears to ignore them. The coach asks whether she’s ready, and she nods her head, beaming.

She composes herself quickly, centering, taking a deep breath. Then she lifts her bare foot and brings it crashing down on that board. Hi-ya! It makes a crack as it splits in half and then clatters to the floor below. She stares at the thing in shock, the other kids forgotten. She picks up the pieces of the board and runs over to me, shouting, “I broke the board! I broke the board! Oh my gosh I can’t believe I broke the board!!”

I don’t know who’s beaming more, me, the coach, or her. He calls her back over and presents her with her orange belt, and she skips happily toward me, exclaiming that she’s so proud of herself.

Of course I’m proud of her, too, and I tell her that. We exit the room — her: skipping, hair swinging back and forth down her back — fragments of board and orange belt in hand.

Time to go to lunch with my Fairy Princess Badass.

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*  I’d like to point out also that my daughter chose to do Creative Writing camp on her own. I didn’t make her do it. And she’s loving every minute! I am so proud.

Kissing Barbie

One day in my early twenties when I was out shopping with a few friends, we happened upon a distressingly pink display of Barbie-related products in the middle of a store that wasn’t a toy store. Immediately my memory filled with all the evil wickedness of the feminine stereotype that Barbie had ever represented, everything from an unreasonable figure to ugly fashions to “Math is hard! <giggle>”

I glared with contempt at the precociously saccharine offerings and muttered, “If I ever have a daughter one day, I will never let her play with Barbies.”

One of my friends smiled at me as if she were trying really hard not to laugh. “How on earth do you think you can stop her? She’s going to play with Barbies. There’s nothing you can do about it.” She said it in her characteristically sweet lilt, a voice both mild and accommodating, but behind her mousy cuteness was something slightly more skeptical than outright disdain.

At the time, neither of us had children of our own; they weren’t even on the horizon yet. I thought, What does she know? I said, “I just won’t ever buy them for her or let anyone else buy them for her.” I think I might have even shrugged. End of story.

Parenting magazines ought to come with a recipe section for the various tasty ways one might prepare crow, meal for one or two.

***

The Barbies of today are not the Barbies of fifteen years ago. We’ve had other Bad Influences in the interim (hello, Bratz and Moxie dolls) to push Barbie into positively wholesome territory. And have you seen any of Barbie’s movies? Not only has she co-opted at least as many fairy tales as Disney (and taken just as much artistic license with them), she has done it in a way that Disney is trying to, finally: with a young female protagonist capable of making her own decisions without letting concern for what the male lead will think of her be her primary motivation. Instead, she’s motivated by thoughts of doing what’s best for her family, for her kingdom, for her pets. The generic Ken-doll boyfriend — who ends up admiring her for her compassionate spirit, independent nature, and oh yeah, good looks — is just icing on the three-layer bejeweled, beribboned, and be-flowered wedding cake. (I mean, come on, we weren’t expecting Barbie to give up her nature, were we? She’s just expanding it to include a little gray matter and a backbone.)

Don’t get me wrong: the Barbie movies are still awful. But rather than being insidiously damaging to a little girl’s burgeoning self-concept — and note I’m talking about the fairy tale ones here, not the high school diaries sort — now they’re just too goody-goody for my taste. But then, I am not their target audience, and I’ll endure the annoyingly catchy songs and cloying vocal inflection from the safety of the next room. And I do have to endure them, because my kids love the Barbie movies.

Their concept of Barbie is nothing like the Barbie of my childhood. When I was a little younger than my daughter’s age, in the late 1970s, I scored my first Barbie Doll for Christmas. I actually received two dolls, the first one a Darcy doll, who was taller and more proportionally realistic and had lush dark brown hair to her elbows. I liked Darcy just fine. She was pretty and had dark hair and eyes just like me. Her clothes were cute. I played with her and appreciated her, but on some subconscious level which I was too polite and obedient to express or even understand, I knew she wasn’t Barbie, and my friends had Barbies.

In fact, I didn’t even recognize that I’d wanted a Barbie, much less how much, until I opened the wrappings off that pink box and saw the yellow and white name. Kissing Barbie. She was new that year and all the rage. And now she was mine.

Kissing Barbie’s golden hair, long and silky, was pulled back from her ears in a tony ponytail at the back of her head. She came with a pink heart-topped tube of inky magenta lipstick as big as her torso, a petite bouquet of dark pink roses, and a layered chiffon evening gown (we’d now call this a maxi dress with pouffy sleeves) of pale pink decorated with magenta pucker-lipped kiss marks. She was a vision.

But the best part of Kissing Barbie was her function. Yes, she had one other than looking pretty. She actually kissed. You could ink up those smoochers with the enclosed tube of lipstick, press a large button in Barbie’s back, and just marvel as she would leave a kiss mark on Ken-doll’s cheek. Or on you. Or on your little brother. Or on your pale pink Easter dress, over and over again, until it resembled Barbie’s frock. Or on every sheet in the box of typing paper in your mom’s office. Or on the sofa, on the dog. Oh, the possibilities stretched as far as the heavens!

More Barbies followed as the years progressed, though none ever held quite as special a place in my affectionate heart as that first one. And when I was a teenager, being educated in the social-justice-oriented bosom of my all-girls’ Dominican high school and learning about the subtle shades of feminism from those faculty members who knew how to slip it into the conversation, Barbie and her comic-book-like proportions began to take on a different meaning for me. She was no longer the feminine ideal. She was instead a monster of the Male-Dominated World, a woman who, had she been alive, would have been seven feet tall with a giant head, so top-heavy in her bosom and so minuscule in her feet that she’d have had to crawl around on all fours.

Barbie became the freak of nature that chased the other dolls, who ran screaming in terror from her outlandish physique as she tried, unsuccessfully, to plant magenta-ink kisses upon them.

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As I’ve said, Barbie now is not Barbie then. Barbie is now a different sort of freak. She dresses badly when she’s not in a generic evening gown. She and Ken impersonate popular characters such as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen (and I think you know how I feel about them). She wears stripper-shoes and leggings, so ugly golfers wouldn’t wear them, to astronaut camp. And though it looks like math is still hard, apparently veterinary medicine is not. And her movies, well, they’re palatable if not my particular taste.

And for those of us who prefer the dark side, there’s always Monster High.

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I should note that my daughter has had many Barbie dolls, most of them fairies or mermaids. She even got a Monster High doll for Christmas this past year. But because she sometimes quickly Moves On To Other Things, all of those dolls held her attention for only a little while, and eventually, all of them became grossly unkempt, hair tangled like sticky straw, clothes in one state of disarray or another. The collection of them, if you were to dig them out from the corners of her room and closet, look like some sort of horror scene from a sex-ploitation movie war zone.

And if I wait long enough to dig them out of the mess, my daughter will acknowledge she doesn’t want them anymore, and I’ll fix the little dolls up, clothe them and brush their hair, collect their pink belongings into neat bundles, and send them back out into the world, presentable and redeemed. I have become a one-person Barbie shelter. Perhaps subconsciously, in an environmentally responsible sort of way, I’m making up for the fact that all my childhood Barbies probably ended up in the garbage.

Or maybe I just feel bad for her. Barbie’s old. She’s had a lot of growing up to do. And poor girl, she’s done the best she could to evolve without losing herself, without denying her core nature, without becoming unrecognizable. And isn’t that what so many of us try to do? She’s just going with the flow as best she can, trying not to drown.

So come here, Barbie, before you go, and give us a kiss.